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Our broken news is breaking us: Political analyst Chris Stirewalt on media, polarization, and possible solutions

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with leading American journalist and political analyst Chris Stirewalt on his fascinating new book, Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back.

They discuss how media is dividing our culture, how technology is accelerating these trends, and what we can do to help fix the problem.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Chris Stirewalt, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, contributing editor at The Dispatch, and politics editor for NewsNation. He’s also the author of the fascinating new book, Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back. The book, which draws in part on Chris’s experiences at Fox News, documents how the modern media environment is contributing to our dysfunctional and polarized politics. Chris, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

CHRIS STIREWALT: Well, thanks so much for having me. It’s good to be with you.

SEAN SPEER: A major premise of the book is what you describe as the atomization or polarization of the modern news media. There are no Walter Cronkites anymore. There are instead figures like Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity, who are serving small, fragmented shares of the overall market. Let’s start with how we got here. What are the factors, Chris, in your view, that have contributed to the shift of the news media model focused on large broad audiences to now narrower, ideological, or partisan ones?

CHRIS STIREWALT: There are a lot of ways to skin the cat, but you could start with, let’s just talk about the technology. Prior to the 1930s and in the book, I talk about how in 1935 was the first time that we had a truly national media because, for the first time, you could instantaneously transmit photographs to be seen in newspapers all over the country with basically a precursor to the facts.

In 1935, you have the first newspaper story that everybody in America could hear about on the radio, or 85 percent of people, could hear about on the radio, and see pictures with words in their local newspaper, which was the Dust Bowl in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Many bad things have happened in history. I don’t know whether you know this, but many bad things have happened in history, but for the first time, people could experience it, Americans could experience it, at one time.

This was a giant technological change. Then the next thing that happens, of course, is with the bombing of Pearl Harbor six years later, the American press went to war—wore uniforms, marched in the army, submitted their copy to censors, and were really part of the war effort. Like a lot of things in America, the media went into a bubble basically from 1941 to, you can pick up a point, let’s say, April 1975, and the Fall of Saigon, but there’s a point in the mid-1970s where the bubble is completely burst.

Inside the bubble, the arrival of television, the uniformity of experience of people working in media, and the uniformity of experience of consumers coming out of the Second World War and then during the Cold War era, you have the rise of something that was different than anything that Americans, really anybody, had experienced before. Which was a truly national media. In 1973, two-thirds of households were watching one of the three main broadcast news shows.

Everybody got the newspaper at least one, in some cities, two. It was a unifying experience. The way that these companies made money was they had to sell advertisers the broadest possible audience. Let’s take The Washington Post. The Washington Post has always been left-leaning or Democratic-leaning because, by the way, in the old days, I don’t know how it was in Canada, but in the United States, papers used to wear their team jerseys pretty—the papers had names like the Arkansas Democrat or the so and so Republican or whatever.

Anyway, The Washington Post has always been a Democratic-leaning publication, but in order to make its business model work, they needed to have Republicans read it too. They needed a lot of Republicans to subscribe to The Washington Post because they needed football scores, they needed the classified ads, and they wanted the weather report. They wanted to serve the broadest possible audience. Starting in 1996 or so, and there are a lot of inputs here, one of them was certainly the change in television.

The arrival of cable television in the United States instead of broadcast television opens the door to very niche broadcasting. I watched the other day on television, the world championship of cornhole. I don’t know whether Canada is afflicted with cornhole, but here were adult men throwing bean bags at pieces of wood, and it was being commentated on as if it was the Masters. Cable opened up the reality that you could have a lot of channels catering to a lot of very specific things.

One of them as it turned out was news, and we have the rise of cable news. The big change, of course, is when the internet arrives, starting with Craigslist, it just eats local newspapers. Local newspapers responded exactly the wrong way. They do exactly the wrong thing, which is the one thing that they’ve got that nobody else has gotten, is all of the content.

They’ve got the reporters, they’ve got the content, they have the information. They, instead of competing with low-quality, free information with high-quality information for a fee, what do they do? They try to stay in business as printing companies because people who run newspapers are called publishers. They’re not editors. They’re publishers. They thought of themselves as being in the printing business, so they tried to hold on to print.

They cut, cut, cut newsrooms. In the United States, we lost tens of thousands of jobs in the local news business. The newspaper industry in the United States hits its revenue peak in 2005 and then loses 85 percent of its revenue in the next few years. It’s a total collapse. What comes in to replace this higher-quality local news? Low-quality national news. Now in the United States, there is not much national news.

There are not that many things. The United States is like six or seven different countries under one government. What’s going on in South Florida is very different than what’s going on in Minnesota, which is very different than what’s going on in Texas, which is very different than what’s going on in Kentucky.

