If You’re Worried About Misinformation, Focus on For-Profit TV News

Believe it or not, the data all point to television, not social media, as the most powerful reality-warping medium for most Americans. Unsurprisingly, that is not the impression you’d get from listening to the cable news–driven discourse on the subject.

Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's Morning Joe. (Flickr)

Question: What is the most powerful news medium in the world today?

If you’ve even casually followed the news the past four years, the answer seems obvious: social media and the Web.

After all, as we’ve heard again and again, it was Silicon Valley that was responsible for Trump’s shock 2016 victory, thanks to a foul cocktail of fake news, bots, memes, and so on. In fact, social media, we’ve been repeatedly told, is the cause of just about everything good, bad, or in between that’s happened in recent years, from Brexit and unrest in Hong Kong to opposition to fracking and protests against police brutality. Tech CEOs have been repeatedly summoned to Congress and dressed down, pushing them into ever-intensifying efforts to censor content on their platforms. And of course, it’s social media that’s to blame for the Capitol riot last month, as various critics across the political spectrum have told us.

Naturally, the solutions lie with the cause. Twitter, identified as the reason for Trump’s entire political career, finally banned him from its platform, along with purging tens of thousands of other right-wing users. At the urging of experts, the president plans to pressure tech companies to more tightly censor what their users post. Cable news personalities like Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have demanded that Facebook be “shut down” for having “destroyed this country” and “democracies across the globe,” while media outlets float new targets for suppression, like podcasts.

The inescapable takeaway is that the average person is falling behind the breakneck pace of technological change, which is reshaping the world in dark, malevolent ways: “Amplifying the lobotomized, the intellectual cornering of people, so that they cannot learn what’s really happening, so that their worst fears and their worst concerns are amplified,” in the words of a former Facebook executive.

Except, what if none of this was true? Or rather, what if it was true, but about a completely different medium?

That medium is television. As of 2019, 53 percent of Americans got their political news primarily through local, network, and cable television, compared to the 18 percent who did so through social media. This was little changed from 2016, arguably the high point of social media–related panic, when a Stanford survey found network, cable, and local TV were three of the four most commonly cited “most important” sources of news and information about that year’s election (social media was for only 14 percent of US adults). According to a Pew survey from that year, while only 18 percent said they “often” get news from social media, that figure was 46, 31, and 30 percent for local, cable, and network TV, respectively.

Crucially, television is also still the most trusted source of news for millions of people. A Pew survey carried out at the end of 2019 found huge majorities upward of 65 percent of Democrats, liberals, Republicans, and conservatives trusted CNN and Fox News, depending on their ideology and partisan leaning, with similarly large majorities of liberals and Democrats putting their faith in outlets like NBC, ABC, CBS, as well as NPR and PBS. These numbers were similar — higher, even, when it came to Democrats — in a Morning Consult poll conducted in April 2020. People’s distrust of social media, meanwhile, has only increased: the most recent Pew research found 59 percent of social media news consumers expect the news they see on platforms to be “largely inaccurate,” a rise of two points from 2018.

You didn’t need polls to tell you this. Pry apart the tangled mass of four years of alarmist news, and you might’ve seen that the evidence for social media’s brainwashing powers was pretty thin. Here’s just a brief roundup of the data-driven findings of “fake news” on social media:

  • “False stories were a small fraction of the participants’ overall news diet, regardless of political preference: just 1 percent among Clinton supporters, and 6 percent among those pulling for Mr. Trump.”
  • “Only 1 percent of users were exposed to 80 percent of fake news, and 0.1 percent of users were responsible for sharing 80 percent of fake news.”
  • “The most systematic examination of people’s exposure to” fake news sites “showed that while these untrustworthy sources might have a small effect on public opinion, in 2016 they did not substantially move individuals’ positions.”
  • “Results suggest that [digital fake news] may at worst reinforce the partisan dispositions of mostly politically conservative Internet users, but does not cause or induce conversions in these dispositions.”

Or look at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University, which in 2017 published a comprehensive analysis of two million election stories from seventy thousand media sources and how they were shared on Facebook and Twitter. Their conclusion?

“Although fake news — fabricated and verifiably false reporting — was a phenomenon during the election, it had a minor effect on the media ecosystem of the presidential election,” coauthor Hal Roberts said. “A much larger concern was the misleading reporting that was propagated through partisan networks.”

Television, as the most consumed and trusted news medium, has played a leading role in this “misleading reporting,” especially on the Right. The most obvious example is Fox, still widely watched even in its current period of (probably temporary) decline, and which, together with the influential right-wing talk radio ecosystem, has used misinformation to whip up real-life frenzy over a host of issues, sometimes with deadly results: Obamacare, voter fraud, the “Ground Zero Mosque,” climate change, or attacking Iraq, to name a few. It’s now been joined by networks like One America News and Newsmax and the aspiring local news monopoly of Sinclair Broadcast Group.

