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There’s a struggle across Western media to interpret crashing public faith in its mainstream institutions. In the United States alone, recent polling from Gallup shows the drop in the number of Americans reporting “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspaper journalism has now hit 16 percent; it was 51% in 1979. Confidence in TV news is down to 11 percent from 46 percent back in ’91. Surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Reuters Institute give similar pictures. There are a lot of good theories out there about why this has been happening—with factors from expanded mainstream coverage of fraught subjects journalists once largely ignored, to the rise of polarized publications and networks, to Donald Trump’s populist attacks on the news as “fake.” The question may be especially hard to parse in a context where trust has been declining in a range of traditionally important institutions—including, in the U.S., the criminal-justice system, the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, public schools, and organized religion. One explanation is that the mainstream media has followed elite universities in being captured by a new form of progressive ethics that’s turned its output into a kind of propaganda. It’s hard to argue with that one sometimes.
Here’s a different idea, though: It isn’t that any of these others are necessarily wrong; it’s that there’s something else going on—you might say, at a deeper level of consciousness. In a world that’s changing faster, generating more complexity, and becoming more connected than ever before in history, misinformation, disinformation, and, from time to time, actual fake news are issues for all of us. But the more persistent challenge isn’t informational; it’s interpretive. It’s to be able to understand and navigate our changing, complex, connected lives. And to do that effectively—as citizens, in business, or just as human beings—we have to try to orient ourselves to realities that we can’t possibly grasp on our own; we need media. Yet for ages, our papers, TV news, and now digital outlets have responded to that need in the same basic way, by giving us interpretations to consume. That might have been fine when the stakes of our dependence on interpretive journalism were much lower than they are today. But today, it’s unsustainable; it erodes trust—because our real need as thinking people has never been to consume others’ interpretations; it’s to develop our own.
Since early 2021, The Signal has been building on an idea for a new response. As a reader, you’re with us for that process—and we’d love you to be an active part of it as we plan a new iteration of The Signal over the coming months. Please send us your thoughts—on what you see here, what you’re looking for in current-affairs media, or anything related. We’ll look forward to it.
Meanwhile …
What’s driving so much conflict in the U.S. Democratic Party? Ruy Teixeira on identity politics, generational divisions, and the challenges of coalition building.
Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
It’s already been a bruising summer for the Democratic Party in America. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions undermining liberal priorities, most obviously by overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the constitutional right to an abortion. President Joe Biden’s approval rating fell below 40 percent—according to an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, “the worst of any elected president at this point in his presidency since the end of World War II.” And a recent New York Times poll found that 64 percent of Democratic voters don’t want Biden to run for re-election. Things got worse last week when the latest effort to pass significant elements of Biden’s domestic agenda fell apart in the U.S. Congress: New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait—a center-left journalist who’s long tended to support the Democrats—concluded that “by realistic or even minimal standards of performance, this two-year term, almost certain to be the last period of Democratic-controlled government for the foreseeable future, has been a failure.” Progressives are blaming moderates, and Biden is fending off criticism from the left. Meanwhile, as The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported last month, some of the country’s leading progressive advocacy groups are riven by internal workplace fights—often between younger staffers and older managers—over questions of race, gender, identity, and the future of their movements. All in all, there’s a lot of conflict on the American left. What’s behind it?
The Inevitable Winter
Is Europe heading toward an energy disaster when the weather turns? Samantha Gross on the likely paths of a major gas crisis.
Thomas Lipke
Thomas Lipke
Natural gas could now be rationed across the EU until the spring of 2023, according to a European Commission plan announced this week, as the continent experiences what a number of economists are calling its worst energy crisis ever. For decades, Europe has depended on Russia for much of its natural gas, but Vladimir Putin drastically reduced exports to the EU after it imposed harsh sanctions on Moscow for invading Ukraine. Discussing the rationing proposal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Russia is blackmailing us. Russia is using energy as a weapon.” The human costs of the natural-gas shortage are already apparent, as some housing cooperatives in Germany are limiting hot-water usage by residents. Utility bills for some Europeans are up 500 percent from last year, contributing to steeply rising inflation that’s provoked labor strikes in several European countries. And even as the record heat wave in much of Europe severely strains the union’s power grids, the prospects for the winter are even worse, as most EU homes and businesses rely on natural gas for heating—and Putin could still further decrease supplies. How bad could this crisis get?
The Signal explores urgent questions in current events around the world—to support it and for full access:
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