Since Donald Trump upended everything we thought we knew about politics, hands have been wrung and ink has been spilled about the "post-factual age." How could the candidate with the worst Politifact rating in the 2016 campaign come out on top? How could fake news cause a man to shoot up a pizzeria in a quiet Washington neighborhood? How could the Trump administration claim its new press secretary was using "alternative facts"?
Do facts still matter — and if they don’t, will real journalism stay relevant? Or is the “lamestream” media a relic?
We shouldn’t overreact. Now that President Trump has taken the oath of office and the business of governance has begun, the impact of fake news and “alternative outlets” will be revealed as vastly overblown. “Traditional” media will still control the national conversation. Policymakers will still have to build their days around what the mainstream media reports. The scandals, conflicts and reality checks the mainstream press unearths will dominate the headlines, as they did just before the inauguration. Those of fake news sites will not.
Let’s start with the numbers. Infowars, which received tremendous attention as a haven for conspiracy theories during the campaign, has about 6 million unique monthly visitors. Breitbart had roughly 19 million in October 2016 when interest in the presidential campaign was peaking.
The USA TODAY Network, on the other hand, had more than 122 million unique visitors in November. CNN's monthly average is about 105 million. The Washington Post and The New York Times, meanwhile, rose to about 100 million a piece just before the election. It is hard to deny that mainstream media outlets reach a huge swath of America’s news consumers.
It’s not just the sheer numbers, though — it’s also who reads which outlets. Politico polled congressional staffers and lobbyists on what they read, and the results were no surprise. Among the most read were The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Hill, Roll Call and, of course, Politico itself. Most congressional offices also read their hometown papers religiously.
People working in Washington’s other policy-making centers — like the Department of Defense or the Department of Education — read large national publications. They also read outlets that focus on their respective industries, such as Defense News and Education Week, and those mainstream trade publications matter. Education Week, for instance, has more than 600,000 unique monthly visitors, and you can bet the people crafting federal regulatory interpretations take their stories seriously.
As for sites like Infowars, "credible” people cannot cite them and remain credible, at least not with policymakers. Former Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, for instance, tweeted a link to an Infowars story. A reporter from the mainstream The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and conservatives from across the country lambasted him for it, and Kingston deleted the tweet in an hour. If citing an outlet can shame a former member of Congress, let alone a current one, it is fair to say that outlet’s impact on the national policy conversation will be limited at best.
Finally, few things control the national conversation like a scandal, but the scandal must have some grounding in fact in order to matter. Fact-based scandals dominated the conversation around the campaign, whether it was Clinton’s emails or Trump’s “locker room talk” aboard the Access Hollywood bus. That is all the more true while a president is in office. Consider how the Clinton administration’s legislative agenda ground to a halt during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or how the George W. Bush administration’s political capital evaporated following the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.
The “scandals” unearthed by alternative outlets don’t have the same impact. For instance, when Alex Jones “reported” that Hillary Clinton was a devil worshipper, the Clinton campaign, to put it mildly, did not feel compelled to offer a denial. The next four years will doubtlessly see unreliable news outlets produce hundreds of "scandals," none of which will have much effect on America’s governance.
Yes, people are sharing fake news through Facebook and Twitter. People are increasingly using social media platforms to receive news through a “filter bubble,” where they will only end up reading the news and opinions they already agree with, regardless of whether those “facts” are actually true. In the long run, that will be poisonous to our nation, convincing everyone that their own opinions are infallible and the opposition is at best stupid or at worst evil.
None of that, however, precludes the traditional media from playing a critical role in the governance of the United States. Even in the post-factual age, when fake news proliferates and fringe conspiracies creep into online interactions, the “lamestream” media will still control the national conversation. Facts still matter.