In the beginning, there were ABC, NBC, and CBS, and they were good. Midcentury American man could come home after eight hours of work and turn on his television and know where he stood in relation to his wife, and his children, and his neighbors, and his town, and his country, and his world. And that was good. Or he could open the local paper in the morning in the ritual fashion, taking his civic communion with his coffee, and know that identical scenes were unfolding in households across the country.
Over frequencies our American never tuned in to, red-baiting, ultra-right-wing radio preachers hyperventilated to millions. In magazines and books he didn’t read, elites fretted at great length about the dislocating effects of television. And for people who didn’t look like him, the media had hardly anything to say at all. But our man lived in an Eden, not because it was unspoiled, but because he hadn’t considered any other state of affairs. For him, information was in its right—that is to say, unquestioned—place. And that was good, too.
Today, we are lapsed. We understand the media through a metaphor—“the information ecosystem”—which suggests to the American subject that she occupies a hopelessly denatured habitat. Every time she logs on to Facebook or YouTube or Twitter, she encounters the toxic byproducts of modernity as fast as her fingers can scroll. Here is hate speech, foreign interference, and trolling; there are lies about the sizes of inauguration crowds, the origins of pandemics, and the outcomes of elections.