There’s not that much that unites the United States for news except for—I don’t know if there’s a Canadian equivalent to this, but one of my favourites is when there’s a blizzard in the northeastern United States, the whole country has to hear coverage because it’s happening in New York, so of course it’s the only thing. The other 319 million people in the country get three or four days of endless coverage about a blizzard in New York.

There’s a guy sitting in Phoenix like, “I’m not feeling it, guys. I don’t really see this.” Anyway, there’s not that much national news. One thing that is reliable is politics because we only elect one office holder nationally in this country, and that’s the president.

A focus on the presidency, a focus on politics to fill this space. It also so happens that nothing quite stimulates the antipathies of individuals like talking about how other people are different from you and bad. We end up with a lot of low-quality, national political coverage that has replaced a lot of higher-quality local coverage. That’s where we find ourselves today.

SEAN SPEER: If we can stay on the topic of market fragmentation a bit longer, one thing that’s striking in your book and accompanying commentary is a reminder that for all the talk about cable news, we’re really discussing a pretty small share of the overall voting age population. Tucker Carlson’s nightly show, which is consistently the most popular on cable news, typically has something like 3.5 million viewers. Why do these forms of media seem to loom so large in our culture and politics? What’s the source of their oversized influence?

CHRIS STIREWALT: TV freaks us out. TV is really powerful. TV is bad at imparting ideas. One of the things that is most concerning about what’s going on in American news consumption today is that literacy rates in the United States are frighteningly low, more than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and, I forget, 65 or whatever, can’t read at a sixth-grade level. That’s problematic, of course, because you need words to communicate ideas. You cannot show a picture or a video of freedom. You cannot show a picture or a video of integrity. You can make a whole movie about it with dialogue, and you can do it that way, but you can’t do it. I can decode a message sent to me from the Apostle Paul or from Thomas Jefferson from hundreds or even thousands of years ago and use it in my life today.

I can break that code apart, put it back together, and it can still have relevance for me today. A video is more emotionally powerful. The way, as a matter of fact, that Jim Crow and segregation in the American South was brought to an end was what? Video, it was pictures, it was images of Black Americans having dogs set on them, fire hoses turned on them for peaceful demonstration.

Those images, the video of that was so powerful and so offensive that the audience, of course, was Northern whites who had been turning a blind eye to what was going on in the South because it wasn’t their problem. They didn’t want to get into it. That’s not how we are up here. Seeing it, it shocked their conscience so much that it changed the national discussion. Video is much more intimate, it’s much more powerful, and it’s much more connected.

The celebrity power and the personality power that comes through. Having been on television for a long time, I have had the experience where people really feel like they know me. I’m walking through an airport. I’m sitting with my family having dinner or something, and, usually good, sometimes not so good, people really feel like they know me. Now, I’ve never met them, but they feel like they know me because of that intimacy that they experience because of having my face on their giant television in their room for a bunch of nights.

There are many reasons why cable news gets so much attention. All of the power of video, all the power of personality, all the power of television and celebrity definitely goes into it, but here’s the other part. It is a self-licking ice cream cone. I used to joke that Fox should have a channel called CNN on Fox and CNN should have a channel called Fox on CNN.

They would do it like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and have Lou Dobbs and Tucker Carlson sit and watch CNN and just the two berate just, “Oh, they’ve done it again.” Then, CNN would have the other thing where they could have Brian Stelter and Jim Acosta sit there and talk about how bad Fox is. I’ll put it this way. This is a little off your point, but they did a study about, basically, the stickiness of news stories on social media about various local figures.

For many months, like a year, this market research firm tracked 35 or so American members of Congress plus the president and how did news stories about these people do on social media? What was the stickiest? What got the most interaction? Well, the least interacted with were Joe Biden, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Chuck Schumer, the Minority Leader of the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell, and at the time, the two most influential political figures outside of the leadership in the country, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kristen Sinema, who at the time were the crucial part of negotiating a big budget deal in the U.S., and they were the focus of everything.

They were nothing. They were pulling up the rear, barely interacting. Who were the members of Congress who were the most interacted with? Sadly, Canadians probably also know their names: Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Goofballs, people who have no clout in Congress. They can’t pass anything, they can’t do anything, they’re inconsequential as legislators. But other people love to hate them.

When you look at the interaction, it is that 80 percent or 90 percent of the interactions with the stories about these individuals were from the other side. It wasn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is being clicked on but celebrated as Democrats say, “Oh, keep up the good work.” No, these are right-wing sites and right-wing interactions.

