Agenda-driven publishers churn out narrowly tailored news for increasingly niche audiences…
All the President’s Men, Warner Bros., 1976
Trump’s histrionics were always strategic. He was able to successfully undermine months of critical coverage and dutiful fact-checking by casting reporters as villains. Each time his campaign was in trouble, the candidate escalated the culture war on the press. By the end of the election, we were not just biased or corrupt—we were dangerous, conspiratorial, part of a shadowy globalist cabal. Just days after Trump was sworn into office, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon told The New York Times, “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party . . . . The media’s the opposition party.”
Bannon’s first move after being dismissed from his White House posting was to huddle with the billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer who has backed his right-wing populist media crusade. On the afternoon of his firing, he said in a statement to Joshua Green, author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency, “If there’s any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents—on Capitol Hill, in the media and in corporate America.”
It doesn’t require an overly active imagination to picture the post-apocalyptic news landscape that so many conservatives seem to be working toward. Media fragmentation accelerates to warp speed. Agenda-driven publishers—be they professionally staffed websites or one-man YouTube channels—churn out narrowly tailored news for increasingly niche audiences. There’s still plenty of factual reporting to turn to when you want hurricane updates or celebrity news, and adversarial investigative journalism doesn’t quite go out of style. But it’s easier than ever for news consumers to ensconce themselves in hermetically sealed information bubbles and ignore revelations that challenge their worldviews. For most people, “news” ceases to function as a means of enlightenment, and becomes fodder for vitriolic political debates that play out endlessly on social media. (Like I said, it’s not hard to imagine.) Inevitably, the rich and powerful—those who can afford to buy and bankroll their own personal Pravdas—benefit most in this brave new world.
This is, of course, a worst-case scenario. But is it really so far-fetched? Already, many of the nation’s most important outlets—the publications and networks that comprise the core of American journalism—have seen their audience shrink and splinter; their credibility plummet among vast swathes of the public; and their financial futures turn bleak. If The New York Times and ABC News were to shut down or, more likely, dwindle into shells of their former selves, would they be replaced with new mega-outlets that share their resources, their reach, and their editorial values? It’s possible. But it seems just as likely that they wouldn’t be replaced at all.