What happens when the citizens of one nation inhabit two opposing realities?
I went through a pretty substantial identity crisis when I left teaching. Six months into my new full-time job, I had health insurance, sick leave, and an apartment where I was proud to host parties. But, without my students there to greet me every day, loneliness soon settled like a weight in my stomach. At times I fantasized about the phone ringing with one of my former schools on the line. They’d tell me they wanted me back, and I’d take the underemployment just to feel like myself again.
So when the communications department chair from the college down the road called to offer me a night class, I met her mere days later with course materials in tow. Armed with a new syllabus template and textbook, I got to work revising old lesson plans and gradually — assuredly — felt my sense of purpose returning.
But on the first day of class, my nerves threatened to disable me. Sweat trickled down the backs of my thighs. I hadn’t been at the front of a classroom in nearly two years. Could I do this?
And there was something else.
Looking out at the fifteen sets of eyes meeting mine, I realized that not only did I know nothing about them: I didn’t know what they thought of Trump.
This was never a question before. In the spring of 2015, when I’d last taught, Donald Trump had nothing to do with the political and journalistic context that framed our discussions. He was a fraudulent businessman and obnoxious reality TV star as dismissible as the frayed Scotch-Brite pad on his head. Now, after his presidential campaign and wholly unexpected win, standard mass communication concepts have been turned upside down.
Most of the students in this class are my age or older, which thankfully helped me find my footing. Like me, they remember a time when the number of cable news channels was a fraction of what it is today. CNN didn’t arrive until the 1980s; both Fox News and MSNBC made their debut in 1996 before many current college students were born. When news like the OJ Simpson Bronco chase or the attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan broke, we were all more or less watching the same coverage. When a reporter or journalist knowingly fabricated a story, as Washington Post writer Janet Cooke famously did in the 1980s with her Pulitzer Prize-winning feature, “Jimmy’s World,” they faced severe consequences and lost all credibility.
The Information Age has brought about a journalistic sea-change: if you can dream it, you can post it online in little time and with little difficulty – and with platforms like Medium, even make it look professional. The immediacy with which information can be accessed on smart phones, coupled with the sheer volume of news sources and social media options – the line between which is increasingly hazy – has complicated journalistic truth in a way we’ve never seen.
Even if they were too young to remember life before Wi-Fi, my students from 2012-2015 generally understood the importance of credibility in journalism. They knew that publications from the library’s databases were properly vetted for quality and accuracy. They could differentiate between an established climate scientist’s research and a disgruntled Twitter user’s fiery rants on the “global warming hoax.”
But parsing out the fringe sources from more reliable cannon has gotten a lot harder.
A November 2016 study from the Stanford History Education Group concluded that, when tasked with reading material from the American Academy of Pediatrics (a mainstream academic source) and the American College of Pediatricians (a fringe group with outdated views on homosexuality), most Stanford undergrads viewed the latter as more reputable and “never uncovered the differences between the two groups.”
“What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking,” study leader Sam Wineburg told NPR. “And we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.”
Outlets like Occupy Democrats, Infowars, and Breitbart rely on a toxic mix of confirmation bias and unbridled pathos (Can Alex Jones report something without screaming?) to hook their audiences. Donald Trump is both a product of this fake news and a cause of its continued regurgitation.
Our president, like many Americans, does not possess the critical thinking skills needed to separate facts from rubbish, and by way of his popularity and exposure, encourages others to devour media in a similarly careless manner.
“Trump sees something that jives with his worldview, doesn’t check it, half remembers it, and passes it on: at which point, it takes on a life of its own,” John Oliver said earlier this month in a segment aptly titled “Trump vs. Truth.” This is how swaths of Americans have come to believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the general election or that the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was staged.
A few weeks ago, while discussing conventional wisdom with my class, I realized just how much partisan politics has contributed to our acceptance of fake news. Conventional wisdom speaks to how people generally feel about issues at a particular point in time — for example, how safe students felt in schools after Columbine or how comfortable travelers were on airplanes right after 9/11.
Strong changes in conventional wisdom lead to changes in policy and procedure. So what happens when the citizens of one nation inhabit two opposing realities? For the first time, I was unable to talk about conventional wisdom in the traditional sense. There are two distinct conventional wisdoms in our post-Trump country. And I believe that our nation’s hyper-partisanship has led us to excuse blatant falsities that are connected to one party or the other, misguidedly giving bogus sources attention in the interest of offering “equal time.”
I struggle on a weekly basis with how to deal with Donald Trump. Professors are already stereotyped as promoting leftist agendas in the classroom. But given his very real impact on news, up to and including his propensity to lie about everything from his electoral college victory to a non-existent February 17 terrorist attack in Sweden, I can’t ignore him.
Not since the McCarthy era have we witnessed such a fervent witch-hunt of scientists and academics. We are living under an administration that actively suppresses and subverts facts, which in turn has led to a spike in misinformation from the left. Uncovering the truth these days can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack.
It’s our obligation as educators to combat “alternative facts” and other departures from reality by training students to be scrupulous consumers and creators of content. Ed Murrow said it best: “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore