Okay, I confess. I check up on Breitbart once in a while. I occasionally visit Drudge Report, too.
And if you don’t already, I think you should as well.
If I haven’t lost you already, I can explain. This is not some sort of Millian exercise in broadening my horizons to let the best ideas win out. Make no mistake: these sites are extremely editorialized, and both are riddled with what Chuck Todd would call “falsehoods,” what others would call “fake news,” and what a dictionary would call “lies.” (If you’re curious, each has a section on its respective Wikipedia page devoted to some of their most outrageous claims. Or you can go see for yourself—they read like tabloids.) While Drudge is primarily an aggregator of other news sources, it editorializes headlines and frequently links to non-reputable sources like Breitbart.
I do not absorb the content on these sites for newsgathering or opinion-shaping purposes. My goal is simply to understand how many Americans—a sizable portion of our country, and a sizable voting bloc at that—are getting their news. Though their practices are a far cry from “best,” Breitbart and Drudge (named after their founding prophets, Andrew Breitbart and Matt Drudge respectively) are prominent news outlets. Site traffic authority Alexa ranks Breitbart higher than Fox News.
Our understanding of current events shapes our perception of reality beyond our immediate surroundings. What we cannot see for ourselves, we read, and we assume that we can trust those sources which we have deemed reputable. Different Americans, of course, have different criteria for “reputable” based on their own experiences.
While I can’t singlehandedly improve America’s political fragmentation, I can take the first step in understanding how many Americans view politics, the economy, and international affairs. Our country is not operating on one set of facts, and it’s not effective to assert that some facts are correct while others are “fake news.” You cannot get someone to change their mind by proving them wrong. The only way to have a productive dialogue is to first understand your interlocutor’s fact basis, erroneous as it may be.
True media literacy goes beyond knowing how to approach the objective truth via multiple credible sources. It’s about knowing how to understand what others deem true, especially if those people disagree with you. Only then can you begin to move forward productively, as only then can you find those spots where you and your political opposites agree. Middle ground is building ground, even if you know you’re in the right. This doesn’t mean that everything should be subject to compromise; instead, it means everything should be open to discussion on mutually agreeable terms. In today’s fractured media climate, readers have a greater challenge—and a greater duty—to understand how others are obtaining their information.
I have another confession, but this one is probably less scandalous to WUPR readers. In addition to reading Drudge and Breitbart, I also occasionally read the Daily Kos and HuffPost, also named after their founding prophets, Markos Moulitsas and Arianna Huffington. While they are not in the same universe of manipulative “fake news” as the conservative sources I mentioned, and while I do not want to imply some sort of parity between them and the aforementioned, both Daily Kos and HuffPost are progressive sources that provide a persistently liberal viewpoint. Both have been in their fair share of trouble for their journalistic practices over the years. HuffPost in particular is heavily visited, and it, too, represents how many Americans get their news. Comparing the headlines on these sites to those on the conservative sites is a great illustration of why our political climate these days seems so nasty. And again, while these sites are not even remotely as journalistically objectionable as Breitbart and Drudge, they still foster a sense of partisan opposition in their editorializing of the news. Solely relying on these types of sources for news is hardly better than relying on Breitbart and Drudge.
Hedging your news intake isn’t a bold act. It isn’t a giant time commitment. Just log on and see for yourself what so many Americans are reading. Do it in incognito mode if it makes you feel better. You’ll most likely find something on one of those four sites rather objectionable, and possibly not true.
But you should still check them out. Be skeptical, but remember the power that these words have to so many people who rely on them for their news. Just be sure to ground yourself in some quality newspapers afterwards, and you’ll be fine.