The Outsized Perception of the Danger of Minority Cults

Two pieces for today.

  • A Salon essay that suggests that the “mainstream media” has a far wider effect on the US population than the fringe, Trump/Fox-supporting media, than most of us realize (and how that’s a good thing); and how attention to the latter by the former is skewing some of our worries about the fate of America and its politics;
  • Amanda Marcotte on how that poll that showed 71% of Trump voters trust him for the truth above all others demonstrates cult thinking.


Could this be some good news?

Salon, Dennis Aftergut and Philip Allen Lacovara, 23 Aug 2023: The mainstream media is winning the war against “fake news”, subtitled “Why ‘factual truth’ matters so much in fraught times”

This piece keys off the recent poll of Trump voters…

On Sunday, a CBS-YouGov poll reported something stunning about the effect of Donald Trump’s disinformation on his committed voters: They trust him more as a source of truth than they believe their families or religious leaders.

For the American majority living in the fact-based world, that polling merely reinforces something we’ve long known about Trump’s followers: They are like a cult, and cult members are largely impervious to truth.

Which makes it all the more important that the rest of us speak to what Hannah Arendt called the “factual truth.”

Continuing to expose “factual truth” keeps the American majority in the world of reality where democracy lives and breathes.  In this realm, engaged citizens, the fourth estate, and the justice system are aligned in the goal of preserving our constitutional republic. People with their feet on the ground can distinguish fact from fiction, witch hunts from legitimate prosecutions of a former president determined, in his own words, to “terminate the constitution.”

The piece goes on to summarize how dictators work by first seizing control of sources of information. Fortunately in the US we have our First Amendment, which guarantees a free press that can counter Trump’s “big lies.” Which is mostly what the right dismisses as the “mainstream media.”

In a case of what strikes me as burying the lede, the article says, half-way down,

A right-leaning survey asserts that the news coverage of all four of the four national newspapers are “leaning left” (NY Times, Washington Post, and USA Today) or “center” (Wall Street Journal).  In reality, that means that they are mainly focused on the center or, in the case of the Journal, the rational right. That the far-right views the three national television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) plus NPR as “left-leaning” also translates as them focusing on the moderate middle audience. The national news magazines (Time and Newsweek) are similarly evaluated as leaning left or center, as are major streaming services such as AP, Axios, Politico, Bloomberg, The Hill, and Yahoo News.  Not surprisingly, two of the major cable news outlets are identified as leaning left (CNN) and or just plain left (MSNBC).

Only Fox News, Fox Business, the New York Post and such extremist streaming services as Breitbart and Newsmax are seen as “right” or “leaning right,” and those are the Trump-friendly sources.

The article doesn’t spell this out, but the chart at the link seems to be an obvious copy, or spin, from the well-known Media Bias Chart updated twice a year by Ad Fontes Media, a chart that’s been around for years and seems to be well-respected. Here’s the current chart (click for full-sized).

The “right-leaning” interloper (link above) provides a chart in five simple columns, with a crucial disclaimer: “Ratings do not reflect accuracy of credibility; they reflect perspective only.” Accuracy doesn’t matter! And since, as the saying goes, “reality has a liberal bias” (and conservatives have an ideological bias distinct from reality), of course they identify the most respected sources of news and commentary — NYT, WaPo, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, NPR, Slate, Vox, and others, as on the left. Whereas the earlier Media Bias Chart puts all of those in the middle, or one step left as “skews left” on a twelve-column scale.
The crucial distinction is that the Ad Fontes Media chart “rate[s] the news for reliability and bias”, not just bias. Enough said.

Returning to the Salon piece. It discusses the audiences for “mainstream media” compared to the “pro-Trump cable outlets such as FOX.” And when you look at the raw numbers, compared to the outsized social media attention, the numbers suggest the most Americans rely on trustworthy, not right-wing, news sources. That’s the source of the title’s optimism.

While fewer and fewer voters are reading newspapers or news magazines, it is nevertheless reassuring that far more Americans are getting their news from the “mainstream media” – including the national television networks – than from pro-Trump cable outlets such as FOX. For example, the majority of cable viewers are in the 65+ demographic.  In prime time, Fox in 2023 averages about 2.2 million nightly viewers in all age groups, including just under 300,000 in the key voting demographic of 25-54.  The combined viewership of CNN and MSNBC is only slightly smaller (about 1.7 million and 240,000) What is more significant than this rough equivalence between Trump-friendly and Trump-skeptical cable outlets is that their viewership pales beside the reach of the far more objective national television network news shows.

