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Port: Misinformation is a problem that's downstream from apathy

If the larger American public engaged, their numbers would dwarf the Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow audience, but they're too busy watching "Young Sheldon."

PHOTO: November 7 election rally in Bismarck
Minot resident Mark Todd holds a sign at a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Bismarck on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.
Kyle Martin / Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — Today, after I file this column, I'm scheduled to address a class at Minot State University about working in journalism, and I've been thinking that I'd like to talk about how difficult it is, in the modern media environment, to get people to pay attention to things they don't like.

Or to stop believing things that are false because those false things fit their preconceived notions.

It was easier in the past because the news media was more monolithic. There were just a handful of national nightly news broadcasts, a few national publications, and then local media. Often, these news outlets all reported variations of the same stories.

That wasn't a good thing in that it concentrated the power of the press into too small a group of people. Dan Rather is 90 years old and more than a decade removed from his disgraceful exit as anchor of a national nightly news broadcast , but I suspect more Americans know his name than any of the current national evening news anchors.

One advantage the past had over the status quo was that the audience had less opportunity to indulge its biases.

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Americans who don't want to believe that COVID-19 is a real threat, or that Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine was an act of unprovoked aggression, can close the offending news article in their browser tabs and fire up YouTube or Facebook or some podcast and find people willing to tell them it's all a hoax perpetrated by some cabal of elites.

None of this is a new observation. We've been talking about this cultural balkanization, this retreat into social bubbles created for the express purpose of catering to our biases, for years now. Entire business models, from talk radio and cable news to social media and online commerce, are built around it, and it's impacting everything.

Many on the left believed Russian interference won Donald Trump the election 2016 just as many on the right, up to and including Trump himself, believe widespread fraud elected President Joe Biden in 2020.

But what if the number of people inside these bubbles is smaller than we imagine?

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Kevin Williamson has some keen observations about this at National Review today . He points out that Tucker Carlson pulls in 3.2 million viewers a night, a huge number in terms of cable news ratings but also a tiny number in that it represents about 1% of the American public.

Maybe a million or so more people watch "Saturday Night Live" mocking the Fox News primetime lineup , but even that total, as Williamson points out, doesn't quite reach the viewership "Young Sheldon" reruns.

Our reaction, as a society, to cable news is far larger than the medium's actual reach.

Chris Cuomo's stormy departure from CNN was major national news for a couple of weeks, though only a tiny sliver of Americans have ever watched his show.

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How does that happen?

Williamson offers an explanation: Cable news hosts and other national news media figures "are all multimillionaire employees of multinational media conglomerates, they typically work one block away from each other at their respective studios in Manhattan, they live in the same neighborhoods if not in the same buildings, their children go to the same schools, etc. — and they have a lot more in common with one another than either has in common with the shmucks who compose their audiences," he observes.

"Saturday Night Live" is obsessed with Fox News, and the drama around certain obnoxious cable news anchors, because our national media, from news to entertainment (which often aren't even distinct divisions anymore), live inside their own bubble.

Consider the problem in another context: When a blizzard hits New York it's national news, because that's where so many of the national news people live, but when a blizzard hits Fargo, it's just another day, because none of the national news people live in Fargo.

This brings us back to the "bubbles."

It's a real problem, but I'm not sure how well we understand it. Cable news is a part of that phenomenon, but their audience is smaller than we realize, and the people who work in cable news are self-obsessed and living in their own bubbles.

The larger problem is that the average American is checked out. They're apathetic. The cable news audience may be tiny, but the people who are watching an hour or two of MSNBC or Fox News every night are also very politically involved, and very influential for their friends and neighbors and colleagues who aren't paying attention.

"The world is run by those who show up," the saying goes, and cable news viewers show up on the radars of politicians, which is why you see political figures such as Sen. Ted Cruz cravenly seeking the approval of Tucker Carlson .

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If the larger American public engaged, their numbers would dwarf the Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow audience, but they're too busy watching "Young Sheldon."

How do we fix this? We need Americans to want to engage, and when they do, to seek out news and information that challenges their notions.

But this, I'm afraid, is a task not unlike getting a toddler to eat their broccoli.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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