The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

America’s Media Revolution

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Since the inception of the United States, media and culture have been intertwined. As the cradle behind public thought, media in the United States has spurred democratic conversations in turn birthing a culture that has increasingly adopted democratic values. 

Interestingly though, media producers in the United States began as partisan entities, and journalists sought to convince readers rather than report objectively. Some of the first newspapers openly associated themselves with political ideas. The oldest continually published daily newspaper now known as the New York Post was originally founded by Alexander Hamilton to promote federalist points of view outright. This trend continued throughout the 19th century, and only up until the invention of the radio, was not re-evaluated. 

Thus the common argument that media companies have only recently shifted to target specific audiences is not true. The important difference is that legacy media, especially since the invention of cable television, have adopted more covert approaches to swaying public thought. Often, this delivers biased news with an unbiased label. Hyperpolarization is a consequence, manifesting itself within this very practice.

As media evolved in the United States, so did the increasing need to make profits. In order to stay on the air, media companies approached news like any television program. The news became a means of entertainment, straying away from ethical methods of reporting to provide “a show.” The invention of the internet may have temporarily inhibited the reach of these companies as people chose to get their news online. Yet, as the 2016 election rolled around, the hyper-fixation on Donald Trump skyrocketed profits for many media companies regardless of which side they supported. Though sources like CNN and MSNBC denounced the former president, behind the scenes was an influx of viewership. Even CBS CEO Les Moonves admitted, Trump’s rise “may (have) not (been) good for America, but damn good for CBS.” 

However, because of this trend, we have witnessed an unprecedented change in how United States citizens feel and act toward the media landscape. People have begun to realize the destructive nature of news companies making profits by polarizing viewers. According to Forbes, at the end of 2019, viewership ratings for 25 to 54-year-olds watching Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC were down 19 percent. Polls done by Gallup News from 2016 to 2020 showed historic lows in trust in media that continue to trend downward.

When 2020 rolled around, independent sources began to take the reins in reporting events on the ground. Enabled by platforms like Instagram and Twitter (now X), citizen journalism began to peak, and many turned to autonomous news sources to educate themselves. Essentially, anyone with a cell phone had the power to be a journalist — people used Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and even TikTok to report on experiences woefully glossed over by conventional legacy news networks. Livestreams from independent platforms like Unicorn Riot took the approach of hearing any perspective with no censorship or content cutting. Some citizen journalists even began entire careers documenting firsthand accounts of stories around the nation. A notable example is Brenden Gutenschwager, whose footage of the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting and January 6th unveiled unparalleled insights into historical events.

The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 revealed the true power of giving media platforms to citizens. Local reporters pressured their political leaders by filming objective firsthand accounts of police brutality. It wasn’t CNN or Fox News that pushed the Atlanta Police Department to re-evaluate their excessive use of tear gas, but ordinary people who used cell phone footage to air their grievances directly to their city council with social media. This powerful moment in American history is exactly what we say our culture is based on — accountability for those in power by democratic means.

Of course, social media has its limitations and can be destructive, as the rise of independent journalism makes us subject to the algorithms of the platforms we use. Like cable news, social media companies still need to maximize viewership to make profits, and they often do so by only exposing us to the opinions that we already agree with. We may recognize bias in the journalists we follow on the internet, like early consumers of newspapers in the United States, but now the algorithms of Instagram, Facebook, and X will feed us the information we enjoy. As a result, different realities are manufactured for differing political affiliations. 

And while autonomous news is certainly empowering, people still misrepresent events for monetary gain or internet clout. In this sense, it did not take long for independent sources to use the lack of regulation to report on events however they wanted. The general public can easily dismiss a conspiracy theory like “5g causing COVID-19”  but unchecked false reports “from the ground” in Ukraine can easily permeate as fact. 

Mainstream media, despite all its shortcomings, has internal accountability that is not seen with smaller sources. There is simply far more regulation when it comes to what is published based on a large network of internal infrastructure. Even writing a piece for my college newspaper takes multiple rounds of fact checks to verify that we produce legitimate information when a blogger on Substack, no matter how well trusted, can publish false information without having to report to a higher-up.

At the same time, massive media corporations are held accountable by people on social media platforms. Journalists can no longer create misleading headlines without hearing significant backlash. Reports littered with passive or blatantly manipulated language are subject to audiences that now possess myriads of tools the internet provides. Social media platforms have also utilized functions to filter through false information and provide context to potentially deceptive posts based on community feedback. Our relationship with the news has turned into one that is interactive — we don’t just see headlines, we can also see an array of questions and disagreements posed by Americans.

Now, it is possible that too much exposure to the other side may further entrench us in our beliefs. Comment sections are often filled with irrational disputes far removed from a well-educated discussion with a colleague or peer. We are no longer just having political disputes with our next-door neighbors over differing yard signs. Now we see accounts on X like LibsofTikTok and Patriot Takes that can expose unknown people with radical beliefs that do not represent the majority of a party. Petter Törnberg from the University of Amsterdam noted that this overexposure can enhance polarization because “we are forced to take sides” rather than have a well-meaning discussion.

While yes, overexposure to the other side has its dangers, the mere awareness that radical factions exist is important to spur action. Those threatened the most by a potential extremist leader are often unaware of the following that those leaders have access to. Trump’s election surprised many as mainstream media platforms predominantly labeled his victory as implausible rather than acknowledging the extent of his actual influence. Social media presents an opportunity to not only learn about emerging radical movements but also engage with them, thereby preventing the sudden rise of future radical leaders.

But, by in large, hyperpolarization was caused by mainstream media and brought to light through the emergence of social media platforms.  Social media has shown how mainstream news sources thrived on exploiting our divisions. As mainstream cable news viewership continuously trends downward, we are presented with a unique moment to overturn this paradigm through the conscientious utilization of innovative platforms. 

Social media is rapidly evolving beyond its role in mere communication and entertainment. This transformation is not confined to well-known platforms; applications like Substack, Patreon, and Medium are honing in on the dissemination of information, employing similar approaches to our founding fathers, albeit through 21st-century technological means. A new era is unfolding in which subject matter experts and journalists can educate the masses, eroding the dominance of legacy media echo chambers.

David Adkins is a student at Dartmouth College. You can read more of his work at The Dartmouth.

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