Ordinarily, I love speaking to high school students.
Often they ask better questions than the adults I talk to, not yet seeing the world through partisan-colored spectacles that are all too prevalent in The Validation Culture. I often leave with a renewed sense of optimism, reinvigorated by the energy and optimism of youth.
Not this time.
When I left McQueen High School in Reno, I was struck by the almost nihilistic attitude they had, the near-surrender to the immutability of Things As They Are. But what was even more distressing – and yet I should have predicted it – was the reaction after I tweeted what you see above.
The gist: Bravo to the kids for distrusting government – they are just like the colonists in 1776! Look how terrible things are, so good for them to feel that way! What fantastic news! I’m so glad they hate the media, and it’s your fault! And so on, and on and on.
Granted, Twitter is so often not a reflection of the real world. The extremes often dominate, and the negative always overwhelms the positive. Bile over smiles, venom over praise.
But even if Twitter is not representative of the general populace in many ways, the general lack of nuance and the tendency toward tendentiousness is familiar in the real world, too...
This mindset is what has caused the all-too-real crisis in America, where a hopelessly polarized Congress that accomplishes much less than it should and where motivations are always questioned has spread its disease of hyperpartisanship and sclerosis to places like Carson City. And some quarters of cable news – but fewer than you would glean from Twitter – have only exacerbated all of this by spoon-feeding The Validation Culture members exactly what they want to hear.
Thus is information lost or mistrusted, thus does the past-factual era begin. If you believe in nothing, you will believe almost anything. And that’s what worried me about those kids at McQueen—they had all but given up on the media and government.
Of course I understand why the media are held in as low esteem – or, in some cases, lower – than politicians. Some have earned it by sloppiness and sloth in high-profile cases, by letting market forces supersede noble imperatives.
The explosion in media sources, too, has made this much worse, broadening the brush to paint us all as agenda-driven or fact-challenged. It’s just not so.
I continue to believe this is the Golden Age of Journalism. National reporters covering Congress and The White House, local journalists covering their own cities and states have done some of the best work ever done in the business.
But the problem that is metastasizing is that too many people – including those kids in Reno – are not listening. They have tuned out because they don’t trust anymore, and their lack of trust is often misplaced because of that broad brush.
Not all media outlets are created equal. The lack of discernment has created The Validation Culture, where many seek out confirmation of their own beliefs and not real answers to their questions. The truth is out there, but not just where Mulder sought it. It’s actually everywhere, if you take the time to look.
But either out of fatigue or anger, people are buying those partisan glasses and never taking them off. It’s easier, more satisfying.
I should address the elephant in the room: This is not just about Donald Trump. Yes, he exploited the growing distrust of DC in 2016, and he found an audience of people all over the country who were willing to tune back in because he was different. You may not like what he was selling (and still is), but it was a brilliant strategy.
It was partly the delegitimizing of the media that Trump was happy to capitalize on in 2016 that motivated me to start a nonprofit news site dedicated to fairness and transparency. I believed that despite The Validation Culture that there was still a yearning out there for deeply reported pieces about issues and campaigns. I think I was correct, and I love my colleagues at The Indy for embracing it with a passion.
Even though I lamented the surrender I felt in that classroom last week, I am, appearances to the contrary at times, an optimist. After three and a half decades covering politics, I can shelve my cynicism and not give up hope. The fact is most people who get into government are in it for the right reasons, their individual foibles notwithstanding – some are smarter than others, some work harder than others.
It’s the system that corrupts, but not quite absolutely yet. And while the solutions are elusive and not simple, they are out there. (Insert pitch for real-time campaign finance reporting here.)
My feeling of depression was slightly leavened by the time I left McQueen that some of the kids asked good questions – about the presidential race, about term limits, about campaign finance reform. So as I thought about it in the days that followed, I regained my hopeful attitude.
Oh, and about the reaction to that tweet: More than twice as many people have liked it and retweeted it as have responded to it with counter-narratives. As the most famous line goes from a wonderful movie my son and I always quote to each other: Never give up, never surrender.
That’s what I said to those kids. That’s what I say every day as I do my job. That’s what I hope everyone will do.