Dr. Nolan Higdon discusses hyper-partisanship, sensationalism in the media, and the weaponizing of "fake news."

By Lauren Shields and Samy Amanatullah
08/18/2020 • 04:56 AM EST

Dr. Nolan Higdon, author and university lecturer of history and media studies, discusses the cost of hyper-partisanship to democracy and the breakdown in public discourse that results, as well as how the media profits from feeding and perpetuating our biases. He credits the babyface vs. heel mentality that has pervaded 24-hour cable news and a fragmented media landscape that caters to our appetite for sensationalism. Higdon also delves into how accusing news organizations of being fake news is being weaponized.

0:00: Lauren Shields:

Dr. Nolan Higdon, coauthor of the United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (and what we can do about it), is a lecturer of history and media studies at Cal State East Bay. He's the co-founder of the Global Critical Media Literacy Project and a contributor to multiple news outlets, including Truthout and Counterpunch and a guest commentator for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets. Thank you so much for being here with us Nolan.

0:26: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Thanks for having me.

0:28: Lauren Shields:

So, let's jump right in. How has partisanship become the hallmark of American politics?

0:33: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

There's a long history in the United States of political partisanship. I mean, it's kind of defined the nation at some level. You know, we have an electoral college system that basically limits us the two parties. And as the nation grows larger and at the same time, the government grows larger, there's more and more concerns that are being wedged into these two parties. But what particularly has changed and more recently, meaning like since the 1980s, is that the political parties mostly started to agree on an economic agenda. They mostly started agreeing a foreign policy agenda. And where they really tried to appeal to voters and in an effort to maintain power was largely on like cultural issues or virtue signaling appeals and things like that.

And as you can imagine, cultural and social issues are very important to people. They're emotionally driven issues. And as a result, we stopped seeing politics as a place where we could come at issues from different perspectives and perhaps compromise, to where people who disagree with me are my enemy. They're assaulting me as a person. They're assaulting my culture. They're assaulting my way of life. And the media for their part found a strategy to actually make money off of this.

And this is what we talk about in my book with Mickie Huff, The United States to Distraction, and my most recent book, The Anatomy of Fake News, that news media was consolidated in the 1980s, when corporations began to own it. And we went from about 50 corporations, controlling news down to six. And they weren't going to make money off journalism because journalism costs a lot of money. You have to have a lot of people and a lot of places, all at once, on the ground for when a story hits. Well, that means there's a lot of people, a lot of places who aren't finding stories all the time. So it was a way to cut, to save money. They cut overseas bureaus, they cut weekend bureaus. They cut small market bureaus. They consolidated papers and regions, and they got rid of journalists on weekends. I always point out, if a major event happens in a weekend and a small town, it probably won't be covered.

And so what do you do with all the time and space you have left? Are you still have newspapers? We still have broadcast television. We still have radio news. And you basically fill it with ideological debates. And the reason why this is profitable and, a lot of people will talk about this, Matt Taibbi talked about this, Eric Bischoff who actually used to run World Championship Wrestling has talked about this, that they took the model of pro wrestling and adopted it to news. And that is that people tune into a news broadcast no longer for news, but to be confirmed in their views and to see the good guys defeat the bad guys. So if you tune in MSNBC, you're going to see Rachel Maddow stick it to the enemy, Trump and the Trumpers, right. But if you turn to Fox, it's going to be Trump and his supporters sticking it to the libs.

And we now watched a sort of this like emotional drive, but in the process, I mean, there's the eradication of the middle-class, there's the most economic inequality the nation's ever seen. Racial relations have been sent backward decades in the making at this point. There's been a lot of virtue signaling about gender equity, but not a lot of policies or structural dismantling. And, but all that stuff is thrown off to the side because if you criticize you know, Democrats for not doing what they say they're supposed to do on those issues, you're immediately lumped into the Republican box and vice versa. And so, we no longer have kind of fact-based discourse about politics. We have what Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan call Angrynomics, that we just are all mad and we hate the other side and we want to see it all destroyed. And that's not really conducive to a democracy or constructive discourse.

4:21: Lauren Shields:

So the sense that we have over the last 10 or 20 years, that politics have become more polarized and more about anger and emotion, that's actually happening?

4:31: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Yeah, it's happening in real time. And we have polling data that's quite scary. If you go back to like the 1960s, for example, parents didn't necessarily care which political party their child dated, right? So if your child was a Democrat and dated Republican, polls show that most people didn't care. Now upwards of like three fourths of people do not want their children marrying someone from the opposite political party. You know, that's pretty scary that you have like half the nation, you know, or 40% of the nation or whatever, that you're completely throwing out. Right?

