Libertarian presidential hopeful Gary Johnson came under criticism after, in an interview on MSNBC on Sep. 8, he made public that he was not aware of the rebel conflict in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, or that the city of Aleppo even existed.
Even though Johnson was publically made fun of for the gaff, it is unlikely that it will hurt his campaign, considering that the general American public likely doesn’t know what Aleppo is either.
Johnson’s ignorance of a key dimension of current events is just a ripple in the vast oceanic current of widespread media illiteracy, a problem that plagues our American culture and has arguably contributed to the ascension of Donald Trump as a viable contender for the White House.
Trump, as a candidate, is a caricature of the standard “know-nothing” attitudes of disenfranchised voters. His ignorance of current events, foreign policy, and his absurd claims, such as declaring President Obama to be the “founder of ISIS,” should have slowed his momentum. Instead, it has bolstered it. Trump has surfaced as the logical conclusion to the rhetoric of a public that has been conditioned by radical conspiracy theories ranging from Obama being a secret Muslim to U.N. plots to seize our second amendment rights and institute a one-world government.
Back in August, conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes came to the horrible realization that his style of media has manufactured a closed-minded audience. His, and other media outlets like his, have built their own brand of being the “alternative media,” and anybody who contradicts their claims is part of the notoriously deceptive “liberal media.”
This branding ultimately backfired on them, as Sykes has now come to realize. When he quoted a New York Times article fact checking one of Donald Trump’s numerous falsehoods, his audience immediately turned on him, because he had already conditioned them to believe that the New York Times was part of the “liberal agenda” and could not be trusted.
“That’s one of the disorienting things about this political year,” Sykes said on his radio show. “You can be in this alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it… Then they’ll ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.”
Generating distrust of the media creates an ignorant voter populace, and these voters do not care to elect leaders who are intellectually sound or competent. They instead opt for leaders who will reinforce their own narrow views, no matter how absurd from a pragmatic standpoint. It is reflective of the notion that “my ignorance is just as valid as your intellect.”
I had a disturbing conversation with a relation of mine who proudly stated that they did not pay attention to the media, as if their ignorance should be interpreted as a badge of honor. This individual’s notion that “the media is all lies, therefore it is not worth listening to” displays a frightening lack of intellectual humility and self-awareness.
First of all, everybody pays attention to the media. More accurately, everybody pays attention to their own media, be it conservative, liberal, Christian, secular or any other media institution. Every self-thinking individual is consuming the media in one form or another. As a society in the age of widespread information, we are fully reliant on the media to keep us informed. How else would we, living in quiet Huntington Indiana, know what’s happening in Syria, or even who is running for president?
Secondly, the notion that the media is all lies denotes a comfort in one’s own ignorance, and a lack of willingness to have one’s viewpoint challenged.
Sadly, it is true that the media doesn’t always get the facts right. If there are hundreds of reporters covering a story, it’s very likely that someone is going to report a falsehood, either maliciously or out of sheer carelessness, but the mantra of “don’t trust the media because it always lies” has manufactured a tolerance for ignorance that has proved fertile ground for know-nothing politicians to take the toxic beliefs of their equally ignorant voter basis all the way to actually becoming government policy.