The same goes for Ted Cruz. It’s not that Republicans like Ted Cruz, because they don’t. It is that Democrats love to hate him. That kind of dragging and negative interaction is a lot easier to gain and maintain, and cable news provides a constant font of that kind of baloney.

SEAN SPEER: I just want to ask about this feedback loop between modern news media and American culture and politics. As you observe in the book, Americans are angrier and more detached from one another than they’ve been in the past. How much is the modern news media causing these trends, and how much is it simply reflecting them? What’s the chicken and egg here, Chris?

CHRIS STIREWALT: I think it’s a reinforcing cycle. I think one enhances the other, which in turn enhances it back. I guess the way I think about this is we have used up, in a lot of ways, the institutions that made the past 40 or 50 years in America work. Basically, there was a truce that was forged between the people who were born in the late aughts and the teens of the previous century, and the baby boomers, and that included things like—

I actually thought about this with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, which is every 8 in 10 people in the world had only ever known one British sovereign. In the United States, recently, Roe v Wade, which was the standard that prevented states from banning abortion outright, that fell. A lot has fallen, much has been lost from the consensus that grew out of this very tumultuous period.

In the United States from 1963 to 1975, it was very bad. It was a very bad run. Political assassinations, serious riots, the Vietnam War, the pernicious dishonesty of the federal government in the Vietnam War and the fecklessness that we showed toward our allies there. We had the vice president and president both resign and disgraced over separate scandals, which is very impressive. That’s very hard to take out your VP and then your president in two separate scandals. That’s very hard to do.

So, out of that chaos—which, by the way, yielded as we mentioned before about civil rights, also we went to the moon—but out of that era of turmoil came a new consensus, and we have used it up. There was a lot that was lacking in the consensus, but we have used it up. We have exhausted that old consensus. Now, and I can tell perhaps by some of the grey in your beard that you might be Gen X. Are you an old millennial, or are you a young Gen Xer?

SEAN SPEER: I’m a geriatric millennial.

CHRIS STIREWALT: Well, it will be up to me and you to forge a new consensus basically with the young kids who are coming up now, to come together and say, “Okay, we got to figure out how we do this.” Americans lost their faith in a lot of institutions, and deservedly so in a lot of institutions. We talk about the need for strong institutions, but that also means the need for virtuous institutions. The news business did not fulfill its obligations to the country, it did not fulfill obligations to the Constitution, and it did not fulfill its obligations to its consumers.

Consequently, there is low confidence in my business as there is in lots of other institutions. Basically, in the United States today, only the military and small business is routinely seen as trustworthy. Everything else, people have low confidence in. Out of this alienation, the people felt and the breakdown of what had been sticky, strong sort of Tocquevillian communities, the corrosive fluid of national political obsession intensified the harm.

The thing is it’s very hard to hate someone you know for real. You can be frustrated by them, but if you know them, it’s harder to hate. It’s so easy to hate a stranger. Hating a stranger is so easy. In a lot of political news, you have people who are living less connected to the people around them in their communities, but they are more connected now to the outrages of strangers in other places.

In the United States, we had a whole thing about the Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis’ legislation pertaining to sex ed in schools and the Walt Disney Corporation. It was a real dumb episode. It was a powerfully dumb episode. But here’s the other thing. Unless you live in Florida or have a grandchild in a Florida public school, it’s not germane to your life. It doesn’t really matter because you don’t live in Florida, and this is a bill about Florida schools, and who cares?

I can’t believe I’m saying this. There’s a long-running controversy about public libraries in the Pacific Northwest having something called Drag Queen Story Hour in which drag queens read children’s books to children. Now, even if you live there, you don’t have to send your kid, but certainly, if don’t live near a Drag Queen Story Hour, you live in Dothan, Alabama, there’s probably not going to be Drag Queen Story Hour at the Dothan Alabama Public Library. But if I and the national news media can bring this story to you and say, “Aren’t you so upset about Ron DeSantis?” “Ooh, I’m so upset about Ron DeSantis.” “Aren’t you so upset about dudes in drag reading Cat in the Hat?” “Oh, makes me so mad. I just can’t even.” That kind of Twitter-like content, dragging and publicly shaming, divides us more deeply and alienates us more deeply, and then news producers respond to that alienation and find the sore tooth in which to touch the tongue.

SEAN SPEER: I want to stay on the topic of trust in the media. A key insight in the book is the increasing blurring between news and opinion such that it can be difficult to know where one stops and another starts. Now, obviously, a factor behind this trend is some of the market dynamics that we’ve been talking about, but one also gets a sense that it reflects, in part, an expectation on the part of a new age of journalists that viewpoint neutrality is no longer a core principle of journalism.