But it's also important in the context of your question to remember this as well, that the majority of the nation are independent and are upset with the two major political parties. And there's, you know, about this 100 million, maybe 150 million people who have just completely turned off from the system, that they don't think either of these parties speak to their values, they don't necessarily hate Democrats or hate Republicans, they sort of have distain for all the above. Right. And they're a very important group. I guess Nixon would call them the silent majority, but he would mean it very differently than I'm using it, but there's this sort of silent majority, right, that we don't really account for it, but because they have no place to go, these are like sort of populist mentalities on the right and the populist mentalities on the left, who don't see the Democrats or Republicans serving them.

5:56: Lauren Shields:

The title of your second book, which you co-authored with Mickey Huff, as you said, is the United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (and what we can do about it). What role and how much of a role does distraction play in all of this?

6:11: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Distraction plays a crucial role, unfortunately, in modern politics. The media tries to find something that's new and sensationalize that can again, tap into like those partisan vulnerabilities and get us arguing and debating and get us hooked on the screen. But when it comes time to do the actual work of democracy, which is make decisions, come up with policies and act, they quickly shift to another issue. The next sort of hottest issue.

And I mean, you know, someone like myself who finds climate change an issue that's dear and true to my heart, climate change pops up and becomes important, but then it gets kicked off for like another two years and then it comes back and then it's kicked off for another two years. So there's no real movement on it. I mean, you can, you can just look at during the sort of last six months even, right. It was the election, and then it was COVID, and then it was the racial protest, and then it was back to COVID, and now we're back to the election. But real discussions about policy and the implications of these things are not in discussion. Once it gets to that point, we quickly distract away.

7:17: Samy Amanatullah:

You've identified certain vulnerabilities that enabled disinformation. Can you briefly explain what those are?

7:27: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Hyperpartisanship is one I talked about earlier, but basically we live in a culture where we judge the veracity of a piece of content on whether or not it agrees with our political ideology. And so, you know, if I'm a Democrat and it's an article against Joe Biden, it must be fake news, right. I don't even need to read it. But that's really problematic, when we sort of get to that point in our politics. Another vulnerability in our culture, I think is sensationalism. We want to be entertained all the time about everything. We want everything to be interesting. Look, farm policy bills are really boring, but they're really important. They're usually one of the largest bills that are passed and they have a big influence on your life, whether you live on a farm or not. So you can't always be entertained all the time. Some of this stuff is just crucially important.

And closely related, you can't really make like patriarchy and white supremacy entertaining. They're not entertaining issues, but they're really important. And so they need to be analyzed in that sense. Closely related, another vulnerability I talk about is what we called this fragmented media landscape. Me and Mickey Huff wrote about this. Basically, we, through our own choices and these digital tools through data collection, customize our news content to give us what we think we most likely want to read or what we agree with because the studies show that if we're confirmed, we tend to click more and stay on our screens longer. And as a result, you know, if you believe, you know, Barack Obama was a Kenyan socialist sent here to destroy America, Google was more likely to give you a Google search hit that confirms that rather than the litany of sources that be bunk it, because it feeds into your bias.

So that fragmented media landscape is problematic on its own, but what we've also found in recent research, we're working on this right now is this propensity to say, we can't talk to the other side, like they're unreachable. We can't talk to them. That is probably like number one top of my list thing that really scares me now. Whether it be you know, sort of right-wing like media outlets, discounting certain figures, you know, I can remember, like, this goes back to like the war in Iraq. You remember when they destroyed, like the Dixie chicks CDs and canceled their concerts, because they ..., Like that kind of like cancel culture on the right, we don't talk to them. Similarly on the left, canceling like certain speakers or New York Times, op-eds. The reason why this is problematic. Doesn't matter if you believe these other viewpoints. That's irrelevant. You should at least understand where people are coming from, to open up the opportunity that you may one day change your mind.

10:16: Samy Amanatullah:

So can you also speak to what extent do you think this trust in the media enables fake news disinformation and this kind of balkanized public space?

10:29: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Yeah. Excellent. Excellent question. And it's a crucial question, because it's explains a lot about sort of Donald Trump's rhetoric. And some studies have been done recently that have shown that if you call a news outlet fake, even if you're wrong and the person knows you're wrong, it still adds a skepticism about that news outlets to news users. So regardless of how we use the term, correct or incorrect, we still build a skepticism about media. But to blame the news user is to miss a larger story. A lot of our news outlets quite frankly, have failed us continuously. And there is a distrust in media. That's why Trump's fake news, if he had come out doing that in say like, I don’t know, 1940, it wouldn't have worked. There was massive faith in the press and the American system.

