I listen to and read a vast amount of mainstream news, especially since it is all so accessible now. I keep a Google Home device around me all the time and get constant updates. As a result, I completely understand why it is that confidence in mainstream media is at lows not seen in nearly fifty years or ever. Depending on which poll you believe, half of the general population has “hardly any” trust in the media.
The result has been a continuing upheaval in the media structure and priorities. The publisher of the New York Times has greeted the new year with a note: “The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding, forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions. Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press. Growing polarization is jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together.”
Actually, it’s not all that bad really. If the “commons truths” are not really true, you have to look elsewhere. And that doesn’t always mean choosing “rumor and propaganda” over “real journalism.” Sometimes it just means thinking for yourself.
This tendency toward massive distrust of media reflects a general decline in confidence in all official, large-scale institutions. Trust in government, for example, is at a jaw-dropping 18%, down from 75% in the 1960s, according to Pew.
If you listen to mainstream news, you can see why these trends track each other. The cheerleading for government is relentless, and the loathing for Donald Trump (treated as an unwelcome and pathological invader in public life) is so palpable and pressing that no one is even disguising it anymore. Even for people who have grave doubts about the guy (I’m among them), this is just too much. You can discern the agenda in nearly every broadcast.
This morning there were two big items on the news, one concerning Russian meddling and the other concerning climate change. These two topics have become the great white noise of American media. It has become easy to tune it all out, with full knowledge that behind both topics is a push to manipulate public opinion in ways that favor deference to experts in government. It’s this very deference that people are no longer willing to give.
For this reason, the reports about Russian meddling in the election seem to be taking on an air of desperation about them. It’s not that nothing wrong or regrettable happened. The wrong people talked to the wrong people, probably. There was plenty of fake news. Some Russians were involved. It’s also the case that the Russian government favored a Trump victory, which is hardly a surprise given Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness on Russia.
The reason that the story line has not created public outrage is simple. People have come to expect some level of wrongdoing in government, and it is no longer shocking. Pious reporters at places like Vox and the New York Times are constantly upset that if anything like this had happened in the early 1970s, there would be mass public anger.
Probably so. But that’s because confidence in government was high before Watergate. The expectation was that government was morally upright and public-spirited. Precious few believe that anymore. Even if it is true that the Trump campaign winked at some Russian meddling, people are inclined to treat the revelation as just more of the same, which is why three-quarters of Republicans are willing to tell pollsters that they couldn’t care less.
So when Trump freely tells people that this story is a hoax designed to make excuses for the Clinton loss, it makes some degree of sense. It has the feel of continued post-election harassment of the victor who nearly everyone left of center wants to see impeached before he destroys more of the Emerald City that they have worked so hard to build over so many decades. Trump’s main point here is that this is all just dirty politics at work, and there is plenty of that to go around.
Also in the news today was a tremendous amount of tut-tutting of Trump for tweeting some more doubts about the climate change thesis that has obsessed establishment media for longer than a decade. Never one to miss an opportunity to make a splash, Trump observed the record cold weather all over the Eastern side of the country. “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against,” he wrote.
This was immediately followed by a correction by the New York Times. It’s true that “parts of the United States were roughly 15 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit colder than average for this time of year.” But there is a difference between weather and climate. The world as a whole is .9 degrees warmer than usual. The science on global warming is settled, they keep telling us, and if you disagree, you are revealing yourself to be scientifically backward.
But actually, the popular opinion that Trump’s tweet reflects is not crazy. There is tremendous uncertainty concerning the degree to which climate change is directly caused by human activity, and the scientific literature (unlike the journalism on the topic) reflects the uncertainty. But even so, to have confidence that a planning elite can use government regulations to affect climate 100 years stretches credulity to the breaking point. And that’s to say nothing of the cost/benefit relationship between problem and proposed solution. Finally, the question I keep asking myself is: what if the “scientific consensus,” such as it is, turns out to be wrong? What are the mechanisms in place for falsifying a thesis that ended up deindustrialized whole economies by force?
These are the questions that people ask themselves concerning mainstream climate change theory. They are not unreasonable given the long history of the failure of science to plan economic, social, and material outcomes. F.A. Hayek wrote about this problem over decades, and his conclusion is that deploying science to override freedom in the name of producing better social outcomes is deeply dangerous to both prosperity and freedom.
Climate Apocalypse Not Yet
Ten years ago (2007), AIER sponsored a full conference on this topic. The summary by Mario Rizzo is still pertinent. “The proposed solutions are complex, involve costly trade-offs and sacrifices, and, to be effective, require a degree of genuine global commitment that, experience suggests, would be very hard to achieve. Just as important, the scientific consensus is not as strong as the popular one. The state of scientific knowledge is less certain than the media and others often suggest. On the question of what is going to happen to the climate, many scientists caution that the issue is too complex to give a firm or simple answer.”
It’s for this reason that climate change has yet to translate into a popular political panic. People are happy to tell pollsters that they are concerned but much less willing to give up prosperity in a bet that the experts know what they are doing.
The Atlantic sums up the problem: “Climate change is a ‘stuck’ issue in American politics. The polling continually points to a larger conclusion: Global warming is a highly partisan issue that most voters do not consider particularly significant to them, personally, even if they are worried about it.”
Will we ever again trust the experts to run our lives, pick our leaders, tell us the news we need to know, plan our economy? It’s just not going to happen anytime soon.