The sudden lack of clear battle lines is glaring.
It’s the year 2022, in the Age of Information, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s official diplomatic visit to Taiwan has set off a cavalcade of hot-takes, op-eds and sternly-worded tweets.
That’s no surprise; almost everything any public personae does these days sets off a similar uproar from supporters, naysayers, critics and cheerleaders. The battle lines, once often drawn along political lines, are almost exclusively so in 2022; especially in the media.
2022 is what we idly call this year, but it might not always be so. Someday, far in the future, our current calendar may be reset by newly powerful authorities and experts, as it has been many times before. We might have to date the start of this current epoch back to 1983, when the internet first came into being, in which case this is year 39 A.N. (Anno Notitia).
Or it might make more sense to date the beginning of the Information Age back to the invention of the pentium processor in 1993, in which case this is year 29 A.N.
One of the oddest things about the age in which we are currently living- and we are living through an extraordinarily odd age- is the monumental contrast between how much information we have at our fingertips and how little real consensus all that information has produced in modern society.
Granted, there are currently over 7 billion people living on planet earth. Getting them all to agree about anything would be impossible, should it ever even prove necessary. Still, the big questions mankind has grappled with throughout the entirety of written history, and probably long before, are still with us today.
Worse, the basic lack of consensus on a variety of Very Important Questions remains as contentious as ever. Which means, human beings are much better at making weapons than we’ve ever been before- thanks to a prolific arms race- but no better at getting along.
From Marcus Aurelius to Ryan Holiday; from Beethoven to Donald Byrd; Genesis to Revelations; the philosophers, scientists, thinkers, artists and luminaries of today are no closer to solving the great mysteries of existence, unlocking the secrets of the universe and the human mind, and answering the Big Questions to the satisfaction of everyone than their forebears.
This is sure to seem odd to future generations; as it seems to us. With all this widely available information, shouldn’t there be more agreement, not less? We’re virtually swimming in data; why isn’t it connecting us?
Is the media playing a dividing role?
One thing that is sure to puzzle future historians and middle school civics classes is the level of havoc inflicted on the media industry by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the Information Age.
What happened to media outlets when everyone suddenly became freelance fact-checkers? What changes to the industry were brought on by the advent of ad-click journalism? How did social media change the business model of traditional media outlets?
The future test essay questions practically write themselves.
Living through this era, these questions- and so many others- are much more difficult to answer. We don’t know how it all turns out. We know the media landscape has changed. How it has changed, how permanent the change, and the biggest question of all, what happens next, we do not yet know.
Media outlets are studying society from their perspective- which for most legacy and major corporate media outlets, it must be admitted, means a heavy tilt towards the Ivy League-educated elite viewpoint.
Meanwhile, average media consumers, active social media users, political activists, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, alternate media consumers, citizens journalists, Medium writers, Substackers, and just about everyone else are scrutinizing the media outlets carefully, reading between the lines for hints as to what is really going on in the world.
Take House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan for instance.
Her official visit to Taiwan has sparked one of the most interesting 24-hour news cycles in recent memory. The story itself is compelling enough; international intrigue, long-simmering tensions, inter-party political squabbles, the potential for global conflict.
But the media coverage of the event and its environs has been nothing short of amazing. This breaking news story revealed something important about the state of news coverage in 2022; not for what the story featured and highlighted, but for what it very conspicuously has lacked.
The story of simmering tensions between the U.S. and China, and the Chinese Communist Party’s notorious and well-documented sensitivity on the subject of Taiwan, is yesterday’s news. Exactly no one should be surprised at the reaction of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden or anyone else at this visit.
What is absolutely shocking about this story is the lack of media consensus around it.
Perhaps it took something like this- a storyline on which the editors of major media networks seem genuinely at a loss and don’t seem to be pushing any particular narrative- to expose how common consensus has become in the media industry.
In spite of how uncommon consensus is in society, the consensus across major media outlets is persistent and glaring when you stop to think about it. When one legacy media outlet gets a story wrong for instance, they all get it wrong- don’t they? Why?
An unrelated group of independent, investigative journalists wouldn’t all come to the same mistaken conclusion- would they? Not even pandering to paying audiences, telling news consumers what they want to hear in order to sell more newspapers, completely explains it.
Sensationalism, deployed in a tight media market to sell more newspapers, doesn’t even explain everything askew in mainstream media outlet coverage of current events.
By the sensationalistic, money-making metric, the Jeffery Epstein story should have been a big story; it had all the elements of tabloid journalism, and then some. Yet, the Epstein story wasn’t ignored by some major media outlets; it was largely ignored by all. The same is true for any number of other major scandals which have been casually relegated to page 376 by, not one or two major media outlets, or a few, but all of them.
What one conservative media outlet is for, they all are for; what one is against all are against. The same is true of left-leaning media outlets: There aren’t 7 out of 10 who agree and 3 dissenters; it’s 10 out of 10 and the last one in is a far-right Republican.
Political loyalties aren’t providing much guidance on the subject of Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, however.
Some conservative media outlets are all for it; some against. Likewise, some mainstream media outlets seem open to the idea; others are openly denigrating the trip.
“Nancy Pelosi’s ill-conceived visit to Taiwan,” wrote the Financial Times editorial board on August 1, 2022. “US House Speaker Pelosi arrives in Taiwan, defying Beijing,” reported the Associated Press today.
“Pelosi’s Asia Trip Exposes Divides in Both Parties Over Taiwan,” exclaimed Phillip Wegmann for Real Clear Politics.
“U.S. Officials More Concerned About Potential Action by China on Taiwan,” added the New York Times. “The Biden administration is watching for any moves by China to close off the Taiwan Strait, and they would prefer that Nancy Pelosi cancel her planned trip.”
Most media outlets on right and left are not expressing any opinion about Pelosi’s Taiwan trip and are instead resorting to reporting the fact that Pelosi is going against the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Taiwan question has make for some extremely odd alliances.
The Biden Administration agrees with…former President Donald Trump: Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is probably not a good idea right now, likely to make a difficult situation worse.
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised Pelosi for the move, though he suggested she take a “strong bipartisan coalition,” rather than the party line delegation of Democrats she ultimately selected.
On the other hand, NFL legend, Senate candidate and Trump-Republican Hershel Walker offered to actually go with Pelosi’s delegation.
Prominent Democrats have spoken in favor of Pelosi’s trip as well.
The lack of consensus on this topic, the absence of an over-arching narrative being pushed verbatim by one media outlet after another, is a bit refreshing. There are plenty more areas, events and incidents which could benefit from a similar treatment in the media.
Perhaps if advertisers and their beholden media editors were a bit less sure about the answers in advance, media consumers would be more inclined to trust news outlets to ask the questions.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)