When Lies Rule
by Eric Alterman
June 21, 2021
This interview with Eric Alterman, CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism and the "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
frank | Do you mind giving us a little background on yourself and your work?
Eric | I mean, I'm old, so it's kind of long. I think of it as I've had three careers simultaneously. I've worked in journalism my whole adult life, but it’s been a long time since I thought of myself as a journalist. I was when I was younger, but I haven't been in a long time.
I was the media columnist for The Nation for 25 years. I've worked in liberal think tanks for most of my professional life, starting when I was an intern right out of college, almost 40 years ago. And I'm an academic; I have a master's in international relations and a Ph.D. in U.S. history. I also have a degree in Jewish studies. I've now written 11 books.
I'm quite pessimistic about the future of journalism. Until recently, I was a professor of journalism, and when journalism students would come to me and say, “I want to major in journalism, “ I would say, “I'll advise you, but only if you don't major in journalism.” I did that for two reasons. One is I don't like students majoring in journalism. I want them to major in some liberal arts subject where they'll learn something that they won't have a chance to learn for the rest of their lives. I believe in liberal arts education.
But the second reason is that, for the majority of people who will go into journalism, they're not going to be able to make a living anymore. That economic model has broken down. You have to be both enormously lucky and enormously talented to make a living in such a way that you can have a family. You might be able to make a small living, to get a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, but the old fashion career in journalism where you could have two kids and they would go to college and you could live a comfortable middle-class life, doesn't seem to be available to many future journalists.
The people going into journalism now are either young people who will eventually leave to go to law school or go into public relations or rich kids who don't have to worry about making a living.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote an article in the New Yorker about the death of the American newspaper, and things have accelerated so much more than I could have predicted back then. I'm pessimistic about the profession, but I'm also upset and concerned, which is what I write about more than anything, about what we lose as a society when we lose the kind of journalism that we've depended on in the past. I'm kind of a depressing person to talk to about this topic.
Most people are, to be honest. What do you think we lose most, as a society, as this career dies?
Newspapers are the main place where reporting happens. Television news is notorious for not producing any news, so we are just losing an enormous amount of news and information that people need to know about their lives, their government, and the corporations that affect their lives.
The journalism jobs that have appeared in recent years are concentrated mostly on the coasts. These are jobs at the Washington Post, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and websites in New York and Washington.
The middle of the country has been hollowed out. There is no local reporting.
They get their news from social media, which has no means of verification. It's like a full-time job for people to get good information because there is so much nonsense that dominates the discourse.
Television news is notorious for not producing news, as you said. But, as local news sources are increasingly squeezed, it seems that this is where most people's news is coming from. How has that affected the way we think about politics?
It's a big question. When I was growing up until I was in my twenties, there were three TV news broadcasts every night that about half the country would watch at the same time: Walter Cronkite, The Huntley–Brinkley Report, Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw. Young people never developed that habit. By the 1990s, more people listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio than listened to all three network news combined.
TV news lost its influence and Americans lost their shared reality, or what Walter Lippmann called the “pictures in their heads.”
Now, everybody is walking around with a different picture in their head. The advantage of that was for places like Fox News who created false pictures that are consistent with the prejudices of the audiences they seek to reach, and they keep expanding on that. Television news on a national level became about celebrity and scandal because that's what sells.
See, the internet did something very important in this regard. The internet made it possible to specifically target the people you want it to advertise to. It destroyed the idea of a general news program or newspaper. The ads are not well targeted, so why pay for them? The only content that really pays for itself these days is celebrity, sports, and scandal. All the rest of the news is done because the people producing it want to do the right thing as journalists, but it loses money because it brings in no advertising. And fewer and fewer people are willing to lose money to do the right thing.
I want to go back to the loss of critical thinking skills you mentioned earlier. Is that tied to the media environment we live in now? Do we lack critical thinking skills because we tend to hear one narrative, all the time?
Yeah. Again, there used to be a shared reality in this country. There used to be, and this is something young people might find hard to imagine, a class of people who felt a public responsibility to the country.
A lot of them were wealthy lawyers, they had a lot of bad ideas, but they saw themselves as public service. They would go in and out of government trying to do what they thought was the right thing. These are the people who decided that Richard Nixon had to go or the Vietnam War had to end. We don't have that anymore. The idea that there's an establishment that you can depend on that will prevent the country from going off the rails is gone.
And that is how you end up with George Bush's war or Donald Trump's entire presidency; there's nobody out there to act as guard rails. I can go on and on about why they were a problem — they lived with institutionalized racism and sexism for a very long time — but they prevented the country from veering where it is today, where lies rule, and fascism is a serious threat.
When did those guardrails die?
It's a great question. There's one man – do you know the name, Clark Clifford?
Clark Clifford was a banker. But first, he was an advisor to President Harry Truman's campaign that won the election in 1948. He helped put together the postwar world with Truman after Roosevelt died. He then went on to advise almost every single Democratic president. He was one of the so-called “wiseman,” who told Lyndon Johnson that he had to end the Vietnam War in 1968.