That viewpoint neutrality can amount to perpetuating different forms of societal bias and so there’s an obligation on the part of straight-up reporters to tilt in favour of certain cultural or political preferences. Even if one agrees with some of these preferences, why is it, in your view, Chris, a bad thing for the media to abandon the principle of viewpoint neutrality?

CHRIS STIREWALT: Well, look, forget objectivity. There’s no such thing as objectivity. As I tell young reporters, you’re like a juror. You bring yourself to this work. Your experiences, your education, the things that you know, you bring to this work. Now, your job is to take the good and leave the bad. You have to know yourself indeed to the degree that you have to have special—

Maybe I’ll put it this way. If you asked me to write up the outlook for the baseball playoffs, I’m a St Louis Cardinal baseball fan. I am probably not going to be able to write an analysis of this without acknowledging that and disclosing that. That’s on the opinion side. On the reporting side, and I use what is a common term in the business, which is: commodity news. What, where, when, why, and how.

How many? What time did it start? When did it stop? How big was the hail? I do love that one of the things in journalism is describing hail. Sometimes hail is golf ball size, sometimes it’s softball. They’re always using sporting equipment, which tells you that dudes are definitely still there. Whereas when they talk about a tumor or something, it’s usually fruit. They’re like it’s a pear size. That’s very specific.

Anyway, if objectivity is not possible, aspirational fairness is. It is certainly true that marginalized groups in the United States were shut out of the news business for a long time. The business is now more female than male, but women were not heard from and their points of view were overlooked for, I don’t know, since the birth of the printing press. The first newspaper definitely marginalized women. The communities of colour, people of different sexual orientations, all of that, all true.

It’s all true that those groups have been marginalized. We should bear that in mind. We should also bear in mind that for the second half of the 20th Century and most of the 21st, or some of the 21st, American conservatives were shut out of the main mainstream discussion. It was definitely an establishmentarian but left-of-centre energy that propelled the national media. It was a boys’ club, but it was a boys’ club of Harvard and Princeton graduates and not guys who went to Texas. We have to acknowledge it’s all true. I don’t dispute anybody’s claims on this, but what I do say is it’s important that we still try to be fair.

Great Canadian, Charles Krauthammer, I think my favourite Canadian, no offence to any other Canadians I’m forgetting about, is a model here. My dear friend and much-missed friend, Charles, after he died, [New York Times columnist] Brett Stephens wrote in his remembrance of Charles, he said that he was going to make “to Krauthammer” a verb. “To Krauthammer” is to make your opponent’s argument better than they can and still defeat it. That’s fairness. Charles was an opinion journalist, but he did not build a strawman. He did not say, “Well, you know what they’re all like. You know what they’re like.”

In the book, I talk about the fundamental attribution error, which is a social psychological phenomenon by which we attribute bad actions in other groups to their rotten nature and terrible qualities as human beings and bad actions by people from our tribe as necessary and important.

I use cutting-off in traffic. If somebody cuts you off in traffic, and if you’re a Republican, somebody cuts you off in traffic, and it’s a Subaru with a kayak on the roof and an Elizabeth Warren bumper sticker, you’re like, “Oh, that’s how they are. That’s how they do it.” If the person who cuts you off in traffic is a big SUV with a MAGA bumper sticker, you’re like, “Well, he must have someplace to go. He’s doing something. He’s up to something.”

Our coalitional instinct is what makes human beings so awesome, a big part of what makes human beings so awesome. They say dolphins are smart. They’ve never built a hospital. I’m not familiar with any dolphin hospitals out there. You and I have never met before, but you and I together could work on a project, a complicated project that involves envisioning the future.

We can do it because human beings, other than our great gifts of language and communication, have strong affinity for building coalitions so that we can work together to achieve goals. That’s wonderful. It also means that our brains are hardwired for the other way, which is against them to keep them out.

As news consumers, we have to be aware of that, but as news producers, we have an obligation, we have a special set of obligations. In the United States, we enjoy a degree of freedom that was unprecedented in the world and still stands as the gold standard in the world. We recently had a reporter in Arizona murdered, allegedly, by a county official who the investigative reporter was exposing corruption, and that made huge news in the United States.

When reporters get murdered in Russia, it’s not a big deal. It’s like duh. It would be bigger news if there was a reporter at all in China doing real journalistic work. Americans, because of the First Amendment and because of the great protections of liberty that we have, owe a special obligation to the Constitution, to the Republic, to each other. That means that when we are preying on fundamental attribution error, hostile news effect, and all of these things that we know are true— that confirmation bias, we know about it, we know it’s real—when we exploit those things to make a living, it’s unworthy. We owe more because we have received more.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s stay on that topic. Earlier this year, we spoke to Newsweek’s Batya Ungar-Sargon, whose book, Woke Media, describes the growing homogeneity of many in the mainstream media based on their class, lived experience, and worldview. You’re something of an outlier. You often joke that you’re one of only two in the national media from West Virginia. Do you want to talk a bit about these trends and their consequences?

