For a long-haired hippie like myself, visiting a liberal enclave like Yellow Springs, Ohio, on a family holiday after this state and our country elected Donald Trump should feel like a warm hug. Instead it feels like a retreat to easy, old ways of thinking. Our circumstances demand a challenging reconciliation across aisles, news networks and dining room tables. But it’s not looking likely, especially here.
In Yellow Springs, it’s pretty safe to assume we share a progressive frame of reference. Shared outrage, indignation and disbelief. There are countless 501c(3)s, yoga studios and natural healing practitioners in this town of 3,600. There are so many Subaru Outbacks with the same Coexist bumper sticker that neighbors frequently try the handle on each other’s cars in the parking lot of the town grocery before realizing someone else’s stuff is on the back seat. The village website boasts of a community with “a wide range of political and social views,” most of which seem distributed along the spectrum somewhere left of Bernie Sanders.
But I might as well be here, because I don’t know how to navigate anywhere else. I don’t know where to go and start the work of listening and healing, or what that work even looks like in a practical sense.
One reason I feel helpless is I don’t feel like my talents fit the need the way they should. As a musician, I can’t wrap my arms around the issues in song, at least not in any meaningful way. It seems the simple messages have all been said, and the issues I want to untangle make for lousy jams.
My other discipline is journalism, and that’s where I should see opportunity now. But I don’t. We journalists have burned up so much credibility chasing clicks with nonsense that audiences often assume we’re lying.
And why shouldn’t they? The truth takes too much expensive work to research and write. Media-rich “listicles” are easy to read and share, and conveniently better suited for subtly promoting the underwriters of profitable sponsorships.
Fine. Maybe that’s just where media is heading and there’s nothing I can do about it.
But now there are websites gaining traction that actually peddle fake news. Emerging revelations strongly suggest they played a significant role in swaying undiscerning voters in this election. These sites profit from perpetuating our country’s deepening cultural division. When you think about it, this is the most meta narrative imaginable: Traditional media has a credibility problem that is causing people to tune out and look for outlets reinforcing their existing assumptions, which has proven a profitable opportunity for unscrupulous and creative writers. It’s the clearest proof of real journalists’ failure to engage audiences with real information.
That’s not to say we aren’t providing it, by the way. We just can’t compete with the information audiences want, which is now readily available elsewhere. The internet has fulfilled a horrifying mutation of its original promise as a wide open marketplace of ideas.
So where are we going now? It took American journalism losing Americans’ trust to create an attention void fake news outlets could exploit. And because articles that look like news now swirl in the same soup of our Facebook feeds, credibility is even harder to verify — and define. Facebook and Google say they’re working on their algorithms and oversight to weed out truth from lies. But no matter how noble their intentions, tech behemoths aren’t my first choice to be the nation’s arbiters of truth.
It was simpler for readers when credibility meant anything printed under the right nameplate, in the paper that landed in their driveways every morning.
But you can’t have that back, so stop asking. Ask instead what’s on the mind of your neighbor with a yard sign you don’t like. Got a bumper sticker that says people of different world views should “Coexist”? Prove it. Go talk to some and try brainstorming some solutions to send to your elected officials instead of getting in an argument.
Nostalgia is surrender, and any further entrenchment is treason.