Skip to main content

Changes in media pose a risk for America

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Tue April 29, 2014
Rancher Cliven Bundy, right, leaves the podium with bodyguards after a news conference near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, on Thursday, April 24. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. Rancher Cliven Bundy, right, leaves the podium with bodyguards after a news conference near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, on Thursday, April 24. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Showdown in Nevada
Photos: Showdown in Nevada
Photos: Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frum: In 20 years, the media scene in America has changed radically
  • Digital media have grown, while traditional media shrank
  • He says people such as Cliven Bundy help media rally partisans, stoking fears
  • Frum: Even highly educated people are susceptible to partisan falsehoods

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When I moved to Washington almost 20 years ago, I subscribed to four daily newspapers. Printed newspapers, that is: on paper, with ink. In the mid-1990s, network news was already a fading phenomenon. But the Washington media elite booked time to watch programs such as "Crossfire" at the time they were broadcast.

For special events, one might fire up the VCR. But the technology was inconvenient and annoying, and the tapes were awkward to store. E-mail had existed for some time, as had online discussion groups, and other innovative communications technologies. But it was still new that major media companies had ventured online: 1996 was the year that The New York Times and The Washington Post launched their websites.

Longer form journalism, the kind published by magazines, still arrived in the mailbox via the U.S. Postal Service. We already had cell phones, of course. We used them to make phone calls.

David Frum
David Frum

Offline, the past 20 years have not been a period of remarkable technology progress, not when compared with say 1894-1914 (invention of the radio, the vacuum cleaner, the safety razor, the first plastic and propelled aviation, and diffusion of the telephone, the automobile, electric light, the phonograph and motion pictures) or 1935-1955 (penicillin, radar, the first freeway, the first supermarket, the first home freezer, commercial aviation, credit cards and the birth-control pill).

As compared to the mid-1990s, we haven't seen much progress in the way we get to work or travel to different countries. We heat and light our homes more or less as we did then. Treatments have radically improved for HIV/AIDS, but otherwise transformative medical breakthroughs have arrived only slowly.

What did arrive, of course, was the revolution in creating and sharing digital information. In most respects, this revolution has proven a thrilling force for human emancipation. Yet nothing, no matter how beneficial, comes unattended by negative side effects.

Media and Cliven Bundy
Red news/Blue news: Cliven Bundy
Was ex-CBS reporter targeted?
Behind Twitter's success story

The digital revolution has played havoc with the profitability of media companies. The troubles of newspapers are notorious, but life is not a lot more comfortable for radio and television companies.

The most successful business model yet discovered in this new environment is to reinvent the news organization as a news community. At a time when people are less inclined to join institutions, new kinds of media can offer a community substitute: an environment in which users can have their identities ratified and their beliefs validated.

The fastest way to generate such a sense of community is to conjure up threats: health scares, crime waves, wars on Christmas. Isolated in self-selected communities, these threats won't be tested very hard against contrary realities. As every roller-coaster owner knows, people like to be scared. Unreal fears are the best of all, since nobody in the end really gets hurt. The faster today's fears evanesce, the more compulsively must the audience return tomorrow for more.

Information has never been more accessible and abundant. And yet so much of that information turns out not be true. And whereas in early terms it was the least informed people who were vulnerable to the grossest inaccuracies, today it is very often the nominally best informed.

How you assess economic conditions, for example, turns out be less connected to actual economic events than how you feel about the party of the president. Better education seems actually to enhance one's vulnerability to partisan distortion: A 2008 Pew study found that Republicans who had completed college were more likely to reject the scientific consensus on climate change than Republicans who had not done so.

Information has never been more accessible and abundant. And yet so much of that information turns out not be true.
David Frum

More sophisticated news consumers turn out to use this sophistication to do a better job of filtering out what they don't want to hear.

This is the environment that made conservatives vulnerable to Cliven Bundy -- and that will, as surely as hucksters follow money, expose liberals to Bundy's opposite number the week after next, or maybe the week after that.

The digital revolution offers the most stirring new possibilities to the human intellect since the invention of the printing press. But as Albert Einstein said after the nuclear revolution: Everything seems to have changed except our modes of thinking.

***

This will be my last column for CNN.com. I am truly grateful for the magnificent opportunity to interact with this vast audience. From here onward, my written work will all be found at my new media home, TheAtlantic.com -- where I'll do my best to counteract the disturbing trend described above.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 4:08 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI helped pave the way to WWII. That backfire changed how the global community lays blame for war crimes today: on individuals, not nations
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT