Buried inside a New York Times report on additional corporate tax cuts being quietly bestowed by Congress is a quotation from Martin Gaynor, a health economist at Carnegie Mellon University. Addressing the question of why the so-called “Cadillac tax” on expensive health-care plans had been delayed yet again, he mused: “I don’t know if, as economists, we’ve just fallen down and not done a particularly good job explaining this to policymakers and the general public or whether this is just very hard.”
An academic economist can be forgiven for believing that this Republican Congress might make a decision on the basis of sound policy. The New York Times cannot. Neither should the Times be excused for referring to the Heritage Foundation in another article as “a leading conservative think tank” in its coverage of a press release that bragged that “nearly two-thirds of [the foundation’s] ideas had been carried out or embraced by the White House over the past year.” The real story here is that the reason the Trump administration has adopted its ideas—if in fact it’s true and the Times is not just being played, again, by right-wing hucksters—is that Heritage long ago ceased to operate even minimally as a “think tank” and instead became a lobbying pass-through operation in which ideologues and the extremely wealthy could pressure politicians via “studies” that have no grounding in impartial research or analysis. Does the Times not read the Times? Because I recall learning from a 2014 news story that, though “Long known as an incubator for policy ideas and the embodiment of the [Republican] party establishment, it has become more of a political organization feeding off the rising populism of the Tea Party movement.” The article continued, “In recent months, some of the group’s most prominent scholars have left. Research that seemed to undermine Heritage’s political goals has been squelched, former Heritage officials say. And more and more, the work of policy analysts is tailored for social media.”
But never mind any of that. The problem is, as always, “bipartisan,” according to a third recent story in the Times. “A group of Republicans in the House and the Senate are warning of a secret plot in the F.B.I. to overthrow the Trump government. Democrats speak of corruption and creeping authoritarianism, unchecked by a Congress that has turned into an adjunct of the executive.” Got that? One party is pursuing a comically insane “plot” based on a joke e-mail and the other one “speak[s]” of a genuine threat to our democracy from these same malevolent lunatics, and, therefore, the problem is “bipartisan.” Just ask, as the Times did, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), who imagines that a fetus can be viable outside the womb after only 20 weeks of pregnancy, lies about Planned Parenthood, denies the reality of man-made climate change, and earns a zero percent score from the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters. He also votes with Trump 90 percent of the time. But to the Times, he is a credible source to explain that “Both parties—Republicans and Democrats—are obsessed with political survival and incumbency.”
The problem of intellectual integrity in our public life is now almost beyond repair. According to a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, “most Americans believe it is now harder to be well-informed and to determine which news is accurate. They increasingly perceive the media as biased and struggle to identify objective news sources. They believe the media continue to have a critical role in our democracy but are not very positive about how the media are fulfilling that role.” They are right, of course, but unfortunately most people don’t demand more from the media, much less prove themselves willing to pay what it costs to improve the situation.
A significant section of our citizenry simply does not care whether the “news” it receives is accurate. According to Gallup/Knight, “Republicans who can name an accurate source overwhelmingly mention Fox News.” These are people who want nothing more than to see their ignorant worldview confirmed by the obvious lies, fantasies, racist innuendo, and crazy conspiracy theories put forward by the network’s Trump cheerleaders: Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham, among others. The rest of us are at the mercy of an increasingly chaotic media landscape driven by social-media sources often created expressly for propaganda purposes.
Five scholars associated with Microsoft Research recently released a study of “Trends in Fake News Consumption During the 2016 US Presidential Election,” based in part on Internet Explorer data. They found that “social media was the primary outlet for the circulation of fake news stories and that aggregate voting patterns were strongly correlated with the average daily fraction of users visiting websites serving fake news.” This was true at both the federal and state levels. According to Twitter’s own data, at least 50,000 automated accounts tied to Russia sent out more than 2 million election-related tweets between September 1 and November 15, 2016. And these were only the ones that Twitter could identify as Russian. Twitter says 12 percent of its accounts cannot be traced at all, while a study conducted by researchers at Indiana University and the University of Southern California puts that percentage at up to 15 percent—or as many as 48 million accounts. Meanwhile, Facebook, which may have as many as 60 million automated accounts, announced that it would downgrade posts that come from genuine news sources in order to focus more on friends and family. The company’s more than 2 billion active users can now look forward to less reliable news and to providing less traffic, and therefore less income, to the struggling media institutions that try to deliver it. They can also, as a direct result of all these trends, look forward to more presidents and politicians like Donald Trump.