How do you explain the rise of fundamentalism?
Jon Meacham is the Editor of Newsweek magazine. Since starting there as a writer in 1995, he has also served as the national affairs editor and managing editor. He now supervises and occasionally contributes to Newsweek’s coverage of politics, international affairs, and breaking news. Meacham is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006), and Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (2003), which won the 2005 Emery Reves Award and the William H. Colby Military Writers Symposium’s Book of the Year Award. His latest book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, was published by Random House on November 11, 2008.
Meacham has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The Washington Post Book World. He is also a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly. In 2001, he edited Voices in Our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement (Random House), a collection of distinguished nonfiction about the mid-century struggle against Jim Crow. Born in Chattanooga in 1969, Meacham graduated from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with a degree summa cum laude in English Literature. He is also a member of the Board of Regents of The University of the South, the Vestry of Trinity Church Wall Street, the Leadership Council of the Harvard Divinity School and the Council on Foreign Relations. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University in 2005 and also holds three honorary doctorates. He and his wife live in New York City with their two children.
Jon Meacham: I think that literalism – fundamentalism – is the refuge for people who are fearful. I think that it’s much easier to put on a coat of amour and stand still, or to fight blindly or reflexively, than to judge the slings and arrows of fortune as they come because that part’s scary. It’s hard to try to reconcile . . . I believe in a god who ultimately is a force of love and justice, and yet children have cancer and children starve. I mean that’s an utterly . . . they seem utterly incompatible. And that’s very hard, and it’s a mystery, and I have no earthly idea how to reconcile them; but I’m gonna try because to be fundamentalist on either side is to foreclose whole realms of experience, and thought, and potential illumination. If one’s entirely secular, then you foreclose the possibility of the miraculous. If you’re entirely fundamentalist in Christian terms, then you are accepting as inerrant a book and a tradition that is clearly the product of human hands and hearts. So that, to me, is an irrational reaction to scripture. Scripture is fascinating, but it’s a historical document; and it’s as flawed as any other historical document. So my sense of fundamentalism is people who want a comfortable way to react to an ever-changing world tend to seek refuge in a more fundamentalist world view than I’m comfortable with. Literalism. Literalism. Yeah, that’s good a moment ago. Islamic literalism. It’s Christian literalism. It’s this idea that we have access to the complete truth and all the answers, and that those who do not agree with us are somehow subhuman, are infidels, are justifiable targets. And we got in trouble in epically tragic terms in the 20th Century when various people, various systems dehumanized others, and that’s essentially what we’re living with now. And the engine of that dehumanization is a fundamentalist view in one’s own virtue and one’s own . . . the correctness of one’s own. So to me the largest story of our time will be a reformation, a moderation of forces of extremism around the world, including some at home, but chiefly around the world. Because people are sometimes a little, I think, too sanguine about terrorism. The idea is, well, al-Qaeda is “small beer”, I think the Economist put it recently. Yeah, unless you lost someone, or unless there’s a weapon of mass destruction that falls into the wrong hands. So whatever we can do to reduce the oxygen flow to those pockets of hate and destruction, I think we’ll be what this generation is remembered for or not.
Recorded on: 7/3/2007
Literalism is a refuge for those who are fearful.
A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."
- The study involves four experiments that measured individuals' socioeconomic status, overconfidence and actual performance.
- Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
- However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.
Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
If you thought your mother was pushy in her pursuit of grandchildren, wait until you learn about bonobo mothers.
- Mother bonobos have been observed to help their sons find and copulate with mates.
- The mothers accomplish this by leading sons to mates, interfering with other males trying to copulate with females, and helping sons rise in the social hierarchy of the group.
- Why do mother bonobos do this? The "grandmother hypothesis" might hold part of the answer.
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