Suggesting a Trumpist or perhaps even a conservative read Brooke Gladstone’s new book, The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, may be akin to the proverbial red flags and bulls. After all, she’s devoted her career to covering the dastardly media, most of it while working for WNYC and NPR, two legendary citadels of the liberal media. Moreover, she’s suggesting that Trump is significantly responsible for a reality that seems increasingly built on “alternative facts.” Yet such a reaction is emblematic of what she believes is happening today.
It is a succinct consideration of an era in which reality is at the core of an “epic existential battle.” In assessing why this battle exists, Gladstone doesn’t lay blame entirely at the feet of Trump and his supporters (although they’re assigned plenty). She builds her analysis using diverse sources, including Hannah Arendt, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, journalist Walter Lippmann, Thomas Jefferson, Philip K. Dick, Oliver Swift, and 17th century poet John Milton. She believes human nature helped create our confused reality.
We erroneously think facts are reality, she says. Even when two people are presented with the same facts, though, they filter, arrange, prioritize and view them through their own values and traditions. Ultimately, reality “is not necessarily the world we would like it to be, … it is simply the kind of world we expect it to be.” Yet another part of the problem is that just as we sift facts, other elements of our political system affect what we sift.
Since 2000, Gladstone has co-hosted On The Media, a weekly radio program billed as examining how the “media shapes our world view.” Yet in the last election, the media fell victim to what she calls Trump’s “canny use of the demagogue’s playbook.” Using a number of Trump’s campaign statements and an analysis of how he’s used Twitter to “embed his realities,” The Trouble with Reality suggests the media’s approach to an unprecedented campaign style made things worse. Gladstone argues that the Trump campaign’s methods left the media “darting this way and that after shiny objects, too frantic to cull the crucial from the trivial, never pausing for the big picture that, in any case, they would not have recognized.”
Yet her views may reinforce the growing lack of trust in the mainstream media. For example, she correctly notes that “reporters should have laughed less and reported more” during the campaign. Perhaps more concerning is when The Trouble with Reality suggests that there now exists an animus between the press and Trump that will create a new golden era of journalism. Trump’s election, Gladstone says, has “blocked the appearance of objectivity at all costs” and turned Washington reporters into war reporters.
Yet Trump consistently accuses the media of lacking objectivity. (Actually canceling press briefings would be a miscalculation as it would not only heighten the animus, but give “war reporters” more time to work on their marksmanship.) Perhaps it is just her phrasing that causes concern. Undoubtedly, the media must change its conspicuous tendency to accept statements at face value while failing to fact check them. Still, any hint that the press is discarding objectivity and is a on a hunt for Trump has significant ramifications for media credibility.
Of course, Gladstone also sees Trump as a significant source of “our reality trouble.” She seeks to explain what allowed Trump to so resonate with voters during the campaign. At the same time, the book regularly quotes and applies guidelines used to assess totalitarianism and demagoguery, suggesting Trump is both. As for the reality Trump supporters believe exists, she says he struck a “classic authoritarian deal” with them: “You can bask in my favor and recognition, in the promises I make and the license I bestow, and all I ask in return is that you believe whatever I say, whenever I say it. Even if it is false.”
Such an inferred agreement may well be one reason people accept the “fake news” and “alternative facts” motifs apparent since Trump’s inauguration. And while there certainly are others, it also helps explain why she believes the path toward repairing reality isn’t agreeing on what it is.
Given everyone views identical facts from different perspectives, it is difficult, if not impossible, to agree on the truth, on reality. While Gladstone suggests activism is a route for those so inclined, she believes gathering more facts from people and sources with whom we are unfamiliar is important. Even if those facts don’t change our minds, it may allow us to comprehend how or what another person accepts as reality. Whether she’s right or not, the suggestion is certainly better than viciously berating and maligning each other, whether publicly or online.