Is there something to the argument that one of the reasons that Trump’s win in 2016 was such a surprise to many in the mainstream media was that they were disconnected from the socio-economic conditions of the so-called “forgotten people and forgotten places”?

CHRIS STIREWALT: Well, I joke that I’m only one of two national media people from my own county in West Virginia.

SEAN SPEER: Pardon me.

CHRIS STIREWALT: There have been others from the 35th state. When I tried to explain to conservatives about what media bias is and what media bias isn’t, and by the way, I think media bias as a concept is less and less significant because there are so many choices. Conservatives in America had a real point, which is that prior to the mid-1990s, their voices were—you would get a William Safire column in The New York Times, people like George Will and Charles Krauthammer had broken through as columnists, but basically day in and day out, right-of-centre points of view were not main states. It’s obvious and it was true.

It matters less now because you can ice your cupcake however you want. If you say, “Well, I’m a conservative, but I’m a catholic integralist,” it’s like, “Well, we’ve got a website for that,” or “Well, I’m a conservative, but I’m more of a traditional type,” “Well, we have a website for that.” There’s a website for everything, so that’s fine. When I try to explain to conservatives about what media bias is, I use the energy industry. In the United States, where are people who work in the energy industry from? They’re from West Virginia, they’re from Kentucky, they’re from the Dakotas, they’re from Kansas, they’re from Oklahoma, they’re from Texas. Those are all red states, some of the reddest red states in America. Okay, check. Now, the people who work in the energy industry are more male than female. In the United States, men are more Republican than women are.

Even before you get to the first part about Republican policies being more favourable to the energy industry, if you just took that set of people to begin with from those states, more male than female, you’d already have a very Republican group. Where do people who work in the National Press come from? They come from somewhere between Washington DC and Boston, Massachusetts. They come from the Acela corridor, and they go to the same schools, they’re from the same places.

These are all blue, blue states. These are all highly Democratic states. The news business is more female than male, and women are more Democratic than dudes. As a result, if you just started with where they’re from and what their gender is, you’d already have an overwhelmingly Democratic room. The national press missed Donald Trump, it is true.

The national press also missed George Bush’s re-election in 2004, it is true. The national press also missed Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. The national press also missed the magnitude of Nixon’s victory in ’72, it’s true. We would like to pretend that this is new or that this is different. It is not new. It is not different. I doubt, and I can check it out, but I doubt there was a higher percentage of national political reporters from the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia 45 years ago than there are today.

What is changing though is that with an emphasis on diversity in these newsrooms, it becomes even less likely that outside points of view will be able to penetrate because now you’ve created it double. You’re from a blue state, you’re more likely to be a woman than a man, and you went to an Ivy League school or a prestige journalism school. You’re already in a place where you’re only going to get 15 percent Republican or right-of-centre people. You’re already there. If you lay on top of that questions about race, if you lay on top of that questions about gender identity, you’re going all the way out.

What has been fascinating to watch though in the American news business, and this goes back to your earlier question about how—well, look, I’ll put it this way: If you let the inmates run the asylum, if you bring in a bunch of 25-year-old reporters and say that their lived experience—by the way, I hate the phrase; all experience is lived experience, people, it’s all lived experience—but that their experiences and their points of view are valid and worthwhile, then what we watched in The New York Times and what we watched in The Washington Post, and what we watched in a lot of other places was crazy mob mentality break out among the reporting class. And the editors were terrified.

These editors, dudes, older dudes, were scared. They didn’t know what was going on. In the wake of MeToo and during the Trump era, people were freaked out and there was a real militancy among some of these reporters. They’re attacking their publications on Twitter, and they’re doing all of this stuff. It’s been interesting to see in the last few years, two years or so, the pushback, that these editors and these publications say, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” This is back to the consensus that we have to remake.

I need to hear better from young people. I’m 46 years old. I need to know what 26-year-olds are talking about and thinking about. I can’t just ignore all of that. At the same time, I also know that when I was 26, I was an idiot because I hadn’t done anything. I had no humility. I was not aware of how—Richard Taylor, the father of behavioural economics, put it thusly, “I don’t think that people are stupid, I think that life is hard.” You have to get older before you get that and before you realize that.

Understanding that young people have interesting and good ideas, but are often stupid, and for young people to understand that old people, while often annoying and not aware, also have lived experience.

