Joy-Ann Reid, a political analyst and host of MSNBC’s morning talk show AM Joy, gave a presentation titled “Journalism in the Age of Fake News” on Thursday, Nov. 2. Her visit was a part of the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium’s 2017 speaker series.
Reid recalled attending the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner during the Baltimore Uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray. The contrast between those two settings led her to rethink her own responsibility as a journalist.
“We were coming face to face with the dichotomy of what we were living in our lives and what was happening in the real world,” she said.
Reid expressed frustration with the distrust many Americans feel toward the news media due to growing political divisions.
“What we see is that the two sides of the country are just moving apart and that people have fewer and fewer overlapping views,” she said. “A lot of Americans, increasingly, get their news not from people like me but from their friends and from their family.”
According to Reid, many Americans began to perceive a liberal bias in the media at the turn of the 20th century. She pointed to the reporting of black journalist Ida B. Wells, who covered lynchings in the South. Many white Southerners at that time interpreted her reporting as biased.
Reid also attributed the increased polarization in political discussion to former President Ronald Reagan’s revocation of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This policy, enacted in 1949, required media outlets to dedicate airtime for multiple points of view on controversial issues.
After Reagan revoked this policy, Reid said that she saw a rise in media that was either strictly conservative or strictly liberal, and people began to get news exclusively from sources aligning with their own political views.
She said that the polarization of news sources has been exacerbated on social media.
“We’re living in what I call an age of unbelief, and what that means is that, over time, there evolves an attitude among modern Americans that if you don’t like the news stories, you just don’t believe them,” she said. “We have people believing what feels good rather than what’s true.”
Given Facebook’s algorithm, it recommends news stories for users based on stories they’ve previously viewed. Reid believes that this trend presents a unique problem for journalists.
“We don’t have access to everyone, and people only have access to the information that they want to have access to,” she said. “We’re fighting both the news bubble and we’re fighting extreme partisanship. We’re fighting active purveyors of conspiracy theories.”
While Reid said that the political divide caused by news consumption is unhealthy for the country, she was unsure of possible solutions. She said that the media cannot make people believe what they do not want to believe.
The country saw unprecedented political polarization during the 2016 election, in which Reid noted that, for the second time in 16 years, a Democratic presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the election.
She credited this to the fact that Republican voters tended to be distributed more evenly across the nation, thus earning more electoral votes.
Democratic voters tend to be centralized in cities, while Republican voters are more likely to live in rural communities. As a result of this, she said that the electoral college favors Republicans.
“At this moment, the Republican party is in almost complete control of the government,” Reid said. “Republicans, despite being fewer in number, more scattered, more rural and from fewer towns and exurbs, actually now control the lionshare of the power throughout the country.”
Reid warned of the dangers of fake news and mindless consumption of media, especially under the current presidential administration.
“I can tell you that the only two ingredients needed for authoritarianism is a leader who exploits the truth and a public willing to believe it and willing to go along with it because it’s comforting,” she said.
Sophomore Cristian Aguirre said that he appreciated the way Reid critiqued both sides of the political discussion but was disappointed that she did not offer solutions.
“I guess that forces me as an audience member to wonder what can be done about this,” he said. “It is pretty dangerous.”
Like Reid, Aguirre was unsure how news sources could return to attracting a range of viewers from diverse political perspectives.
“People only look at the news that shows what they believe, so I would like things to be more objective, but I just don’t know how to get there,” he said. “It would require systemic changes that are beyond the realm of immediate possibility.”
Senior Oneeb Malik was interested in hearing Reid’s opinion on the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.
“All you’re seeing nowadays on Facebook or when talking with your friends are the divides, whether they’re racial, economic, rural, urban,” Malik said. “They’re everywhere, so I wanted to hear a person of authority talk about that.”
He said that both conservative and liberal news sources need to target broader audiences.
“Conservative media is a huge problem for me,” Malik said. “The liberal side does this, too, but a little more objective view of things would be nicer, and trying to reach across the aisle for both sides would be more ideal.”