Chicago Media in Crisis

June 1, 2023

Chicago media is losing its grip on their audience

A wise man once said: "If you don't read the newspaper you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're misinformed." Perhaps never in history has this maxim been more true than today. In fact, trying to find the quote's true origin only proves the saying. Going online, you will find the quote attributed to: George Orwell, Kevin Bacon, Morgan Freeman, and others. Whereas none of these people were the first to say it, you will have been misinformed.

It wouldn't be a problem if misinformation was limited to esoteric quotes. However, it is impossible to maintain a functioning democracy where the citizens are routinely, and deliberately, misinformed. The concept of a citizen led government is prefaced by two key factors, the first being the existence of an informed public. The second is that the people are capable of processing information in order to make appropriate decisions regarding the actions of their government. Logic dictates that if the citizens are misinformed, the decision-making process is squelched. As the old saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. Without the public's access to accurate and timely information, any exercise in self-governance will falter. To the extent the public relies on mass media for information, such entities will always exert some level of control over the public, and therefore the government. It then follows that wherever the public trusts mass media to convey accurate and timely information to the electorate, that trust is misplaced.

There has never been media without manipulation. From cavemen arguing over what to paint on the wall, through the pharaohs' hieroglyphics to the gods, to Eric Zorn's misadventures with the truth in the Chicago Tribune, the people who control the pen – and the people who control the people who control the pen – are eager to memorialize and propagate their version of the truth. It has always been this way. Everyone wants to believe that chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, Joseph Goebbels, manipulated the German public, but no one wants to believe that either the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times manipulates its readers. Whether it's some talking head prattling on about WMD's or the Sun-Times regurgitating City Hall's talking points, all media carries with it the opinion of its editor.

If there was ever a distinction to be made between merely expressing an opinion and outright manipulation, it disappeared a long time ago. Media companies, and the people who staff them, fully appreciate their ability to create, guide, and even suffocate the public's opinion on a particular subject. We know this because there was a time when it was openly discussed. Over 100 years ago Walter Lippmann wrote not only about the media's ability to manipulate the public, but having the authority and duty to do so. He called this the manufacture of consent.

In an explanation of the fundamental treatise on the nature of human information and communication in his 1922 book, Public Opinion, Lippmann wrote:

"That the manufacturer of consent is capable of greater refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it appears in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. ... As a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. ... Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables."

Lippmann was not some nutcase. A gifted political commentator, Lippmann won two Pulitzer Prizes, was an advisor to presidents, and is considered by some to be the father of modern journalism. Public Opinion has been called the founding book in American media studies. Lippmann understood the difficulty, or impossibility, of a media outlet conveying to the public all of the pertinent facts – completely and accurately – for any given event. Additionally, for Lippmann, the public was a "bewildered herd" which lacked the intellectual engagement necessary to maintain a functioning society. He suggested the formation of a specialized class who would analyze and interpret the events and data of the time and then present a course of action to political elites. The media in turn would use the "art of persuasion" to inform the public about decisions affecting them.

"It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach."

This is what has been taught in journalism schools for 100 years. Knowing this, it's no wonder that you can feel the smugness and sense of moral superiority that comes from the media these days. This is especially true of Chicago media figures. It's actually always been there; it was just less conspicuous. In the past, Chicago media would generally report events pretty close to the facts. The difference between what was reported and what actually occurred was fairly minute. The public was guided gently into the preapproved narrative. With a wink and a nudge, and a monopoly on the means of communication, the voices of mainstream media did as they were instructed and influenced public opinion for generations.

Recently, the subtle nuance, the gentle persuasion, the smooth language and calming voices have disappeared. Today the public is openly yelled at, scolded and bullied over the airwaves or in print media by Chicago media figures. Mainstream media outlets in the Windy City have lost their ability to control public opinion, and they are not happy about it. Residents of Chicago know they are lying, Chicago media knows we know they are lying, and they continue to lie. Worse, the public is not only expected to believe the lie, but it's demanded that we profess the lie as well. Those who fail to comply are outcast and censored. They don't know what else to do. The establishment is forced to double down, double down, and double down. There is only one play in the playbook; traditional media has to keep calling the same play over and over but it's not working. Chicago media is in a state of crisis.

It was recently reported that a majority of Americans consider the media to be "the enemy of the people". This comes as no surprise to thinking Chicagoans. Establishment media in this town has been terrible for decades. Thankfully, social media and small websites, such as Contrarian, are slowly removing the mass media's monopoly on information. While the trend should continue, do not expect those in power to give it up easily.

Chicago's establishment press is scared. It has been, and will keep, attacking anyone who strays from the approved narrative. For years people telling the truth have been called racist or misogynist and, more recently, fascist. There has been doxing and other, more specific, calls for violence. Some are demanding outright censorship. All of this will, of course, continue. As the establishment loses more control the tighter the stranglehold will become.

How this ends is impossible to predict. But one thing is for certain, it will not be pretty.

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