The bipartisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the tax bill passed by the U.S. Senate last weekend will generate about $400 billion in economic growth. The non-partisan Penn Wharton Budget Model thinks it’s less than that. But those are wrong, according to U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. He’s trusting the few economists who confirmed his opinion that growth will be much higher.
Whether we call it confirmation bias or an echo chamber, this search for information to reinforce our tightly knit beliefs isn’t new. Long ago it was the how people decided whether to subscribe to right- or left-leaning regional newspapers. When the internet brought distant sources to our fingertips, we gravitated toward more confirmation, not less.
Radio and TV played a role in this sorry saga. In 1988, stations across the country began broadcasting Rush Limbaugh’s talk show as an alternative to liberal pundits in the mainstream media. Within three years, he had more listeners than any other syndicated radio show. In 1996, Fox News offered television viewers a similar choice.
It took 16 years before the Air America Radio Network was launched to counter Limbaugh’s influence. About the same time, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann took on Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. In 2008, Rachel Maddow brought her Air America voice to MSNBC where she remains the left’s primary antidote to the commentary from the right.
I’m recapping this timeline to make two points. Conservative media had a decade-plus head start building their one stop shops for news, analysis and opinion. And over those 20 plus years, they created a generation of politicians who cut their ideological teeth in the echo chamber.
I don’t want to pretend to know what Sullivan listened to at the time Limbaugh became a media sensation. He was definitely very busy at Georgetown University studying for degrees in law and foreign service. After that, he may have avoided politics entirely while on active duty in the Marines.
But by the time he began his law career clerking for a conservative judge in 1997, Limbaugh and Fox were well established media fixtures. Either may have resonated with him so much that they became his most trusted source for understanding the controversial issues challenging the nation.
Like Sullivan, former governor Sarah Palin was born in 1964. Being elected president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors in 1999 gave her recognition statewide. In 2008, her nomination as Sen. John McCain’s running mate sent her political star into orbit where it ran into Katie Couric. The CBS news anchor asked the candidate which newspapers and magazines she read for national and world affairs. “I have a vast variety of sources,” Palin replied, but she couldn’t name one.
Over the years Palin has come to accept she gave a “crappy answer” to a “fair question.”
It was more than just fair though. Fox had been the most watched cable news network for several years. And during the last three months of the campaign, MSNBC’s audience surpassed CNN. It was the first time the majority of Americans were getting their election news coverage from highly partisan networks.
Only Palin knows what publications she regularly read before she was a candidate for national office. But what if she stumbled because she depended so heavily on one source that no others stood out. Naming Fox would have been an admission of a closed mind to the independent voters she hoped to impress.
Not so today. With social media animating parallel realities, it’s almost a badge of honor for elected officials to admit limiting their source news to those preferred by their base. And to call anything else biased or fake.
And maybe that’s why, on the tax bill, Sullivan could so readily claim that a Wall Street Journal opinion written by nine economists offered a more realistic economic growth forecast than the more thorough bipartisan and nonpartisan analyses.
No single source of information can ever be “fair and balanced.” Fox may have offered a fair alternative for many Americans who believed the mainstream media had a liberal bias. But the balance comes from the individual effort to hear the best arguments by the most informed sources of both sides. And the more we refuse to seek those out, the more likely we’ll be accomplices in America’s demise.