Roger Ailes built Fox News into television’s most powerful channel by his skillful adaptation of the aphorism, “if you tell them what to think, you lose them. If you tell them what to feel, they’re yours.” The replacement of reason with emotion, a favored trick of conjurers and con men that’s as old as Mark Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar, has created a new reality and battered America’s democratic guardrails.
In this episode of Common Ground with Jane Whitney, a diverse panel from across the political spectrum discusses how the country, which once elevated science into the unofficial national religion, came to accept the parasitic oxymoron of “alternate facts” and how so many of us have come to live in an impenetrable bubble that elevates ill-considered opinion into intractable certitude.
In an age of fake news and alternative facts, the veteran journalist and MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi has remained steadfast in his commitment to discovering and disseminating the truth.
Following the 2016 election and the rise of inaccurate information proliferating the 24-hour news cycle, Velshi began to think more about the role of journalism in combating disinformation. “Remember what journalism is meant to do. It has two purposes. The first one is to bear witness, to simply be there to say that something is happening,” he told Guy Raz in 2017 on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. “But the second one is more important, it's to hold power to account…let's not go down a road where we end up in a world where not only are we not speaking truth to power but we're not even able to discern the truth.”
With the increasing plurality and polarization of news sources, Velshi warns that the subversion of truth can weaken democracy. “News has always been biased. Don’t fool yourself about that. People have biases. But you can adjust for biases,” Velshi said in a 2020 lecture at Queen’s University in Canada. “Fundamentally, bias is not what’s going to destroy the fibers of democracy; lies are.”
Velshi also is outspoken about how “alternate facts” and the “weaponization of culture” endangers American democracy by prioritizing the destruction of the opposition over collaborating to form a stronger union. Recognizing that the exchange of ideas is essential to a healthy society, in 2022 Velshi started a “Banned Book Club” segment on his eponymously named MSNBC show to equip his viewers to talk with peers who sought to restrict controversial texts. When the segment became a hit, he turned it into a podcast in which he discusses the books and authors some schools have banned.
In his 30 years in journalism, Velshi has worked at Al-Jazeera and CNN, and has covered economic and business stories as well as presidential elections, gun violence, and refugee crises.
Charlie Sykes, the veteran conservative radio host, fears we are living in a “post-factual political culture.”
He also observes he is, in part, to blame for that culture.
From 1989 through 2016, Sykes hosted Wisconsin’s leading conservative talk-radio show, in which he denigrated what he saw as the mainstream media’s bias and untrustworthiness. Then, in a dramatic change of heart prompted by the 2016 election, he emerged as one of the conservative party’s and Trump's most vicious critics — he has referred to the former president as the Mount "Vesuvius of misinformation.” Taking a stance that alienated viewers and pushed him to the margins of the party he once called home, Sykes eventually stepped down from his post and set off to defeat the monster he helped create.
His first step was to reconcile his own impact on feeding the preconceptions of his audience with the culture of mistrust he helped sow. A 2017 New York Times op-ed served as Sykes’ mea culpa, confessing the role he, along with other talk radio hosts, played in the epidemic of “fake news” and the rise of Trump. “The cumulative effect” of his attacks on mainstream media, he writes, “was to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information.”
That same year, he published How the Right Lost Its Mind, an exposition on how nativism and the embrace of misinformation splintered the Republican party and threatened democracy. Soon after, in 2018, he, along with other Never Trump republicans, co-founded The Bulwark, a conservative opinion site dedicated to defending liberal democracy. Ultimately, his reincarnation from a proselytizing conservative radio personality to a staunch critic of the conservative party opened up a world of new opportunities, and possibilities of creating dialogue across the aisle, including a commentary role on left-leaning MSNBC.
In addition to his regular contributions to MSNBC, Sykes has also appeared on The Today Show, ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, PBS, the BBC, and has been profiled on NPR. Sykes is the author of numerous books and has written on social and public policy issues for many national publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, National Review, and USA Today.
“Facts are work. They require study; they require curiosity; they require patience; they require humility. Democracy requires the same,” Megan Garber wrote in this December’s issue of The Atlantic, where she is a staff writer focusing on the nexus of politics and entertainment.
Covering everything ranging from deep fakes, Fox News, and the disappearance of local news to QAnon, George Santos, and The Mueller Report, Garber chronicles how a country that once elevated science to its unofficial religion has turned facts into little more than speed bumps on the entertainment highway, inconvenient reminders of the ongoing erosion of a shared truth.
The author of the 2023 book On Misdirection: Magic, Mayhem, American Politics, a treatise on the proliferation of misinformation in contemporary American political culture, Garber considers the growing acceptance of entertainment as news a result of partisan media outlets and a culture that endorses voraciously binging content and values showmanship, which turn our lives into a collection of moments and sound bites designed to be reflected on screens.
The recipient of a Mirror Award for her probing writing about the media, she previously worked as a reporter for the Nieman Journalism Lab and as a critic for the Columbia Journalism Review.
America’s journey to fantasyland isn’t some bizarre, inextricable phenomenon but reflects the essence of the American character, a predisposition towards magical thinking, conspiracy theories, and myth making.
So argues Kurt Andersen, the best-selling novelist, radio host and acclaimed cultural critic. A subjective understanding of reality, he says, including our current catch-alls of fake news, misinformation and alternative facts, has been baked into our national character since the very founding of America.
In his 2017 book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, which spent a month on the New York Times' bestseller list, Andersen excavates the myths and legends that have evolved since the country’s founding. His polemic deconstructs three key moments that have led to our current epoch of alternative facts: the Puritans’ arrival to the New World, the sensationalist yellow journalism of the 19th century, and popular culture blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
“Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled,” he wrote in Fantasyland.
Andersen, who began his career as the editor of The Harvard Lampoon, was a co-founder along with Graydon Carter of the seminal Spy magazine, an era-defining publication which many consider to be the most influential magazine of the 1980s. After leaving Spy, Andersen became a columnist and critic for The New Yorker, Time, and New York Magazine, where he also served as editor-in-chief. He was also the co-creator and host for its 20-year run of the weekly Peabody Award-winning public radio program and podcast Studio 360. Andersen is the bestselling author of Evil Geniuses, Fantasyland and the novels True Believers, Heyday and Turn of the Century.