SEAN SPEER: George Will has been known to say that he thought Fox News would be bad for journalism and good for Republican politics. He’s since changed his mind. Fox News was good for journalism in the sense that it enabled some really good journalists like you and Bret Baier to find a home but bad for Republican politicians to the extent to which it has had a corrupting effect on the issues and style of Republican politics.

What would be your reaction to Will’s formulation? Is he right, and if so, why don’t you talk a bit about the interrelationship between what’s going on in right-wing media and the state of conservative politics?

CHRIS STIREWALT: I’m not going to disagree with George Will. Come on, except for about baseball, I’m not probably going to disagree with America’s foremost public intellectual. It was once said that Fox News was a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. Maybe you could have said it was. Well, let me put it this way. In the old days when newspapers wore their partisan jerseys, those papers were interested in the party. The Arkansas Democrat was part of the Democratic Party in Arkansas and was part of that apparatus, really, really.

Now, these news outlets are not interested in the party, they’re interested in the voters of the party, which are two different things. Parties exist to restrain and cool and focus the passions of its part of the electorate because the job of a party is to do what? To win elections. That’s why parties exist. They’re not there as ideological vessels. They have one function; they need to pick candidates in order to participate in elections. I am sure that Sean Hannity wants Republicans to win elections.

We saw texts from Sean Hannity after January 6th where he’s trying to get the situation under control because it’s going to be bad for the party. He’s trying to get Trump under control because it’s going to be bad for the party because he’s a Republican and he wants Republicans to win elections. That’s true, but when Tucker Carlson has Ted Cruz on and shames him, humiliates him for daring to call the January 6th attackers terrorists, that’s not good for the Republican party, that’s not helpful to take one of its senators in for a beating for saying something that was obvious in time.

When Rachel Maddow on MSNBC talked about defunding the police, that may have resonated with a relatively small number of people watching her show, but that sure didn’t help Democrats in the 2020 election. The disconnect is that these are not partisan voices in the sense that they align with the interest of the party. They’re partisan voices in the sense that they are aligned with the passions of the electorate and that their job is to connect with the passions of the electorate regardless of how it works in the coming election.

The media scholar, Andrey Mir, coined the term post-journalism, which I like quite a lot. When I got started in the business in the late 1990s, we were in the last days of a model based on we have information, and we will either sell it to you or we will sell you to advertisers based on the fact that you have to come here for the sports scores, for the latest news, for the weather. That you’ve come to us and we have it. It’s a top-down relationship.

Post-journalism is bottom-up, which is the information is everywhere. You cannot escape or avoid the information that you are swimming in all the time, but you have feelings, and we will match your feelings, we will match your emotions, and we will match your feelings and form a strong emotional connection with you based on our tribal coalitional instincts. What many of these outlets are looking for, and what many of these producers or hosts are looking for, is what is the high emotional salient issue?

Why can’t we have immigration? My colleague Jonah Goldberg’s great joke when asked what his immigration policy is, he said, “To have one.” The United States has a chaotic, ridiculous approach to immigration that cannot seem to be brought into any sort of agreement, even though 65 percent, 70 percent, 75 percent of Americans agree on what to do: strict enforcement at the border and a pathway to citizenship for those in the United States illegally who have not committed other crimes. We’re there. There’s a broad consensus.

How come we can’t get there? Our stupid primary process is a big part of it, but another part of it is that for the news media, for those of us in the news media, no issue crackles exactly like immigration because it’s got lots of overlays. It’s got us versus them, there are questions of race, it’s questions of economics, it’s regional conflict. It is the most sort of primal, basic story. When you get right down to it, it is a social issue, but it’s really an economic issue deep down. Immigration is really an economic issue. Instead of talking about it like you do other economic issues, we talk about it as a social issue, as a cultural issue, because that’s what gets down in people’s phones, and that’s how you create that strong emotional attachment.

SEAN SPEER: You’re involved with The Dispatch, which is a great project that in a way has influenced us at The Hub. In fact, when we got started, we actually spoke to Toby Stock, one of the early founders of The Dispatch, to understand its business model and to try to learn from its early lessons.

We’re both betting that, notwithstanding the polarization that you’re talking about, that there is a market for a smart, dispassionate, centre-right journalism. Why don’t you talk a bit about that bet? Is it wishful thinking, or based on your experience, Chris, is there reason to think that the current model is under-serving audiences?

