When mainstream media speaks, it is reality that gets mugged

Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

Richard Hanania recently decided to argue that everyone is wrong, and the media is actually good and honest. Bryan Caplan agrees that Hanania zeroes in on the right question — “Compared to what?” — and answers, the mainstream media is awful compared to silence:

The problem isn’t limited to race, gender, and sexual orientation, where Richard agrees that the media is crazy. The problem isn’t specific factual errors, either. The central problem is that the mainstream media’s standard operating standard is to use selective presentation to spread absurd views about practically everything that matters.

Nor is this a recent failing! Mainstream media has been deplorable for as long as I can remember. Let me list some of its chief sins against the Big Picture.

Endlessly complaining about alleged social problems. Poverty, the environment, racism, Covid, Ukraine, terrorism, immigration, education, drugs, Elon… Even if all of the coverage were true, the media is still — per Huemer — aggressively promoting the absurd view that life is on balance terrible and reliably getting worse.

Painting government intervention as the obvious solution to social problems. Often the media openly asks loaded questions to this effect, like “Why isn’t the government doing more about this?!” with an exasperated tone. The rest of the time, they rely on heavy-handed insinuation, like “The people of Flint, Michigan feel like they’ve been forgotten.” Forgotten by who? Government Our Savior, of course. Mainstream media barely considers whether past government policies have worked, or how much they cost, or whether they have important downsides.

Spreading innumeracy. The media endlessly shows grotesque stories about ultra-rare problems like terrorism, plane crashes, police murdering innocents, school shootings, toddlers dying of Covid, and the like. They show almost nothing about statistically common problems like car crashes or death by old age. The media doesn’t just spread paranoia; it spreads inverted paranoia.

Promoting Social Desirability Bias. The media standardly talks as if stuff that superficially sounds good is reliably good, and stuff that superficially sounds bad is reliably bad. As a result, they foment hostility to good stuff that sounds bad, and engender support for bad stuff that sounds good. If a firm downsizes due to technological change, what are the odds that the media chides, “This is how progress works! Tractors put a lot of farmers out of work, too, you know”? If the government cuts spending, what are the odds that the media muses, “We could interview the visible losers, but that’s hardly fair unless we interview the invisible winners. Which we can’t do, so let’s just move on.”
Whipping up support for the latest crusade. Like me, Hanania wasn’t happy with the media’s Covid coverage. But I say the problem goes way back. Just in my living memory, the media has promoted mass hysterias about Islamist Iran (“the hostage crisis”), the War on Drugs, “Free Kuwait,” the War on Terror, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, Covid, Black Lives Matter, and now the Ukraine War. The mere fact that they keep these topics in the news for months or years, with almost no skeptical or apathetic voices, is a thinly-veiled declaration that “These are the most important problems on Earth – and we should all enthusiastically be on the bandwagon to solve them.” Yet in hindsight, the problems the media deems important are highly arbitrary, and the bandwagon usually turns out to be a major problem in itself.

An old joke talks about being “mugged by reality.” When mainstream media speaks, it is reality that gets mugged. Truly, mainstream media is the great Mugger of Reality. Even when its individual stories are rock solid, it promotes a deeply false Big Picture of the world. And unless you have the intellectual steel to constantly remind yourself, “This is a horribly misleading perspective,” consuming media tends to make you believe this deeply false Big Picture.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    I liken mainstream media to a fun house mirror; both show you inverted reality. But it’s incredible the grip it has on people. I swear people are watching and believing their TVs, as if Moses himself is broadcasting from the mountain!

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    One of the great mysteries of Caplan is how he can be so right on some issues, and so utterly wrong about others. For example, he’s dead right about the mass media, and yet he seems to believe that the mass media is anti-immigrant (!). He hates Communism, and understands the murder and havoc it wrought with it’s utter ignorance of the laws of economics, yet he’s a pacifist, because he believes that nations will not fight each other, for economic reasons (!!). You hardly know whether to laugh or cry…

  3. Michael van der Riet says:

    My not being a US citizen makes my opinion worth less, but not worthless. Most of my internet buds are American and leaning right. I see no hatred of the left, only contempt, which is the appropriate attitude toward those who have joined the medieval Woke movement, which contrary to Caplan’s statement is a movement of deep hatred. Well they do hate Joe Biden, but that’s pretty normal behavior.

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