Jon Ronson, the British journalist (“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”) has a new Kindle Single called The Elephant in the Room (free with Amazon Prime) about Alex Jones of Infowars and his ties to Trump. I find Ronson a really entertaining writer who balances his liberal instincts with genuine curiosity about the world and empathy with and interest in people different from him, and I thought it was well worth reading.
The essay, however, never really gives a satisfying answer to why conspiracy theorists like Jones have taken on a larger role in the culture, apart from the efficacy of the Internet in spreading ideas both true and false and in breaking up mainstream outlets’ control over information. One hypothesis would be simply that there is more evidence that the mainstream outlets’ portrait of reality is simply false in important respects, and so the appeal of a samizdat alternative is that much stronger, even if the underground is full of lies as well as occasional forbidden truth. A slightly different perspective is that the prestige media (along with academia) is not so much given to printing falsities as it is to pushing an increasingly open and overt political agenda, what Ross Douthat describes as the left’s “Samantha Bee Problem,” and making conservative-leaning Americans sympathetic to outlets they would otherwise see as very fringe. A third, which Jon Ronson has focused on in earlier writing and alludes to in this essay, is the way in which social media magnifies the moralizing qualities of left-of-center politics and makes it hard for conservatives to express their views in public without fear of public abuse.
I don’t any of these are wrong per se, though I’d throw in at least one more: the fade-out of local journalism and concern for local politics, which I think supercharges national ideological battles as the sole outlet for political concern. It’s interesting that, as Ronson writes, Alex Jones got his start reporting on a real outrage right in his neck of the woods: the disastrous federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that caused over 80 deaths including 20 children. But the follow-up to that wasn’t Jones becoming a local reporter or investigating Texas stories, which might have kept him a bit more grounded in reality, but going full time into government conspiracy theories, including a lot of very distasteful ones that are hurtful to people who don’t deserve any more pain.
More than anything else- more than nationalism or immigration restriction (or racism), my belief is that the Trump campaign and its success has been about opposition to the prestige media, and while the media has been more unified against him than in any election I can recall, it has not to my mind produced a whole lot of sincere soul-searching on their own role. There are innumerable chin-strokers trying to “understand” Trump voters and arguing for one hypothesis or another about his rise, but very little effort or interest in changing their own editorial direction or content to interest or engage those benighted irredeemables. The media is of course trapped in its own economic situation, which for now relies significantly on left-of-center Facebook clickbait and bailouts from billionaires like Carlos Slim; it is, as many liberal pundits like to quote Upton Sinclair as saying, hard to get a man to understand a thing when his salary depends on not understanding it.
This short clip was in own way somewhat heartening- a group of Trump supporters at a rally shout down a Holocaust denier and yell out to the reporters all interviewing him- why are you focusing on that guy when that’s not what we’re here for at all? We’re not going to go back to a Walter Cronkite era, of a tightly-restrained media that nonetheless in the main did its best to report the facts. Even so, you’d like to believe that ordinary Americans who, with some reason, no longer feel the mainstream media is on their side can build something else that behaves more responsibly than Alex Jones.