CHRIS STIREWALT: I was in a bar in southern West Virginia one time. I’m a pretty big guy, and my buddy is a big guy. We’re sitting there at the bar. There’s a little fellow on the other side of the bar. You could tell he was eyeing us up. He was eyeing us up. He was getting madder and madder. Just sitting over there just getting madder and madder. Pretty soon he comes around the bar and says to my friend, who had not said anything to him, comes around to him, and he says, “I reckon you figure you can whip me.” My buddy finished his beer, set the mug down on the bar, and said, “Well, I reckon we’re getting ready to find out.”

I don’t know. Personnel matters, quality of product matters. You guys are putting out great product. That matters. I like to think, The Dispatch, we’re putting out great products. That certainly matters. In the book, I talk about how—and I think this is true. Certainly, the printing press was a huge disruption because it made printing cheaper and more accessible to a lot more people.

Yes. But, boy, did radio scramble our brains. Radio really blew our brains out. Because for the first time ever in the experience of a human being, millions of people at once could hear and experience the same thing. The big winners, the early big winners of early radio: fascists in Europe, Adolf Hitler, check, it worked out great for him. In the United States, one Canadian export, Father Charles Coughlin, who came to the United States, a Roman Catholic priest, had a listenership that would make what Tucker Carlson got in a night look like chicken feed.

U.S. senator, or dictator, of Louisiana, Huey Long, had 7 million members of Share Our Wealth societies across the country. He was basically calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order and the creation of a dictatorship in the country. This is 1935. This is really bad. Radio had only been around for 10 years, 11 years, 12 years that Americans had been familiar with radio.

There’s a story. When the first radio station in the United States, KDKA in Pittsburgh, was going to broadcast the results of the 1924 election from the roof of the Westinghouse Building. It was really exciting. The joke was there was not a radio set receiver anywhere nearby to receive that broadcast but the newspaper can. They took a picture of it, here it is. Those days with huge microphones. Cool.

Eleven years after that, radio was tearing America apart. It was really bad. I use the example, also, there’s a famous story of Orson Welles broadcasts War of the Worlds, HG Wells, the story of Martians invading the world. People were so freaked out by this radio play that they were stuffing wet towels under their door to keep the Martian nerve gas from coming into their homes and stuff.

That’s the late 1930s. We still weren’t that sophisticated users of radio at that point. The pocket computer is only with us since 2008, really, 2007 or 2008. We have radically altered the way people communicate. We have radically altered the way that people get information. We have to expect that there will be disruptions. We have to expect that it’s going to be hard to do.

I have had too often the opportunity in recent years to quote Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Young Men’s Lyceum, which he gave 24 years before the beginning of the Civil War. He said that we will either endure for all times a nation of freemen or die by suicide. The truth for Americans today is that the options are still the same. There’s not a new setting. We are either going to decide to be better news producers and better news consumers because it’s essential and we’re aware of it.

I can say that based on the great response that the book has got—remember, buy two copies; if your first one wears out, you got to have a backup—all of the great responses that the book has gotten, people know this is a problem. It’s not like people say, “Boy, the American news media is in great shape, no problem here.” Everybody knows that this is a problem. If we can just train each other a little bit into behaving a little bit better, if we can be better consumers, if we can be better producers of news, this does improve.

You can be a part of that. I like to think The Dispatch is a part of that. Our news diet is different than the other freedoms that we enjoy in this way. I don’t care if you want to go to Tim Hortons every day and eat donuts all day. They’re delicious. I don’t care if you want to eat donuts. I don’t care if you eat a dozen donuts. Shoot the lights out. I do care if you are a consumer of low-quality, crappy, highly partisan, unreliable news because we owe each other special obligations as citizens and Americans. I owe you that out of filial love.

If I love my country, I have to love my countrymen and countrywomen. What I owe them is to be reasonably well-informed so that I can participate in citizenship with you. I think that’s the call of this book. I also think that’s the awareness that people increasingly have, that they know that this has not been wholesome, and it’s time to lay off the Timbits.

SEAN SPEER: I just have a couple more questions for you, Chris. Before we wrap up on looking to the future, I just want to come to Canada for a minute.

It’s been a long-standing belief on the Canadian right that our mainstream media is hostile to conservatives. I should say that those arguments can be overstated, as you outlined earlier, I broadly subscribe to that view. I don’t think it’s necessarily ill-intended so much as it reflects the individual and institutional preferences of many in the legacy media.

Conservative politicians have lamented this reality for a long time, but the new Conservative party leader, Pierre Poilievre, seems inspired by American conservatives, like Ron DeSantis or even Donald Trump, and is prepared to push back. It’s hard to know at this stage what the effects will be. Will it chasten the media a bit? Will it alienate voters? Or will it expose what many have thought for a long time? I’d just be interested in your reaction. Given what you’ve observed in the U.S., what do you think of that development?

