Thursday, December 15, 2016

Librarians in the Age of Trump, Media Bias Edition

This infographic has been making the rounds in my social media bubble(s). Friends, librarians, and friends who are librarians have all shared it.

Via Vanessa Otero
I am uncomfortable with this infographic for two reasons. The first concerns political culture in the United States. The second is more library and information science (LIS) -centric.

First, the political economy, and as a result the political culture, of journalism in the United States is rife with false equivalence, which the above image reflects. Take the center gray circle, for example, helpfully labeled "Great sources of news." The Washington Post and National Public Radio have, in the past month, featured soft-focus articles on Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi white supremacist. Meanwhile, CNN, "Better than not reading news at all," routinely hosts debates that feature neo-Nazis and/or climate change deniers.

This infographic neatly shows how abhorrent and wrong views make it into mainstream discourse, often under the guise of hearing from "both sides," as if denying climate change is a valid opinion, based in the scientific method. As if racist, bigoted hate speech deserves these platforms. The above image, in showing a level playing field between left and right, normalizes the normalizers.

Yet there is something more insidious about it. The idea that Hillary Clinton is a liar comes from the late New York Times op-ed columnist William Safire, who labeled her a "congenital liar" in a 1996 opinion article.* That same paper employed Judith Miller, who for years wrote uncritically about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction the George W. Bush Administration asserted Iraq possessed as a pretext for war. And yet as presented here, it is a great source of news, well within the mainstream.** All three of the news sources discussed above, as well as the television networks within that gray bubble of great news sources, devoted countless hours to Clinton's email scandal at the expense of actual policy issues, and breathlessly shared a Russian disinformation campaign designed to do lasting damage to our country. Meanwhile, The Nation, which on occasion will challenge the corporate-owned and venture capital-backed media organizations that sit to the slight right of it, is shown as barely credible. Per Stephen Colbert, reality has a liberal bias, yet the level playing field shown here distorts as much as it illuminates. Predictably, the best critique of mainstream media, liberalism, and facts I've read comes from Jacobin, taking square aim at the center and center-left of this infographic.
In fact, liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers — who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts — relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge.
One pictures Jacobin, like The Nation, placed somewhere near that hyperpartisan liberal line, with little journalistic value. Make of that what you will.

The United States, writ large, is not the only entity with a culture that would make this infographic so popular. Librarians, of which I am one, fancy themselves as defenders of facts, of truth, and of access to information. And on our best days, we are. But the same tendencies that lead librarians to create LibGuides for all sorts of issues, and that lead us to "one-shot" hour-long information literacy sessions as solutions to problems is behind the sharing of this very flawed image. Were this infographic to be the start of a conversation — and judging by the replies to Otero and discussion elsewhere, maybe we will get there — it would be one thing. However, it's far more likely that this image will be deployed as a bandage, covering a wound, allowing us to move on. Did something happen? Here's a LibGuide. Need to impart critical thinking skills in an hour? We can do that.*** Or, at least we say we can, rather than do what needs to be done, which is a far more thorough and deep embedding into our communities. Please do not uncritically share this image. There's much more work to be done. Thank you.

* That Clinton would refuse to release transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs and obfuscate about using a private email server did her no favors here.
** I have subscriptions to both the Times and the Post, and routinely donate to WAMU, Washington, DC's local National Public Radio station.
*** Librarians and library staff along should not bear the entirety of blame for the propagation of the one-shot, which is often all the time we are granted by teachers and administration.


  1. This was a well written article with some really good points. I happen to disagree with a good portion of it, and I'd like to give you some reasoning for why this is a helpful infographic with the positives far outweighing the negatives.

    Any chart which attempts to do what this news infographic does is going to have to oversimplify reality - it's the nature of the beast. Showing this kind of chart to someone who, for example, spends all of their time in the Fox news bubble, provides a stunning visual to that person showing that they are in fact missing out on a wide range of other resources. While I wholeheartedly agree that false equivalence is a major problem in our culture, I don't think that's what this infographic is actually trying to imply.

    In a cultural setting where our politics is literally split in half, any news source infographic is going to reflect that reality. The point of this chart is not to say specific conservative or liberal values are equivalent. The point of the chart is to illuminate how there are extremists on two ideological sides. Perhaps conservatives are more extreme when you look at a particular issue (climate change). Perhaps liberals are more extreme when you look at a different issue. As you pointed out with some of those examples, even "mainstream" sources make serious errors and sometimes fail when it comes to journalistic integrity by a wide margin.

    For me, that's all the more reason we need infographics like these. They spark the discussions we need to have about our news sources, and achieves it in a very visual, accessible way. I would say to anyone who isn't satisfied with this infographic chart, and I mean this genuinely, if that's the case then create your own. Share it. Argue passionately for a different version that you believe makes more sense, and bolster the discussion that needs to be happening. There is value in something like this, even if imperfect, and my main fear is that we lose sight of that when we try to parse things too much.

    1. J., thanks for reading, and for commenting. I suspect we're going to keep disagreeing, and that's ok.

      You write "Showing this kind of chart to someone who, for example, spends all of their time in the Fox news bubble, provides a stunning visual to that person showing that they are in fact missing out on a wide range of other resources."

      You are probably ascribing too much power to the infographic. I doubt it would make a conservative think twice about their bubble, but I bet it makes "us" feel a whole lot better about our "more balanced" news consumption.

      "The point of this chart is not to say specific conservative or liberal values are equivalent. The point of the chart is to illuminate how there are extremists on two ideological sides. "

      This is a textbook example of false equivalence. Whether or not the chart intends to promote or imply that view is besides the point. As your comment shows, it does. The infographic literally gives equal space to these competing views. Like a map, it obscures some things and illuminates others. I argue it illuminates how we view the media landscape rather than how that landscape actually looks.

      I don't think another, updated infographic is the, or even a, solution here. There are no quick fixes. But we do both agree that it has sparked some discussion, and for that I'm grateful.

  2. I have met many librarians who care not a whit for truth-- seeing it or providing it. As a librarian, I feel no obligation to educate others politically. I do feel an obligation to provide all the info and let others choose for themselves. I also object to most mainstream media. I am looking at Google headlines today and bidding for the privilege of having coffee with Ivanka Trump is apparently more important than Aleppo. The topics of news stories that are waggled under our noses are meant to hypnotize and provide distraction from the real truth of what is going on in our country and worldwide. What is happening? That is up to you to decide...just my 2 cents.

  3. Comment from Andromeda.

    "While we're at it, can we critique the x axis, too? This particular idea of left-vs-right is awfully US-centric, what with our left-wing being often solidly center-right elsewhere. But even more than that, since when does a left-right binary reflect the whole of political thought? You mention Jacobin, which I don't think we could put on this chart because simply pinning it to the left wouldn't actually represent its politics. Similarly Reason couldn't be placed here; people often conflate libertarians and the right but that's not remotely accurate.

    I think schools of political thought that don't fit on this left-right spectrum often aren't in the Overton window in the US, or they're on the very edges of it, but they often pose interesting and important critiques whether or not one agrees with them."

    1. I had a hard time taking the x-axis seriously when it includes a "basic af" data point. It also fails to acknowledge how "clickbait" works. The Washington Post, for example, has an entire web-based section called PostEverything that was explicitly created to compete with Buzzfeed. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed has assembled one of the more diverse newsrooms in the media and routinely put out actual journalism. The same with Huffington Post. Should those media outlets look like ovals pointing north and south?

  4. I'm curious on how your thoughts on this one compares to the one put out to this one. Often I've Seen CNN word things so slanted from the truth I just want to smack the TV.