The story of the 2016 U.S. presidential election will eventually be read as one of a news media that wasn’t prepared to tackle the fits and tantrums of an ignorant and unscrupulous, xenophobic, racist, real estate developer-cum-reality television star-cum-right wing demagogue. This is the real travesty of this election cycle—that we were not better prepared to gracefully cope with its debasing rhetoric and the dangerous and unsettling implications of our own messy national discourse.
I’ve heard enough complaints about how Donald Trump gets away with being such an openly repugnant character or how Hillary Clinton is such a frighteningly hawkish liar. I’m also equally as tired of complaints about Trump’s cartoonishly self-defeating far right-wing voter base as I am of Hillary’s condescendingly technocratic, neoliberal voter base. The media portrayal of the yawning chasm between the supposed “left” and “right” factions of American political and cultural thought—and the issues underlying the concerns of either side—truly is the real travesty here. News networks and other outlets haven’t adapted to the times. The false presumption of neutrality should have been removed from our political and cultural discourse long ago, but we’re somehow still trudging through the residual and useless traditions of broadcast news and entertainment that maintain a vaunted notion of objectivity and fairness. We, the Internet-savvy audience, are learning how to absorb information in new and dynamic ways. Why are we still so hung up on the words of pundits and politicians? The truth of any given public individual’s agenda (especially politicians) is readily available to everyone. We’re generations-deep into the information age. A speech is nothing more than another bit of information, to be compared against other bits of information for more thorough analysis and deconstruction.
I don’t need a Vox explainer to know that Hillary Clinton’s public displays of admiration for men like Henry Kissinger—who history will ultimately reveal to be one of this nation’s most horrific and horrifically uncontested war criminals—are a troubling indicator of her actual politics. I don’t need detailed transcripts of vile and contradictory statements made by Donald Trump to understand what kind of man he is. Maybe the problem is a fundamental disconnect between the people producing our news and entertainment and us, their audience. Maybe the political and cultural divide in our nation has grown so wide that even our media outlets exist and operate from within impenetrable bubbles of abstract ideals. I don’t know the answer, but I know that I’m bored and largely dissatisfied with the status quo. It’s time we start considering how to bridge the gaps of discontent and frustration in this nation and demanding more from our news media. But also, it’s time we start demanding more from ourselves. The call for social justice has gone out and continues to reverberate throughout the American national consciousness. It’s time we start learning how to recognize and heed the call. Media literacy for all is the logical next step.