But then, he got involved in a banking scandal called the BCCI scandal in the 1990s. The bank was involved with breaking a lot of laws including money laundering, bribery, and supporting terrorism, and he was the public face of that bank. Everyone looked at him and said, this was the man we trusted to be the advisor of the establishment. Now, he's gone over to the other side to get rich, lie to people, and abuse their trust. A lot of people took that as a symbol of the collapse of the establishment. So, I would say the collapse of the guardrails happened in the 1990s.
I would also put it on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — both of whom mocked the idea of public responsibility. Margaret Thatcher once said, there's no such thing as society, there is only the individual. Reagan wasn't as smart, he couldn't have thought of that himself, but he believed that too. I would say this is when the idea of a public good died; this is when smart, ambitious kids began to go to Wall Street, rather than the government.
We just did a month on philanthropy and talked a lot about that stark mental shift. The ramifications it has had are quite impressive. Do you think the way news has changed is related to the way politicians act? If the news is getting more sensational, are politicians getting more sensational to get airtime?
Fox News has become the ruler of the Republican Party. The party works for Fox News, not the other way around. If Fox News is going to disapprove of something, the Republican Party won't do it, and in that sense, they define reality and are the most powerful force in right-wing politics. Of course, Facebook is important, but the right-wing media is what defines reality for Republican voters and, and Republican politicians follow the voters.
If you are talking about CNN or the New York Times, they don't want to be seen as being on anybody's side. They want everybody to be able to read them. CNN, which is very interested in making money, will book people on their program to appeal to the far right, even if they know that they're lying. They don't care so much if something's true, so long as everyone feels that they have a voice. So people like Kayleigh McEnany and Jeffrey Lord, and former Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski were all hired during the campaign to lie for Donald Trump.
CNN knew that they were lying, but they felt like Trump voters needed to be represented.
Now the New York Times is much better than CNN, even though they're often bunched together as the establishment media. The New York Times tries to tell the truth, but because of the ideology of journalistic objectivity, it doesn't tell you what's true and what's false, it gives you both sides.
Very rarely will NYT or CNN call anyone a liar. They are so nervous about being accused of having a liberal bias. There has been this enormous attack on the media for decades about a liberal bias that it allows right-wingers to get away with an enormous amount.
There's an article in the New York Times on the website right now that demonstrates this. There is an article about whether or not democracy is in peril. It basically says that Republicans say it isn’t and Democrats think it is. Well, the threat to democracy is coming from the Republicans. They're shutting down the voting sites. They're passing restrictive voting laws. I mean, there is truth here somewhere.
And all of this is worse on Facebook and Youtube and Twitter, where the websites take no responsibility for what is on the site. They are reluctant to allow things that incite violence — which is why Trump has been kicked off. But, as far as truth goes, they say, “We're not the newspaper. We're not responsible.” The most clicked-on stories, every day, are from extreme right-wing sources.
They're deliberately lying. They're giving people what they want because that's how they make their money.
It seems like kind of a lot of the issues come down to us giving people what they want. Maybe journalism shouldn’t do that.
I published my first article in 1982 when I was still in college. One of the things I'm most proud about in my career is that I never once heard from any of my bosses how many clicks I got. I have no idea how popular any article was. Every once in a while, some editor would say to me, “Could you please write about this instead of that?” I sort of prided myself in not following the news and instead of writing about what people weren’t paying attention to. That sort of career would be unthinkable for someone today. I don't think that's possible anymore; I don't think the institutions have a willingness to support that.
What other trends you have noticed?
Here's what I think. It used to sound a little crazy if you said that fascism was a threat to this country, but not anymore. I mean, first of all, fascism is different wherever it appears. We aren't going to get Nazis running our government. But, what fascism does require, first and foremost, is lies. Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism explained that it's not so much the lie itself that you want people to believe, rather, you want them to believe that they can't believe anything.
If people feel that they can't believe anything, then you can get away with anything.
I think we were getting close to that under Donald Trump. If you don't believe in facts, then you can say the things that Tucker Carlson says every night – and his show is the single most highly rated show on cable television, by the way.
The thing I care most about is trying to get people to pay attention to the source of their news. When they read something or hear something, evaluate whether or not the person speaking to them is someone who can be trusted. I want people to have sources of news that they can trust and to go back to them and to support them. These institutions have lost the ability to support themselves economically. It's up to people who value them to support them. If you believe in being a good citizen and living your life in truth, then you have to pay for these services. And that takes some work. I'm asking people to do that work.
Do you think that's possible? Are there enough people who want to seek out news that's “good for them” – or are our brains broken?
My fear and my feeling and my belief is that it is becoming a very elite enterprise. There's enormous intellectual inequality between people who have the time and the inclination and the resources to do that and people who don't. The institutions that will thrive are those that play to that inequality. I mean, that's why the New Yorker is so healthy. It has the readers who have the most amount of disposable income. The advertisers want to reach that audience, so it becomes a virtuous circle.
I guess what I'm saying is that if you are one of those people who was lucky enough to be part of the informational elite, then you should think of yourself as having a responsibility to all the people who don't have that privilege. You don't want to live in a society that's kind of a gated community between the 10% and everybody else. You don’t want to live in a society where only the top 10% or so of people are getting quality information and everybody else consumes crap. That's a dangerous place to live.