Here’s a scary thought: Donald Trump is influencing our children.
We know this already. But it shocked me to discover fresh evidence this week that students in my very own high school classroom are already adopting Donald Trump’s cynical view of the news media without even realizing it.
Every semester I teach an English elective course called Media Literacy at the local high school. One of the main topics I cover is the news media, and most years I make it my mission to teach students how to be smart consumers of news by learning to detect hidden biases. The idea that something as venerable as the news could contain bias is almost always a completely new, sometimes mind-bending idea to students. But not this year.
This week I kicked off the news unit the way I always have: by asking students to stand in different corners of the room based on how strongly they feel about a given statement.
“How often do you watch the news?” I asked my students.
The answer for most, as usual, was “not much.” But the answer to the next question was far more interesting.
“How many of you believe the news is biased?”
In years past, this was a throwaway question because none of my students had any clue the news was anything other than unassailable. But this year the answers were different. This year *almost everyone* moved toward the other side of the room. This year, they said the news was biased.
“Of course it is,” they said.
“They’re all biased, especially CNN.”
“Some of them are fake news.”
Taken aback at first, I decided to pose a follow-up question:
“Which networks are biased?”
They sounded uncertain.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to say the name of a news company. Go to this side of the room if it’s biased; this side if it’s unbiased; or to the middle if you’re not sure.”
And then I asked them about some of the most famously biased sources: FOX, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, Breitbart.
FOX: Most of them believe it was biased, but only one boy in one class knew to which side of the spectrum.
CNN: They’d heard a lot of trash talk about it, but had no idea which side it was slanted toward. Many hadn’t heard of it.
MSNBC: None of them had ever heard of it.
New York Times: They’d heard of it, but had no idea whether it was considered biased. (Afterword, when I informed them that Donald Trump tweets regularly about the “failing New York Times” they had a better idea of its supposed biases.)
Breitbart: Remarkably, none of the the students in either class had even heard of this! I could not believe my ears.
“Have any of you ever heard of Steve Bannon?” I asked them. “You know, the guy who was played as the Grim Reaper on SNL?”
At this point, especially during the first class, I was completely stunned. So I asked them: “You all seem to believe the news is biased, but you have no idea which news organizations are biased, and you haven’t even heard of other ones. What makes you think the news is biased if you’re clearly not checking it?”
Their answer: “It’s in the culture,” one young woman told me. None of them said “we got this from Donald Trump,” but surely they must have.
It’s hard not to feel disappointed right now at the media landscape. Despite the cynicism of Donald Trump’s campaign, and of the 2016 election in general, I still refuse to give into the nihilistic idea that there’s no such thing as unbiased reporting. And it certainly distresses me to think that there’s a younger generation, already confused by the lack of gatekeepers on the internet, all of which makes Breitbart look and feel like the New York Times, that believes that any critical reporting equals biased reporting. Children have a way of parroting back to us our own cliches, and the chorus of “that’s fake news” that I’ve been hearing coming from their mouths this year has been depressing.
That’s why our work over the next few weeks is going to focus not only showing them how to read bias, but on trying to restore their sense of faith in the importance of a free press. Yesterday I put up famous quotes by free-press defenders — Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson — and had students discuss the importance of a free press in a democracy. “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe,” wrote Jefferson. Next class when I read to them the First Amendment, I will read it as a sacred piece of writing — theirs to defend as much as mine. Only yesterday Donald Trump was tweeting again about opening up U.S. libel laws to sue newspapers, and only weeks ago he called the news media “the enemy of the American people.” We live in a precarious time — a moment when our robust free speech protections and independent, uncensored press could be finally brought down by a would-be autocrat. Above all, it is the precariousness of our freedoms that I wish to impress upon students.
And even more, I think my task this year is reduce some of the corrosion that the Trump culture has stained my students with. I’d like to make them subtler noticers of news bias, but not news fatalists, not the cynics who believe that there’s no such thing as real news. Instead I hope that they will learn to do what I do every day: hunt the media landscape for diverse, reputable takes, ultimately settling somewhere in the middle, all while coolly seeing the news companies’ various spins for what they usually are: real human beings’ best attempts to cover complex and many-sided stories. Not perfect by any means, but not “fake news” by a long shot.
It’s particularly cleansing, I believe, to see the press — sometimes with and sometimes in spite of lawmakers — taking on their greatest bully, starting to shine an unflinchingly honest light of day on the Trump team’s inner workings. Like the police officers who arrive late to the scene but who work painstakingly, there is something reassuring about seeing the swift process of injustice — Russia’s interference in our presidential election, which happened so, so quickly — finally slowed down and pored over in laborious detail by a patient press. It’s hardly surprising that President Trump has been blaming the media for his troubles. History has taught us that there is no surer sign of something to hide. The media, after taking its greatest battering since President Nixon, is on its way to the second great triumph of journalistic truth over presidential power since those same years in the early 70s. No surprise either that intimations of Watergate are being heard loudly across the media landscape.
As presidential historian Douglas Brinkley recently put it, “The smell of treason is in the air.”
Most high school students couldn’t care less about the free press or the news. But the fact that they’re parroting back Donald Trump’s ideas shows me that they’re saturated in it without even realizing. That’s what a class like this is designed to show them. They’ve fully imbibed many of the pervasive and pernicious ideas in the media (being thin = being happy; you are what you buy; all news = fake news) without even realizing it. A class like this is designed to wake them up. They don’t care about a free press — but I look at it like they just haven’t been taught to care yet.
In many ways, I’ve never taught a harder class than Media Literacy. It’s more challenging to teach than a standard literature or writing course because a good teacher of it must constantly adjust his curriculum to remain up to date with the endlessly changing media landscape. Then the course itself tends to attract students who are unwilling to tackle harder, year-long classes such as American Literature or Advanced Exposition. Still, given the importance of the news media in today’s world — and given the cynical tarnish that even 16 and 17 year-olds are washing up on shore with nowadays — I believe it’s more important than ever to ensure students take a Media Literacy class in either high school or college.
Especially in the era — however short-lived it may be — of Donald Trump.