In August, researchers writing in the journal Health Communication reported findings from a study of media consumption habits. In results that will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent five minutes on Twitter, they found that Americans who engaged in "problematic media consumption"—that is, excessive amounts of news viewing online, in print, and on television—experienced harmful mental health effects as well as disruptions to sleep and in their personal interactions with others. "While we want people to remain engaged in the news, it is important that they have a healthier relationship with the news," one of the researchers noted in a press release.
Thankfully, Chris Stirewalt is here to help. In Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back, the former Fox News Channel political editor and current fellow at the American Enterprise Institute offers a sharply observed and at times hilarious journey through our contemporary media ecosystem, with particular focus on how Americans helped build and now gleefully participate in the running of the "rage machine" of the book’s subtitle. (Full Disclosure: I recently became a colleague of Stirewalt’s at AEI.)
For a book about an industry riven by political strife, Broken News is refreshingly free of partisan cant. In fact, Stirewalt makes clear that the problems facing journalism impact everyone on the political spectrum: "What is wrong with my vocation and the industry in which I work is harming Americans left, right, and center," he argues.
Why are we so angry and polarized? Stirewalt traces the shift from print to radio to television to the Internet and the challenges these different modes of communication pose to civic health. He describes how these developments contributed to the growth of national media, often at the expense of local news. And he argues passionately for the importance of healthy media for American life. "The American Creed requires written words and a common culture in which to understand them," Stirewalt argues. Today, however, "much of our news does not aim to make ideas understood, but to generate powerful feelings—often fear, anger, and resentment."
Stirewalt reminds readers of historical moments when those shifts occurred, such as the radio reporter who said, "oh, the humanity," while describing the Hindenburg disaster. "The listener is connected not to the event itself, but to the reporter’s reaction to the event," Stirewalt notes. As a result, "the news consumer is passively receiving emotional meaning." We remember the emotional response as much if not more than the event that provoked it.
That’s because emotion sells, particularly fear, anger, anxiety, and hate. "The hatred people feel for their fellow Americans is not just a by-product of political coverage," Stirewalt argues, "but a necessary component of making much of that coverage profitable." Media institutions are now in the business of "optimizing for anger," as one writer described the transformation in tone of the coverage offered by the Washington Post during Donald Trump’s presidency. Stirewalt is appropriately critical of the mainstream media for its initial flirtation and ultimately masochistic embrace of our former president; Fifty Shades of Donald Trump proved too lucrative and salacious a franchise for media companies to resist. "Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were both good on television," Stirewalt writes. "Trump was television."
"Balanced, thoroughly reported news is hard to do, expensive, and often boring," Stirewalt reminds us. "Tribal outrage is easy, cheap, and entertaining." It is also deeply appealing to baser human instincts—and we’ve perfected technologies and platforms that make its expression seamless. When people log on to Twitter they no doubt think of themselves as thoughtful, rational Lockeans. As soon as they see a provocative Tweet from a political opponent, however, they are off to the land of Hobbes.
Stirewalt has firsthand experience with the consequences of this new style of journalism. He was fired from Fox News after he made the Decision Desk call that Joe Biden had won Arizona on election night 2020. Fox News viewers and even Donald Trump protested loudly on social media about the call, even though it was the correct one. "Fox viewers had become even more accustomed to flattery and less willing to hear news that challenged their expectations," he notes, with admirable equanimity toward his former employer.
Stirewalt describes other contributing factors to our broken media institutions, such as the decline of power of the respective political parties, which exacerbates partisanship, as well as the way media reward the pursuit of fame by so many of our elected officials. "If Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez really wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy, she wouldn’t do it by writing ‘tax the rich’ on her rump and going to the Met Gala," Stirewalt notes. "But if she wants to be famous for wanting to raise taxes on the wealthy, then she’s right on track." This, too, is a bipartisan affliction, as the careers of Rep. Matt Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene demonstrate.
Throughout the book, Stirewalt rejects the effort by journalists to practice "post-journalism," which focuses on generating emotional responses (and attachment) from users and a sense of group identity based on shared values rather than on reporting the facts. Its close cousin is "moral clarity" journalism, which argues that journalists should abandon objectivity for the larger goal of writing stories that further whatever social justice causes they want to champion.
I would like to have heard more of Stirewalt’s thoughts on how cultural trends impact what people want from media. We’ve raised several generations of Americans who believe life can and should give them what they want on demand and who believe their opinion on everything matters (but who also believe that any challenge to what they say is a form of violence). Twitter makes everyone their own editorial-page editor, all day, every day, in real time. Endless opportunities to argue online have clearly not strengthened the bonds of our union, yet we continue to spend large amounts of time doing it.
As for solutions, Stirewalt offers several excellent ones; call them Stirewalt’s Rules of Reporting, and if you are an aspiring journalist, memorize them. I would summarize the best of them as follows:
Journalists should take the practice of journalism more seriously, and themselves a great deal less so.
Practical experience reporting on the mundane details of municipal government is far more valuable than faddish pursuits like "moral clarity" journalism. Practice, not theory. Reporting, not opining. Facts, not over-emotional apocalypticism.
Strengthen local news coverage. Resist the temptation to see every issue and idea through a national news lens. Report on what is happening in places that coastal elites and large media companies too often ignore. If all politics is local, then more journalism needs to be local as well.
There are many more lessons buried in this wonderful book: Journalists should stop relying so much on anonymous sources. News consumers should stop demanding that political reporting sound like a Real Housewives altercation. Journalists should stop acting like meat renderers, picking over the carcass of partisan politics looking for usable scraps, and instead pursue the ideal of objectivity, even if they fail to reach it.
And, most importantly, don’t make everything political. This way leads to moral immiseration.
George Orwell hovers as a patron saint throughout the book, and Stirewalt cites him as a warning of the dangers of an information environment where lies are accepted as truth. Stirewalt is more of an optimist than Orwell, but his message is just as important: We can’t abandon journalism to the forces of cynicism and anger. We need it. We need a healthy media environment because when journalism is done well, it serves an important civic purpose. It reminds us that despite our differences and disagreements, we must find a common purpose, a common story—only then can we fully appreciate the remarkable freedoms we enjoy.
Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back
by Chris Stirewalt
Center Street, 256 pp., $29
Christine Rosen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and media columnist for Commentary magazine.
Published under: Book reviews