CHRIS STIREWALT: Well, running against the press is nothing new. Speaking of the American vice president who resigned, he termed the members of the press the “nattering nabobs of negativity.” Spiro T. Agnew with the help of by the way speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, made a lot of hay out of complaining about the media. Right of centre in America, it’s an article of faith. The media is biased. Complaining about that helps you with your base. Here’s the concern I would have about Canada.

The saying in American politics is that you treat your base voters like mushrooms. You keep them in the dark and you cover them with horse manure. You don’t want them to ask tough questions. You don’t want them to hold you accountable. What you want them to do is say, “Oh, man, he’s out there fighting the bad guys.” If Ron DeSantis is at war with the press, what does that mean? Don’t listen to the press, for goodness’ sake, because he’s at war with them.

There’s an old lawyer’s trick, which is if you got a bad judge, a judge that you don’t want on your case, go pick a fight with that judge so that the judge is disqualified. The judge has to recuse themselves from the case because of this conflict. In American politics today, we do not have enough tough, respectful questioning. What we have is lots of brutal questioning that never gets answered asked of the other side. If Ron DeSantis were to go on MSNBC, how would it go?

“You suck.” “Oh, yes, well, you suck too.” He’s not going to answer any of the questions. The questioning will be performative, and the responses will be performative. What is necessary to have a healthy country is sincerely, respectfully pose, basically, friendly, tough questions where you say, “Look, I’m not saying you’re the worst person.” Recently on CNN—which is going through some changes—recently on CNN someone likened Ron DeSantis to Hitler.

You’re like “Okay, well, I guess where do we go from here? What’s the next line of inquiry?” That does not make Ron DeSantis a better governor or presidential candidate. It doesn’t inform anybody. That’s the thing I would just be on the lookout for is the death of what we would say, tough but fair.

SEAN SPEER: I guess to wrap up: Your book is interesting, funny, and insightful, but ultimately frustrating given the worrying trends that you describe. If one is persuaded by your overall thesis, which of course I am, how do we break out of these trends? How do we get back to a more broad-based form of journalism committed to core journalistic tenets instead of the type of atomized and polarized journalism that we see being practiced today?

CHRIS STIREWALT: I don’t know if you have seen the meme, “No one is coming.” Have you seen the, “No one is coming?”


CHRIS STIREWALT: No one is going to come make you go to the gym. No one is going to come make you do better. No one is coming. There is no external force that’s going to come and make it better and make you better. No one is ever going to force you to be better. But I know that pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth. Things have to hurt before people are willing to be different. We will persist.

Dudes have three sets of suits. We have the suits that we buy when we lose all the weight that we can wear for six weeks. Then we have the suits that we wear most of the time, and then we have the fat suits. When the fat suits start to not button, that’s when you are like, “Yes, I got to go back on the diet. Okay, week one.” Everything is like that because we persist in things for as long as we can, as long as we’re getting away with it, and we just hope it works out.

We’re playing for more than we can afford to lose. The events of the past several years in the United States have acutely reminded us that this is not the way things are supposed to be. One of the problems of living in a shockingly successful Western World is that we assume this is normal. It is absolutely not normal. It’s absolutely the departure from human history and human experience.

What we saw on January 6th, 2021 is a lot closer to historical norms than the peaceful transference of power that is our great birthright and great inheritance as the United States going back to the election of 1800 when John Adams has to turn over the presidency to his hated, the most hated, Thomas Jefferson, and he does it. Stretching forward for those centuries after that is this amazing miracle.

When you live with something miraculous for a while, you cease to think of it as miraculous, you think of it as what you’re owed, it’s what you are due. In the past, the United States and the media in the United States have come close to the edge. We have come close to the edge. We went over the edge in the 1860s, but we have had serious problems before. What is necessary is for the people of goodwill, be they liberal or conservative, be they North or South, East or West, to know that we have to preserve this.

I wish I could tell you that I was optimistic, but I can tell you that I’m hopeful. I have agency in hope. I am part of hope. I guess I’ll put it this way, not to be too corny, but let it begin with me. Let it begin with me. Let me be the one and let other journalists be the ones and let these citizens be the ones. I think the energy is there. I think that urgency is there. I think the interest is there, but there is no outside agency, there is no move by the government, there is no external force that’s going to fix this for us.

Either we’re going to fix it ourselves or we’re going to live with the consequences. Given American’s ability—a great Winston Churchill line, “You can always rely on the United States of America to do the right thing after exhausting every other possibility.” I think that’s going to be the same with me.

SEAN SPEER: Well, one way to start that process is to read Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back. Chris Stirewalt, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

CHRIS STIREWALT: Truly a pleasure. Thanks for having me.