What, exactly, is Post-Truth? (MIT Press, 2018) Is it wishful thinking, political spin, mass delusion, bold-faced lying? McIntyre analyzes recent examples—claims about inauguration crowd size, crime statistics, and the popular vote—and finds that post-truth is an assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence. Yet post-truth didn't begin with the 2016 election; the denial of scientific facts about smoking, evolution, vaccines, and climate change offers a road map for more widespread fact denial. Add to this the wired-in cognitive biases that make us feel that our conclusions are based on good reasoning even when they are not, the decline of traditional media and the rise of social media, and the emergence of fake news as a political tool, and we have the ideal conditions for post-truth. McIntyre also argues provocatively that the right wing borrowed from postmodernism—specifically, the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth—in its attacks on science and facts.
It is no secret that one of the recent facilitators of the “in- formation silo”—which has fed our built-in predilection for confirmation bias—is the rise of social media. That story cannot be told, though, without first coming to grips with the decline of traditional media.
In its heyday, what is today called the American “prestige press” (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal) and network television (ABC, CBS, and NBC) were the main sources for news. “In 1950, the average daily total paid circulation for U.S. daily newspapers was 53.8 million (equivalent to 123.6 per cent of households).” Think about that for a minute. That is over 100 percent. So some households were subscribing to not one but two newspapers. “By 2010, the average daily total paid circulation of U.S. daily newspapers was about 43.4 million (equivalent to 36.7 per cent of households).” Think about that too; that means a loss of readership of almost 70 percent. Over at the television networks, since the 1950s the news has been delivered each evening by an anchorman for half an hour on a nationwide broadcast.2 Walter Cronkite sat at the big desk at CBS from 1962 to 1981 and was often cited as “the most trusted man in America.”
Many think of this as the “golden age” for news. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the competition from TV networks had caused many smaller newspapers to go out of business. This “left most major American cities with a de facto monopoly paper, one which was better, richer, and more serious than those papers that had existed some twenty years earlier.” And on television? Because they were expected to broadcast only half an hour of news a day, the networks could put most of their effort into investigative reporting. Other than the occasional (and terrifying) alerts saying “we interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special bulletin” that portended war or assassination, the news was confined to its own niche, so that TV stations could profit from their entertainment programming.
Although there wasn’t much news on TV, this turned out to be a blessing for the news divisions, because they were not expected to make any money. Ted Koppel explains: Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.
This began to change with the appearance of the CBS news show 60 Minutes in 1968, which (after its first three years) became the first news show in history to turn a profit. Suddenly a lightbulb went on at the networks. Although it did not change the model or expectations for TV news immediately, network executives began to see that news could be profitable.
Still, the golden age of broadcasting persisted right through the 1970s, but then the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 led to a conundrum. The public was suddenly hungry for more news, but how could this be accommodated without disrupting the hugely profitable entertainment broadcasts? Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show over at NBC was a beast. CBS had all but given up by running a late movie during that time slot. ABC was running prime time reruns. Then someone had an idea: The ABC television network at the time decided to try something different by moving the daily Iran briefing to the late evening. This was also a marketing decision: ABC had no late-night programming against Johnny Carson’s venerable talk show on its rival NBC, and news programming was, by comparison, cheap. ABC filled the evening slot with a new program called Nightline devoted solely to coverage of the [hostage] crisis. Each night, ABC would splash the screen with “America Held Hostage,” followed by the number of days of captivity. The anchor (usually the veteran ABC newsman Ted Koppel) would then fill the time by interviewing experts, journalists, and other figures associated with the crisis.