As we mark the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, revelations from the ongoing congressional investigations are beginning to mount, raising fundamental questions about forces that may imperil U.S. democracy. This investigation has deepened widespread concerns about rising threats of fascism, racism, white nationalism, and other phenomena that undermine justice for all. But in analyses that focus primarily on the role of white nationalism fomented within media echo chambers, for example, commentators have overlooked what may be a more pervasive parallel phenomenon: the widespread crisis of faith in U.S. media and institutions at large. Though these dynamics were on display during the insurrection and in the coverage that followed, January 6th offers a rich case study for interrogating the complex role of media in shaping public opinion and how those opinions have become so wildly divergent. For educators tasked with the vital work of helping young people sift fact from fiction in the present information landscape, this anniversary also raises an important challenge to expand the scope of instruction on media literacy for young people.
In Imagined Communities (1983), scholar Benedict Anderson provides a historical look at the role of media in shaping public opinion and national identity. There he argues that the emergence of print capitalism–particularly in the form of mass-market books and newspapers—in the 17th and 18th centuries played a decisive role in the formation of national identities around the world. Anderson argues that prior to this moment, people’s identities were not meaningfully linked to the nation in which they resided and were bound more to local custom, religious tradition, dynastic power, and face-to-face relationships with those who lived in their physical vicinity. He shows that the growth of these media changed that, however, and facilitated the emergence of a literate middle class with shared narratives that united people across large geographical expanses. He describes the type of nation that emerged in this time through the influence of print media as an “imagined community.” Anderson wrote: “[T]he fellow members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”
Today, when various commentators decry the crisis of trust in media, institutions, and national community that besets American discourse, they often hearken to an era in which widespread trust in media and institutions provided some sort of shared foundation for truth. But this narrative is too simplistic and obscures the historical development of media as producers of shared truth rather than impartial conduits of it. Now that we see a proliferation of platforms on which people can articulate various discordant views, it has become common to point to these platforms as the death knell for democracy rather than prompting us to consider the ways in which a wide array of voices on all sides of the social, cultural, and political spectrum had previously been obscured or made otherwise illegible at the level of national discourse. In other words, one might argue that the sense of national uniformity from which we have purportedly fallen has only ever been tenuous, if not entirely imaginary. Further, the notion that our most fundamental task as a nation is to return to a moment in which we all have a shared sense of truth buoyed by unfailing trust in media and institutions suggests a lack of attention to a number of key episodes from the last several decades of American political history.
From COINTELPRO and Watergate, to Enron and Iraqi "Weapons of Mass Destruction," to Vioxx and the Facebook Papers, the events of the last several decades have ushered in mounting levels of distrust in institutions across the political spectrum. In light of the revelations disclosed in each of these episodes and others, one might conclude that the oft-decried crisis of trust in media and institutions may stem, at least in part, from repeated instances in which our institutions and media platforms have actively eroded their own trustworthiness.
It is within the information landscape made by these and other instances of corruption that a portion of the American population now signals incredulity about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, along with a host of other prevailing narratives. Some political commentators like to locate the cause of dissension in single bad actors who enchant followers to relinquish their better judgment and adopt an ideological stance, but this does not tell the whole story. Seen through the light of the last several decades, Americans have reason to pose critical questions about the legitimacy of media reports, whatever their ideological alignments. To voice this observation is not to issue blanket approval of any and every position that a given person or group might assert on the public stage, however. It merely affirms that the readiness of Americans to question makes sense in the light of our history—and that, sometimes, this questioning is warranted.
Though much of the narrative surrounding January 6th is that it was a moment when a group of violent outsiders nearly broke democracy, we might also consider how democracy is always already imperiled by the institutions and information landscape in which we operate. Through this reframing, what might otherwise register only as a mass feat of illogic, hate, and violence on the part of the insurrectionists gains an additional dimension: it becomes a microcosmic portal into a deeper reckoning with the depth and breadth of institutional dysfunction we face as we attempt to build a more perfect union.
As Congress endeavors to uncover a more complete picture of the events of January 6th, the broader issue of widespread dissensus rather than consensus endures. With the advent of the internet and resulting democratization of information sharing, it is unlikely that we could return to the single-narrative media landscape of yesteryear in the absence of immense censorship and other authoritarian measures. And even under such conditions historically and around the world, many people have still managed to find ways to draw divergent conclusions. Perhaps it is time, then, to acknowledge that we may never reach a consensus on many of the issues that provoked the insurrection, along with countless others that divide our country.
Can we embrace the intellectual exercise of speaking and existing with others in the absence of consensus? Can we pause to interrogate the broader information landscape in which the insurrectionists (and various other hateful, criminal factions) have organized and must now be held accountable? Can we channel some of the outrage elicited by these violations into the work of pushing institutions that have earned the distrust of many to demonstrate that they are indeed trustworthy?
For educators: Can we equip our students to parse information more thoughtfully and interrogate positions (their own and those of others) more skillfully? Can we help them to do so in a manner that engages not only their intellectual resources but also their emotional intelligence? And can we help them channel their ardent questioning and ethical reflection into the civic action upon which democracy depends?
At Facing History, we believe that all of these are both possible and necessary. The ability to think critically about media and engage in dialogue across difference of all kinds is central to the maintenance of democracy, and teachers have a vital role to play in helping young people cultivate these capacities.
We invite educators to use our media literacy resources to help students think through the roles of media in shaping public life, and cultivate their critical capacities as consumers of media and civic actors in American society.