The “Reasonable Viewers” of US Media

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Reporting on a defamation trial brought against Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Business Insider notes a rare but significant crack in the facade of contemporary media that could, if we were to pay attention, help to deconstruct the reigning hyperreality that has in recent decades overwhelmed public discourse in the US.

To maintain its control not just of our lives but of our perception of the environment and culture in which we live, the political class as a whole, in connivance with the media, has created the illusion that when people speak in public — and especially on TV or radio — they are essentially engaged in delivering their sincere opinion and sharing their understanding of the world. They may be mistaken or even wrong about what they claim, but the public has been taught to give any articulate American credit for standing up for what they believe.


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We have been told that this respect for public personalities’ freedom of expression serves a democratic purpose. It allows for productive debate to develop, as different interpretations vie and eventually converge to establish a truth that legitimately supports variable faces and facets. Though they generally try to avoid it, when Americans happen to hear the opinion or the analysis of a person they don’t agree with, they may simply oppose that point of view rather than listen to it, but they also tend to feel sorry for that person’s inability to construe reality correctly.

In other words, the default position concerning freedom of speech has traditionally maintained that a person’s discourse may be wrong, biased or misinformed, but only in exceptional cases should the sincerity of the speaker be called into question. For this very reason, US President Donald Trump’s supporters may think that many of the things he says could be erroneous, but they assume that their hero is at least being sincere. They even consider that when his ravings contradict the science or reasoning of other informed voices, his insistence is proof of his sincerity. They admire him for it.

In contrast, Trump’s enemies want us to believe he is unique and the opposite of the truthtellers on their side. But Trump is far from alone. He just pushes the trend of exaggerating the truth and developing unfounded arguments further than his opponents or even his friends. And because he shakes off all challenges, his fans see him as that much more authentic and sincere than everyone else.

And so the hyperreal system maintains itself without the need of resorting to objective reality. That may explain why the ruling of the judge in favor of Carlson seems to jar with the rules of the hyperreal game. A former Playboy model accused Carlson of defamation. Here is how Business Insider framed the case: “A federal judge on Wednesday [September 23] dismissed a lawsuit against Fox News after lawyers for the network argued that no ‘reasonable viewer’ takes the primetime host Tucker Carlson seriously.” In the judge’s words, “given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Reasonable viewer:

An imaginary human being considered to be capable of critical thinking when sitting in front of an American news broadcast on television, contradicting all empirical evidence that shows no such person has ever existed

Contextual Note

The idea of a “reasonable viewer” is similar to the equally nonexistent “homo economicus,” a concept dear to economists who want the public to believe that markets represent the ultimate expression of human rationality. They imagine a world in which all people do nothing other than pursue their enlightened and informed self-interest.

The judge in the Carlson case is one of those rare Americans who understand that all the news — and Fox News par excellence — is entertainment. But what he fails to acknowledge is that broadcast “news” has become a consciously tendentious form of entertainment that privileges emotion over reason and has an insidious impact on people’s civic behavior. 

Whether it’s Fox News, MSNBC or CNN, no complex story exists that cannot be reduced to the kind of binary conflict its viewers expect to hear about and resonate to. That means nothing could be more unreasonable than to believe there is such a thing as a “reasonable viewer,” especially one who refuses to take Carlson “seriously.”

In other words, the judge is right to highlight the fundamental triviality — or, worse, the hyperreal character of most TV news and Carlson in particular — but wrong to think it appeals to “reasonable” viewers or that reasonable viewers, if they exist at all, are even aware of it.

Historical Note

Throughout the history of the US in the 20th century, media fluctuated between a sense of vocation in reporting fundamentally factual stories and one of serving the needs of propaganda either of the government or of political parties. There has long been a distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” newspapers, though throughout the 20th century, the distinction applied more to the editorial pages in which columnists had the liberty to express their particular bias than to reporting of the news itself.

Quentin Fottrell, in an article for Market Watch published in 2019, described the process by which, in his words, “U.S. news has shifted to opinion-based content that appeals to emotion.” He sums up the findings of a study by the Rand Corporation in these terms: “Journalism in the U.S. has become more subjective and consists less of the detailed event- or context-based reporting that used to characterize news coverage.”

Significantly, the Rand study found that the very language used in reporting had evolved: “Before 2000, broadcast news segments were more likely to include relatively complex academic and precise language, as well as complex reasoning.” This points to the core issue in the shift that has taken place. Over the past 20 years, “broadcast news became more focused on-air personalities and talking heads debating the news.” This indicates a deliberate intention of news media to appeal to emotion rather than reason, even to the exclusion of any form of critical thinking.

Fottrell notes the significance of the year 2000, a moment at which “ratings of all three major cable networks in the U.S. began to increase dramatically.” When the focus turns to ratings — the unique key to corporate income — the traditional vocation of informing the public takes a back seat. He quotes a patent attorney who studied media bias and found that the “extreme sources play on people’s worst instincts, like fear and tribalism, and take advantage of people’s confirmation biases.”

The “worst instincts” are also known as the lowest common denominator. According to the logic of monopoly that guides all big corporations in the US, the standard strategy for a news outlet is to identify a broad target audience and then seek to develop a message that stretches from the high-profile minority who have an economic or professional interest in the political agenda to the dimmest and least discerning of a consumer public who are moved by “fear and tribalism.”

It’s a winning formula because the elite segment of the target audience, a tiny minority of interested parties who are capable of understanding the issues and the stakes, willingly participate in the dumbing down of the news with the goal of using emotion to attract the least discerning to the causes they identify with and profit from economically and politically. 

Just as the average Fox News viewer has no objective interest in Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the rich or his permanent campaign to gut health care but will be easily incited to see the president as the champion of their lifestyle, the average MSNBC viewer will endorse the Wall Street bias of establishment Democrats always intent on eschewing serious reforms, citing the fact that they are too expensive. They do so only because MSNBC has excited their emotions against the arch-villain Trump.

It isn’t as if reasonable viewers didn’t exist. The news networks have banished them to pursue their interests on the internet or simply replaced anything that resembles reason by pure emotion.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.



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