The numbers are stark and compelling.  Compared with Fox’s primetime viewership of barely two million, the nightly news programs of the three national networks averaged about 18 million viewers during the first week of this month.  ABC had 7.4 million pairs of ears and eyeballs tuned in, and even the smallest of the nightly news shows, at CBS, averaged twice as many viewers (4.3 million) as FOX. In every demographic, more Americans watched network news than cable news.  In two significant cohorts, 45-64 and 65+, network news viewership outstripped cable by margins of  28/25 and 43/32 respectively.

A similar story is told when one checks on the online sources of news that Americans consult. The top two news sites visited by Americans seeking information are two sites that, unlike Fox, are not completely in the tank for Trump — the NY Times with 418 million average monthly visits and CNN with 400 million.

And so on. Of course they’re comparing nightly viewers on the one hand with monthly visits on the other hand, but the contrast if you do the arithmetic is still striking. Perhaps the attention paid by sites like Slate and Salon and Vox about the latest crazy things said by Fox simply amplifies the latter’s impact on their readers — another way the human temptation to worry over bad news is inadvertently amplified. As ever, it’s very difficult to keep things in perspective, rather than simply responding to things, whether confirmations or threats, to one’s priors.

We have every reason to keep our faith in the good judgment of the American people – if we have access to enough factual information “to sort out truth from falsehoods. We do. The antidote to would-be autocrats is the “mainstream media,” protected by the First Amendment. More truth is the remedy for falsity. Broad access to the facts is what enables informed voters to ensure that we keep a government of, by, and for the people.


Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 22 Aug 2023: New Trump poll proves Obama and Clinton were right: The GOP base are deplorable, bitter clingers, subtitled “First rule of MAGA? ‘Never admit a liberal was right.’ Unfortunately, their conniptions are getting people killed”

Pure tribalism of course, not a search for truth or an attempt to solve actual real-world problems. Marcotte pulls no punches.

“Hurt dogs sure do holler.” That was the saying that came to mind in 2008 when then-candidate for president Barack Obama drew outrage from Republicans because he described their voters as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” The phrase came to mind again in 2016, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton used the memorable phrase “basket of deplorables” to describe supporters of Donald Trump. Since a cardinal rule of politics is “insult your opponent, but never their voters,” the mainstream media picked up and amplified the umbrage-taking from Republicans.

What wasn’t discussed very much in all this media coverage: The truth value of either Clinton’s or Obama’s comments. And what a shame, because both of them were right.

Here again political coverage focuses on politics as a horse race, rather than a consideration of competing proposals to solve real problems. Marcotte responds to the same poll discussed above.

Trump has surged to 62% support in the Republican presidential primary poll, and 73% of those backing Trump say it’s because, not despite, of his massive criminal exposure.

And, in a poll finding that really is astonishing, Trump voters claimed they trust the notorious fraudster more than anyone. A whopping 71% of Trump voters claim “what he says is true.” Only 63% of them say that about family and friends, 56% about conservative media figures and 42% about religious leaders.

The word that comes to mind is “cult.”

She provides a key example of what might be called the “sunk-cost fallacy” — once you’ve invested yourself in some position or commitment, to admit you were wrong would undermine your entire identity. And so most people cannot, won’t, do it, no matter how plain the evidence is.

MAGA is a cult, but it’s a mistake to view Trump followers like DeSantis does, as “listless vessels” for Trump. Take this poll with a strong grain of salt, as it’s unlikely that so many people are so delusional as to truly see an honest broker in the chronic liar and criminal that is Trump. Instead, the poll is a reminder that Trump backers are both deplorable and bitter clingers.

When a MAGA-American picks up the phone and hears a pollster from the hated “liberal media” ask them questions about Trump’s indictments and general trustworthiness, they aren’t answering the question asked. What they’re really hearing, over and over: “Are you ready to admit that you were wrong and liberals were right all along about Trump?” And the answer is a big, fat “hell no,” because the first rule of MAGA is to never, ever, under any circumstances, admit that liberals might be right about something.

What is the way out? Is humanity doomed by its tribal contingent of reality-deniers? It’s hard to see the way out. Marcotte concludes,

The irony here is that this stubborn unwillingness to face the truth about Trump is a big factor in the MAGA deplorability. Having the humility and grace to let liberals be right about Trump would crack open the door to the possibility there are other things liberals are right about, from the facts of history to vaccines to climate change. Republican voters aren’t really the dead-eyed zombies DeSantis invoked. But it may be something worse: Millions of grown adults slamming their hands over their ears and singing loudly, “nah nah I can’t hear you.”

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