Guest column: Fear, click bait and Machiavelli

Can there be any doubt that what drives today’s political media is a fear-based shouting match? asks Roger Plothow.

You may recall our conversation last week with Baylor University Professor Dwight Allman (if you don’t, you’ll certainly want to dig out last Tuesday’s paper or find it on our website and give the column a read).

No professor worth his salt can talk about media literacy and politics without a nod to the master political manipulator, Machiavelli.

Allman writes: “In his famous handbook, The Prince, on how to obtain and maintain power, Machiavelli eventually takes up a stock issue of the advice books on politics that litter the Middle Ages; whether it is better to be loved or feared. While Machiavelli concedes that a prince or ruler would ideally be both loved and feared by those he governs, he opts for fear as the more reliable, and therefore useful, passion for anyone seeking control over the hearts and minds of a people.”

Can there be any doubt that much of what drives today’s political media is fear? Barack Obama was after your guns, or worse. Donald Trump, well, the list is long and growing. You can’t even glance at any social media without becoming immediately awash in the latest fear-based shouting matches.

“The greater utility of a political psychology based on fear has been a staple of modern political thinking since Machiavelli,” Allman continues. “In the competition to win the allegiance of its audience, partisan-directed media, both online and on the air, regularly applies Machiavelli’s insight to the challenges of obtaining and maintaining the commercial support of a steady viewership. The partisan narrative around which these forms of media tend to structure their reporting – or, as is often the case, misreporting – persistently stokes and plays to the fears of the audience.”

And now, Allman gets to the main issue, what we in print journalism have come to call the “nut graph.”

“Regular consumption of this sort of ‘news’ thus tends to consolidate the audience around an outlook that is divisive, isolating, mistrustful and angry, but, by the same token, increasingly partisan and loyal.”

“It intentionally promotes hostility to what the partisans necessarily dismiss as the ‘lame-stream’ media, even when it is that sector of our modern media that strives to uphold the time-honored and civic obligation to non-partisanship. The commercial interest of these venues thus ends up debasing the important civic role that a free press necessarily serves in a society purporting to be governed by and for the people. In this way, the internet and the proliferation of the media seem to me to have contributed significantly to a corruption and ‘ghettoization’ of our public culture.”

This is all pretty deep and intellectual – an email writer recently accused me of being “pedantic” in my writing on this issue – but I trust that those who have invested the 10 minutes or so to get this far have almost certainly at least been prodded to look at media literacy in a new light.


Plothow is Editor and Publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong weekly series on news and media literacy.


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