Skip to main content

Changes in media pose a risk for America

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
April 29, 2014 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
Rancher Cliven Bundy, right, leaves the podium with bodyguards after a news conference near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, on Thursday, April 24. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. Rancher Cliven Bundy, right, leaves the podium with bodyguards after a news conference near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, on Thursday, April 24. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Showdown in Nevada
Photos: Showdown in Nevada
Photos: Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
Showdown in Nevada
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frum: In 20 years, the media scene in America has changed radically
  • Digital media have grown, while traditional media shrank
  • He says people such as Cliven Bundy help media rally partisans, stoking fears
  • Frum: Even highly educated people are susceptible to partisan falsehoods

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When I moved to Washington almost 20 years ago, I subscribed to four daily newspapers. Printed newspapers, that is: on paper, with ink. In the mid-1990s, network news was already a fading phenomenon. But the Washington media elite booked time to watch programs such as "Crossfire" at the time they were broadcast.

For special events, one might fire up the VCR. But the technology was inconvenient and annoying, and the tapes were awkward to store. E-mail had existed for some time, as had online discussion groups, and other innovative communications technologies. But it was still new that major media companies had ventured online: 1996 was the year that The New York Times and The Washington Post launched their websites.

Longer form journalism, the kind published by magazines, still arrived in the mailbox via the U.S. Postal Service. We already had cell phones, of course. We used them to make phone calls.

David Frum
David Frum

Offline, the past 20 years have not been a period of remarkable technology progress, not when compared with say 1894-1914 (invention of the radio, the vacuum cleaner, the safety razor, the first plastic and propelled aviation, and diffusion of the telephone, the automobile, electric light, the phonograph and motion pictures) or 1935-1955 (penicillin, radar, the first freeway, the first supermarket, the first home freezer, commercial aviation, credit cards and the birth-control pill).

As compared to the mid-1990s, we haven't seen much progress in the way we get to work or travel to different countries. We heat and light our homes more or less as we did then. Treatments have radically improved for HIV/AIDS, but otherwise transformative medical breakthroughs have arrived only slowly.

What did arrive, of course, was the revolution in creating and sharing digital information. In most respects, this revolution has proven a thrilling force for human emancipation. Yet nothing, no matter how beneficial, comes unattended by negative side effects.

Media and Cliven Bundy
Red news/Blue news: Cliven Bundy
Was ex-CBS reporter targeted?
Behind Twitter's success story

The digital revolution has played havoc with the profitability of media companies. The troubles of newspapers are notorious, but life is not a lot more comfortable for radio and television companies.

The most successful business model yet discovered in this new environment is to reinvent the news organization as a news community. At a time when people are less inclined to join institutions, new kinds of media can offer a community substitute: an environment in which users can have their identities ratified and their beliefs validated.

The fastest way to generate such a sense of community is to conjure up threats: health scares, crime waves, wars on Christmas. Isolated in self-selected communities, these threats won't be tested very hard against contrary realities. As every roller-coaster owner knows, people like to be scared. Unreal fears are the best of all, since nobody in the end really gets hurt. The faster today's fears evanesce, the more compulsively must the audience return tomorrow for more.

Information has never been more accessible and abundant. And yet so much of that information turns out not be true. And whereas in early terms it was the least informed people who were vulnerable to the grossest inaccuracies, today it is very often the nominally best informed.

How you assess economic conditions, for example, turns out be less connected to actual economic events than how you feel about the party of the president. Better education seems actually to enhance one's vulnerability to partisan distortion: A 2008 Pew study found that Republicans who had completed college were more likely to reject the scientific consensus on climate change than Republicans who had not done so.

Information has never been more accessible and abundant. And yet so much of that information turns out not be true.
David Frum

More sophisticated news consumers turn out to use this sophistication to do a better job of filtering out what they don't want to hear.

This is the environment that made conservatives vulnerable to Cliven Bundy -- and that will, as surely as hucksters follow money, expose liberals to Bundy's opposite number the week after next, or maybe the week after that.

The digital revolution offers the most stirring new possibilities to the human intellect since the invention of the printing press. But as Albert Einstein said after the nuclear revolution: Everything seems to have changed except our modes of thinking.

***

This will be my last column for CNN.com. I am truly grateful for the magnificent opportunity to interact with this vast audience. From here onward, my written work will all be found at my new media home, TheAtlantic.com -- where I'll do my best to counteract the disturbing trend described above.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT