Opinion | Tony Jones: Breaking out of the echo chamber

I recently reconnected with a guy from my high school days whom I hadn’t seen or talked to in decades. During a long catch-up conversation followed by countless emails and text messages from him, I have come to learn that he hasn’t heard of a right-wing conspiracy theory that he isn’t ready and eager to endorse and share. His media tool of choice to keep up with the latest emerging stories of government suppression and obfuscation is YouTube. I’ve mentioned to him several times that YouTube’s algorithm is manipulating his perspective by ensuring that the next batch of videos he’s presented with are of the same vein as the last batch, making it ever harder to break out of that everything’s a conspiracy mindset.

He isn’t alone in willingly isolating himself from other points of view though. Most of us are already doing a great job on our own of insulating ourselves within our preferred echo chambers. By adhering to a single media outlet, we’re ensuring we have little opportunity to escape our own already calcified points of view or explore other points of view. And while media organizations should feel ethically obligated to present both sides of a story, it doesn’t always work that way.

Case in point: We have learned via discovery for the Dominion Voting Systems versus Fox News defamation lawsuit that several prominent Fox news hosts were very aware that the stolen 2020 election stories that they were broadcasting were false. Still, they kept up the charade because they had also become aware that telling their listeners the truth was bad for business. Many Fox fans were apparently perfectly happy to be fed 2020 election conspiracy theories. What angered them enough to start jumping to other right-wing media platforms was when some elements within Fox questioned the veracity of those theories. And as those viewers fled Fox, investors took note and the network’s stock took a hit.

The network learned their lesson and doubled down on the stolen election conspiracy theories that Trump and his acolytes were pedaling, despite internally acknowledging that it was “total BS”. Tucker Carlson exemplified his employer’s money over truth attitude when he called for the firing of a Fox reporter who was effectively fact checking the issues in question. Carlson did so, not because of his penchant for accurate reporting, but rather because it’s “hurting the business” and the “stock price is down”.

So, the mission of Fox News apparently isn’t to give viewers fair and balanced coverage of news events, but to tell them what they want to hear. And if what they want to hear isn’t actually real, well, Fox is an entertainment company after all, and they stay in business by entertaining their customers. Even if that entertainment consists of fantasies about the evil doings of the other side. While I’d like to think that other news outlets are better about this, I’ve no doubt that there are similar conversations going on at NBC or CNN about what content to show and how often based upon their ratings analysis of what works best for the bottom line.

As consumers of news, we need to understand this dynamic and push back against it by considering all points of view and diversifying our media consumption. You can’t really blame the media organizations, either right or left wing, because keeping us engaged is how they make money. And if I’m addicted to never-Trump coverage and CNN is where I can best get my fix for it, well, it’s only business. Subscription models for media outlets serve to exacerbate the issue as it further seals me in the echo chamber that my preferred news provider has built. If I’m paying to access premium content from that provider, I’m even less likely to stray from it.

So as dismayed as I am about the hypocrisy of Fox News and this recent scandal, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they’re only doing what they were created to do, make money. The ones at fault in this tragicomedy aren’t the news organizations, it’s us, the consumers of news who sit safe and snug in our comfy echo chambers, happy to keep slurping up the news we’re fed that serves to bolster our own beliefs.

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