Obama summons his ‘better angels’ in the media to shape voter viewpoints

AP/Carolyn Kaster

Tennessee Williams once lamented, “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” That fear came to mind this week when former President Barack Obama called upon “our better angels” at the ironically named “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference at the University of Chicago. 

The conference was a liberalpalooza of media and political elite, gathered to discuss how to defeat their common demons: Republicans, Fox News, and apparently half of the electorate and most television viewers. In fact, the conference offered a chilling display of not just disinformation but delusion in dealing with current controversies. 

It proved fascinating as the media and political elite openly worked through intractable problems like the backlash over burying the Hunter Biden scandal before the election. For that reason, it was particularly ironic that the conference was sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, which has been a source of some of the most criticized coverage.

One of the figures in special counsel John Durham’s ongoing investigation is Atlantic staff writer Franklin Foer, who has been identified as “Reporter-2″ in Durham’s investigation of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann. Foer allegedly sent an early draft of the article for review by operatives working with the Clinton campaign, according to Durham, and the campaign later used the article to spread a false story involving Russia’s Alfa Bank and the Trump campaign.

Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, declared this week that “only one party in the American system has currently given itself over so comprehensively to fantasists.” He further denounced “social media-Big Data” for not censoring such views. Apparently, the extensive censorship of conservatives by Big Tech is not sufficient because any access to such forums “makes it easier and easier to inject falsehoods into political discourse.”

The Chicago conference resembled a mainstream-media version of a car show, featuring new political-narrative models for eager buyers. One came from Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum, who joined CNN figures in denouncing conservative media. That’s when University of Chicago student Daniel Schmidt delivered a haymaker question:

“A poll, later after that, found that if voters knew about the content of the [Hunter Biden] laptop, 16 percent of Joe Biden voters would have acted differently. Do you think the media acted inappropriately when they instantly dismissed Hunter Biden’s laptop as Russian disinformation, and what can we learn from that in ensuring that what we label as disinformation is truly disinformation, and not reality?”

Applebaum responded by saying that she really did not care if the laptop was legitimate because she did not find it “interesting”: “My problem with Hunter Biden’s laptop is I think it’s totally irrelevant. I mean, it’s not whether it’s disinformation … I didn’t think Hunter Biden’s business relationships have anything to do with who should be president of the United States.”

It appears that laptop is no longer Russian disinformation. It is now just uninteresting or irrelevant, even though the president’s son may soon be indicted on this evidence.

Applebaum was one of those pushing the Russian disinformation claims in calling for censorship by Big Tech of conservatives. Back then, the Hunter Biden scandal was “relevant” as Russian disinformation. For example, in a column titled “The Science of Making Americans Hurt Their Own Country,” Applebaum praised the killing of the Hunter Biden “saga” and encouraged even greater efforts to control information for voters. She criticized those who “argue … that these 2020 efforts don’t need to be taken so seriously, because they failed.”

CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter also was confronted by a student, Christopher Phillips, who listed false stories run by CNN, from the Russia collusion stories to the Jesse Smollett case. Phillips then asked: “All the mistakes of the mainstream media and CNN, in particular, seem to magically all go in one direction. Are we expected to believe that this is all just some sort of random coincidence, or is there something else behind it?” Stelter responded dismissively that it was all just “a popular right-wing narrative” before returning to the narrative of the true demons on the right. Stelter has previously embraced censorship as part of a “harm reduction model” for media.

The conference was more about the demons than the angels of the mainstream media. The sense of frustration was palpable.

While pushing for greater private censorship, the conference adopted an almost clinical tenor of conservatives and Fox News-watchers being brainwashed or cognitively challenged. Yet, despite years of such attacks, Fox remains the most popular cable news network; it not only often doubles the viewership of its rivals, but more Democrats watch Fox than CNN. (For the record, I work as a Fox legal analyst. I previously worked for NBC, CBS and the BBC.)

Obama denounced “anger-based journalism” while promoting an advocacy-journalism model in which the media shape the news for citizens who supposedly need help to properly frame ideas. He and many other speakers highlighted a much-touted study by political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla. The study has been featured by the Washington Post and many of these same outlets for its conclusion that Fox News viewers change their views when exposed to “good” news sources like CNN.

Obama declared the study as hopeful since it showed “how easy it is to shift people’s views on issues by changing their media diet.” 

But the study itself is a study in bias. The researchers at Berkeley and Yale only subjected Fox viewers to this type of re-educational viewing; they paid Fox viewers to watch CNN but did not do the opposite to see how CNN viewers changed their views after being exposed to Fox. Moreover, the study assumed as fact what would be viewed as a contested viewpoint. For example, they assert that “Fox News largely did not inform viewers of Trump’s failure to protect the U.S. from the COVID-19 outbreak, whereas CNN extensively did so. This is concerning for democratic accountability.” 

In the end, the study found the change was often slight, with less than 10 percent shifts on most questions and short-lived results, as viewers returned to their original viewing preferences.

The “hopeful” message — that we just have to change what people watch in order to save democracy — is hardly a new idea. Just last year, some Democratic members of Congress sought to pressure cable companies to take Fox off the air.

There is another possibility: As Obama summons the “better angels” of the left, they might consider promoting free speech. After all, we once believed good ideas can prevail over bad ones in an open marketplace of ideas. Instead, this crusade to rid liberals of their demons would kill the most angelic part of who we are as a people.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Tags Barack Obama CNN Disinformation Fox News Hunter Biden hunter biden laptop Jeffrey Goldberg John Durham liberal media Media bias Media manipulation Michael Sussmann Propaganda techniques The Atlantic US news media

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