It can be comforting, affirming, and even entertaining to listen to people saying things that you want to (and may already) believe. This is true for progressives as well as conservatives. But we shouldn’t confuse the pursuit of these reassuring pleasures with trust. Trusting a source means treating it as an authority, which entails accepting its pronouncements even when they run counter to the beliefs or instincts you had before it spoke. That is the whole point of authority. It can change people’s minds. So its existence is not tested by preaching to the proverbial choir.
Those Trump supporters who abandoned Fox News for the One America News Network or Newsmax were like patients who, when given an unwanted diagnosis by their doctor, doggedly seek second opinions until they are told what they want to hear, even if this ultimately requires consulting a charlatan. Such behavior does not signal a loss of trust. Rather, it reveals that the original relationship was never truly characterized by trust in the first place. And any new relationship is likely to be similarly fragile: a marriage of convenience, expected to last only ‘til disagreements do the spouses part. Flipping the channel until you find the network that is reporting what you already ‘know’ to be true is like flipping a coin until you get the result you want.
Conveniently for the flippers, both on the right and on the left, today’s news media environment is like a giant box of Bertie Bott’s Beans in the magical world of Harry Potter: every conceivable flavor is available (including some that are, or should be, stomach-turning). But, in contrast to trying your luck with those maddeningly inscrutable candies, you don’t have to pick one at random and hope for the best. If you want to listen to people say that masks cause COVID-19, global warming is a hoax, and millions of Trump votes were deleted by sinister voting machines, those talking heads are easy to find on your TV or on the internet.
It is tempting to react against this proliferation of partisan news media by pining for a bygone age when a few reliable sources were trusted by voters across the political spectrum. But those days, if they ever really existed, are unlikely to return. Widespread perceptions of biased reporting are here to stay. Are we therefore doomed to live in a fully post-truth society, unable to agree about even the most basic political facts, including vote counts?
When news organizations make claims that run counter to the biases they are presumed (at least by their opponents) to have, those claims should ring true. When Fox News called Arizona for Biden, what could have motivated them to do so other than the force of the evidence? Trump supporters might not have been expected to believe a similar call by CNN or MSNBC, but this was Fox News. And Trump supporters trusted Fox, right?
Wrong. It seems that many Trump supporters merely liked Fox, and they did so because – and only for so long as – it told them what they wanted to hear. These viewers turned out not to have a stable belief that Fox is “fair and balanced” (as it used to call itself), let alone that it displayed a systematically pro-Trump bias. When Fox called Arizona for Biden, we learned that many of its regular viewers were loyal only to Trump, not to Fox: they did not actually hold the network in higher esteem than the rest of the “mainstream media” that they have been taught to despise. Fox had no authority or capital that could induce these viewers to accept such bitter news. And if some of Fox’s fair-weather friends have subsequently rejoined the network, that’s only because they once again find the climate there agreeable.
So now we know what’s worse than a society in which people trust only those news sources that are biased towards their preferred candidate or party. In the ultimate post-truth nightmare, people don’t trust any news providers at all because they’re only interested in hearing what they want to believe.