In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was running for president, the people planning to vote for him were sure the media was biased against him. They focused only on the bad stuff and ignored the good stuff. The people voting for Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, thought the bias claim was absurd. They thought the media played it as fair as was possible in a matter of opinion. The big media players went out of their way to prove that they were just neutral observers reporting the facts.
It seems quaint today, but if you wrote your local newspaper complaining about unequal treatment, you could expect a reply pointing out the examples in the newspaper of both sides of the debate. If not a direct reply, there would be a length reply in the letters column addressing the issue. Newspaper columnists would often take the time to address the “alleged bias in the media”. Back then, it was important to the media that people thought they were neutral observers.
Fast forward twenty years and the people planning to vote for Bush still thought the media was biased, but by that point, conservatives were so sure of the bias they no longer felt a need to prove it. The center of gravity with regards to the media had shifted after the Clinton years. Even the people who were voting for Gore conceded that many parts of the media were biased, but their new line was that “right-wing” media, like Fox News and Drudge, was just as biased.
In twenty years, we moved from a world in which the consensus was that the media was mostly honest but a little biased to a world in which the consensus was the media was biased in favor of one side. Put another way, a tin foil hat crazy in 1980 thought the New York Times was out to get their guy, while in 2000 a tin foil hat crazy thought Fox News controlled public opinion. By this point, the mass media was no longer trying to prove they were neutral observers.
Twenty years on from the Bush election, everyone to the right of Hillary Clinton looks at the media as the marketing department for the DNC. Further, the only people who think the media is not deliberately lying about everything are the nutters who watch conspiracy outlets like MSNBC or CNN. The most popular “conservative” TV media performer is Tucker Carlson who dedicates a fair chunk of his airtime to pointing out the litany of lies that come from the mass media.
In isolation it is not a very interesting thing, but the media is a canary in the coal mine for the state of the culture. Forty years ago, most people thought they could trust the important institutions of society. Wackos were the ones claiming the government was covering up conspiracies and doing nefarious things in the shadows. The bulk of the population trusted the system, even while acknowledging the flaws. After all, humans are not perfect, so no system is perfect.
Today, the center point on the trust scale is over toward the lack of trust end but it depends upon the institution in question. Few people trust the media, so the center is way over on the skeptical end. Most people think the government is a blend of incompetence and dishonesty, but many still think the system can work with the right people in charge of it. Big business is another institution whose trust has collapsed, especially among right-wing people.
At this point on the timeline, the military, the economy, and technology are the only three institutions that people generally trust. Despite twenty years of failure, people still think the military can defeat any enemy if allowed to do their best. White people still proudly send their sons to fight. That is changing as it becomes clear that the people in charge are rabidly antiwhite and jarringly incompetent. We may be in the midst of a great sea change in white attitudes about the military.
That leaves the economy and technology as the things most people think they can trust to be what they claim. The bad news gets all of the attention, but most people still live pretty well in this country. Inflation and shortages are concerning, but most people accept that it is just temporary and will work itself out in time. Similarly, despite the damage done by the Covidians, people still trust technology to come up with reliable solutions to problems. The vaccination rate is proof of that.
The fact is people can remain content as long as their bellies are full, and they feel secure in their person. The lunacy of the Covid response was annoying, but few people felt it threatened their way of life. People were not being evicted from their homes or going without food. The entertainments were maintained, so they had things to keep them occupied while stuck at home. The Juvenal quote gets overused but that is because it is true. The last two years have proved it.
The question, however, is can a society keep the bread and circuses going when trust in the main institutions is collapsing? Trust in the economic system is a function of its relative performance. If no one trusts the political system or the mass media that promotes it, can we survive a serious economic downturn? Can we survive learning that much of what we were told about Covid was a lie? Can we still trust the economic system when we are ruled by corporate oligarchs?
The point of this is that when you take a long view, relative to a human lifespan, it is hard to see a bright future for the American empire. The arc of trust now bends inexorably toward a world where only fools trust their institutions. The future is a world where no one can trust anything or anyone and the only way to maintain order is through force. If the people at the top of the institutions see it this way, it would explain why they are so enthusiastic for authoritarianism.
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