In 2016, I mean, this is after the press had sort of failed, failed us on the outcome of the 2016 election, the coverage of the recession, of course the legacy of Vietnam, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, these were major media failures. And for good reason, pushed a lot of people to have a distrust of the news media. So yeah, it's kind of a catch 22 when he criticized the media, right? That I'm accurately pointing out what they've done wrong and the problems they've caused, but by pointing those out and you are adding to the distrust where people have a lack of faith in media. So you might say, well, why not just stop criticizing media? Well, if you stop criticizing the media, then people are going to have faith in a media system that's problematic and misinforming them.

So, there is, I do think there is a careful balance to explain the problems with media. And I think this goes back to what I was saying about lists. You can't get a one size fits all, like throw out this news outlet, watch this news outlet, throw out this one, read this one. At the individual level, that is the individual piece of content. some news is done well, some is done poorly. And if you care about democracy, you have to have a populous that's able to determine one from the other. We can't appoint these gatekeepers to determine what's good and what's bad. So I think healthy skepticism is good. Outright rejection of all journalism is problematic, outright acceptance of all journalism is problematic, but we need to kind of a healthy in between if you will.

12:54: Samy Amanatullah:

In your work, what do you think is necessary for effective and comprehensive media literacy? Like what would you like to see in schools?

13:05: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

Well, first of all, I'd like to see educational institutions treat media seriously, especially amongst scholars. Like when you say you study media, they kind of don't get it. They think, you know, you're like an art student who wants to go like create a video or something, right. That's their interpretation of media. So I'd like to teach students at a young age that like, you know, media are our main communicators. It's how we communicate information, whether it's, you know, right or incorrect or whatever. And in those communications, they express power dynamics, power dynamics of class and gender and race and sexuality. And so how are those power dynamics being expressed? Who decides which stories get to be told, which stories are told.

This, I think could sort of pull the wool back for students to ask media, right. Talk back to media, is what we used to say. As what are you seeing from the media? Break it down as you watch it. And basically convinced the American public that there's, there's no media that doesn't have a message, if you're watching or consuming, or whatever, some piece of media, there is some embedded message. It could be as simple as like love, always wins or something like that. Right. But whatever it is, try and identify that message and identify those power dynamics, because they really do shape who we are.

At some level, these recent Black Lives Matter protests were kind of demonstrating that when there's this going back and getting rid of problematic television shows or movies and things like that. Whether or not you erase them as a different issue, but at least you call attention to the fact that like, Hey, this is the stuff we grew up using. And it shaped our opinions on things like race, right? We are told, especially, especially as we live more and more racially segregated, we depend on popular culture media to inform our interpretations of race. And so if you know, black characters are limited to like gangsters going to jail or poor people, you know, or violent criminals or something like that, that becomes your interpretation of them. Even though there was obviously a wealth of different perspectives and in lives for average African Americans in this country. So I think teaching that to students at a young age, I think avoiding lists is key as well. Don't list, good media, bad media. It gives students the tools how to deconstruct media and let them decide for themselves. You'll do way better for them in the long run.

But one of the big issues, I guess this is really insider baseball, one of the big issues, and Allison Butler has written a lot about this, is teacher training programs, that is, that the teachers are going to the classroom, they may be totally interested in this stuff, but they don't know where to get supplies or don't know how to teach it because it's not mandated in college, not mandated in K-12. And so Allison Butler, I work with her, but she does a lot of independent work and teacher training. So basically how can you add this stuff into the classroom without creating more work for the students or faculty? But kind of integrating it in place of other exercises and getting the same outcomes.

So I think there's a way to do it. It's a question kind of will, in that sense. And also combating back, you know, the interest of these corporations. Like Facebook, they bring out like a thousand educators every couple of weeks to teach them how to add Facebook to the classroom. I maybe give a talk to like 200 educators, maybe a year. You know, if I have a lucky year, that's what I I'll get to do if I get to do these trainings, like Allison or something. So I think combating those interests are tough. But I also know this from speaking in our state capitals, you can go to your state capitol and push for media literacy, but especially in California where I live, I mean, Facebook and Google are there all the time. I can't be there all the time. You know, and I also can't donate Facebook and Google money to their campaigns. So there's some big obstacles there that are worth recognizing as well.

16:51: Lauren Shields:

Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. If you would like to know more about Nolan Higdon's work, you can find him at, @nolan_higdon, all lowercase on Twitter. You can also listen to the podcast he co-hosts Along the Line at projectcensored.org/atl/ or at youtube.com/alongtheline. Nolan, thank you so much for joining us today.

17:14: Dr. Nolan Higdon:

This was cool. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.