Thanks to narrative-driven news coverage and groupthink, over half the country now assumes media companies are lying at all times.

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash.

The media landscape has changed almost completely over the last 10 years. Major landmarks have been razed to the ground; entire mountain ranges have grown up out of the ruins. It’s almost unrecognizable.

Once the gold standard, legacy media outlets like CNN and the New York Times have become distrusted by well over half the country. The model introduced to mass media by lamentable pioneer Rush Limbaugh- narrative-driven news entertainment with a political bias- has become the new gold standard of the mainstream news industry.

Now there are a hundred Rush Limbaughs using the same formula on every channel but C-SPAN: Present a narrative, provoke a strong response by pitting one side of the political spectrum against the other, elevate the most extreme viewpoints and preach to the choir until the checks start flowing.

And the checks are certainly flowing. Most of the time, in the legacy media where groupthink has taken hold, the checks are flowing with the ad-clicks. And the ad-clicks flow to clickbait headlines intentionally designed to provoke a strong and angry response. It’s the only way to distinguish yourself currently; who can out-outrage all the other competitors.

The problem is that when you start dogmatically preaching exclusively to the choir- that is, the already converted- you tend to lose everyone else. The narrative-approving news consumers who remain are addicted to confirmation bias. The reward for having their worldview reinforced by someone they respect is too irresistible. As a result, news outlets who have adopted this model have no other choice but to continue to placate their remaining audience of diehard believers.

Rush Limbaugh never told his audience of ardent conservatives anything they didn’t want to hear about themselves or the world; not one unpalatable truth. That’s why they loved him so much, but it is also why his niche never widened.

The new Rush Limbaughs, on left and right, are trapped in the same ultimately failing business model because unlike the old Rush Limbaugh, they have a ton of competition for that niche.

There is a good reason everyone else avoided Rush Limbaugh’s show like the plague. Why? Because the cost of a believing a false or incomplete narrative was just too high. Staying well clear of Limbaugh’s influence was the better part of wisdom.

For the consumers of news media post-Rush, the trade-off for getting tricked into believing a palatable lie, even a palatable misrepresentation, has grown to an even more unsustainable level.

It has created a nation of skeptics who don’t start from a place of believing everything they read and hear on the news. They believe the opposite; that every media company is lying unless proven otherwise.

This attitude isn’t completely unknown.

If you’ve ever known any police officers personally, or anyone in law enforcement, you already know this: Cops don’t believe anyone. Ever.

Most cops would verify their own grandmother’s story. Ask the teenage children of cops if mom or dad is the overly credulous sort. For their baseline, everyday operating procedure, the vast majority of cops believe everyone they encounter is lying to them at all times.

They’d be the first ones to tell you; they aren’t ashamed. It comes with the job and hard experience.

This may seem like a very cynical worldview, but it is actually very simple. For a cop, assuming everyone is lying at all times is a very high-reward, low-risk strategy.

If they are successfully tricked by a suspect into believing a lie, chasing the wrong lead, the potential cost is unbearably high; a criminal may elude justice and commit more crimes, hurt people.

If, on the other hand, the hyper-skeptical cop accuses someone of lying who later is determined to have been telling the truth, the cost is extremely low. Everyone assumes (correctly) that a skeptical worldview is an occupational hazard of being a police officer (it is) and the wrongfully accused truth-teller, exonerated, is usually magnanimous.

“Oh, it’s no big deal,” they might say. “If I had your job, I’d probably assume everyone was lying at all times, too, you poor chap.”

For the consumers of news media, the cost-benefit ratio has changed with the media landscape. The cost of believing a media lie, or getting bamboozled by a juicy partisan narrative, is unbearably high. Believing a media company is lying when they aren’t, on the other hand, has almost no drawbacks. Plenty of other outlets.

News consumers have noticed something about narrative news and they can’t unsee it. Now, they are avoiding partisan news sources for the same reasons they avoided Rush Limbaugh.

They’re getting a narrative, rather than the news as they once understood it, and they know it. They don’t like it.

Joe Rogan recently summed up his feelings, and the feelings of his outsize audience, by dismissing the mainstream media completely: “I don’t want to be fed a narrative. I can make up my own mind.”

Rogan is on a long and growing list of new media celebrities, artists and entertainers who have proven impossible to cancel, however hard they have pushed back against the pervasive groupthink permeating the media landscape.

More people listen to Joe Rogan than CNN. Rogan’s audience is growing so much he had to move from California to escape the taxes. CNN’s audience is dwindling.

Unless legacy media outlets are ready to say goodbye forever, one by one, it is time to reevaluate the long-term repercussions of narrative news.

News consumers have no shortage of options for news they do trust, and that parthenon is growing by the day on platforms from Substack to Youtube. Legacy media outlets need a course correction, or they will become more obsolete than they are already.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)