It’s this corporate TV news media that has been the major driver of the very misinformation now being widely blamed on social media platforms, from downplaying the danger of the pandemic to the election fraud conspiracies that drove thousands of people to storm the US Capitol last month. According to another Berkman Klein Center study published last year, this one based on fifty-five thousand Web stories, five million tweets, and seventy-five thousand Facebook posts, social media played a “secondary role” in spreading disinformation about mail-in voter fraud, which was instead “an elite-driven, mass-media led process,” most often Fox and talk radio.

Liberal commentators are starting to realize this, with a host of establishment media voices now calling for cable providers to drop networks like Fox and Newsmax in the wake of January’s riot at the Capitol, thereby limiting the reach of right-wing TV misinformation. Given what a malignant force Fox has been for decades, it’s easy to see the logic here.

But this wouldn’t solve the problem. The inconvenient truth is that Fox and other conservative media don’t have a monopoly on TV misinformation, and nor are they the only ones responsible for the chaos of the last five years.

Take Trump’s 2016 win, the event precipitating the country’s ongoing political crisis. Trump’s election victory was based on $5.6 billion worth of free earned media over the full course of his campaign — more than fellow aspirants Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio combined — as the political press discovered what tabloid rags and TV executives had known for a while: love him or hate him, the man was a magnet for eyeballs.

According to several large-scale studies from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Trump got far more media coverage that election than any other candidate, even when his poll numbers didn’t warrant it. For a time, owing to the horse-race style of coverage, much of it was positive in tone. Multiple times throughout that campaign, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC all ignored Clinton, Sanders, and others to focus their airtime on Trump or, infamously, his empty podium.

If Brzezinski and Scarborough are so focused on Facebook’s role in undermining US democracy, it might be because, for months, their friendship with and boosting of Trump was a source of embarrassment and irritation at NBC. Scarborough admitted to giving him political advice, praised and lobbed softballs at him on-air, wouldn’t rule out being his running mate, even spent New Year’s Eve at Mar-a-Lago after their alleged falling out. At one point, audio leaked of the hosts, among other things, asking Trump’s permission to ask him tough questions during a town hall.

This went beyond MSNBC. “Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” said a jubilant Les Moonves, CBS CEO, celebrating Trump’s impact on the network’s bottom line. (“The money’s rolling in, this is fun,” he later told investors). And it was the most trusted name in news, whose president in an earlier life did arguably more than anyone to make Trump a household name, who rode the Trump campaign to massive ratings. That president, Jeff Zucker, was later revealed to have been giving Trump advice during the election in advance of a debate being held on his own network.

And it goes well beyond Trump. Some of the most pervasive misinformation of the last few years was incubated and spread through legacy media, particularly cable news: namely, the various conspiracy theories around the Kremlin’s supposed infiltration and control of US society and political system.

As two researchers determined, sensationalistic rhetoric thrown around fast and loose in media mostly consumed by liberals — particularly CNN and MSNBC — led large numbers of Democratic voters to erroneously believe the Russian government had actually hacked voting machines during the election. Just last week, TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel casually called the Redditors driving the current stock market chaos out of a mix of savvy and populist rage “Russian disruptors.”

Meanwhile, TV news’ Trump-like boosting of New York governor Andrew Cuomo — including the praisefilled comedy routines CNN set up with his news anchor brother, which lifted ratings for a time — made it possible for the governor to enjoy sky-high approval ratings for the past year despite an unceasingly abysmal pandemic response.

In other words, this problem is far bigger than Fox. In fact, between CNN commentators calling for Fox’s reach to be curtailed and personalities across cable news calling for censorship of the internet, where independent media has thrived — all at a moment when legacy media is losing a ratings-driving meal ticket in the form of Trump — you start to wonder if this is really about stopping misinformation, or if it’s about consolidating market share.

There are many ways to fix the TV misinformation problem that don’t involve heavy-handed censorship — whether it’s limiting commercials on news programs, summoning network CEOs to Congress as was done with tech executives, or breaking up monopolistic media entities. We might even discuss whether it’s time to put cable TV under public ownership mandate public interest standards for its programming.

But you’re not likely to see any of these ideas so much as given the time of day in the mainstream press, because they would be extremely bad for the profit-driven model of modern TV news. Instead, expect to see calls for censoring competitors, whether on the Web or airwaves, to intensify. Just as the r/WallStreetBets fiasco suddenly spurred calls for proactive regulation of the stock market that never seem to be heard when Wall Street is on the winning end of its own shady practices, the outrage here isn’t so much about the thing being done, but about who gets to do it. And absent any real structural changes to TV news, it’ll be the same old story: the big guys trying to have their cake and eat it, too.