Barack Obama talks to Bill Maher about the problem with America’s splintered media

Let’s put it this way.
Let’s put it this way.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Bill Maher waited a long time to land an interview with Barack Obama for his HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. It was worth the wait.

The US president tackled issues ranging from drug legalization to food safety to the threat he sees a prospective Donald Trump presidency posing to progressive ideals (and to American progress broadly). He also addressed a theme running through each of those topics: the splintering of information sources, and the impact this has on public discourse, and public policy by extension.

“When I leave here, one of the things I’m most concerned about is the balkanization of the media, where you’ve got 800 stations, you’ve got all these websites. People have difficulty now just sorting out what is true and what is not,” he told Maher. “I don’t have a good formula for that, but I think that it’s something I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about and seeing if maybe we can build some platforms where everybody says ok, let’s agree on facts and then argue about means [to address them through policy] after that.”

Their discussion about the state of the media starts at about the 5:20 mark.

The president returned to the topic awhile later (just past the 23:00 mark) while addressing the debate over climate science, this time calling out by name a platform that regularly makes information, and misinformation, accessible to the masses: Facebook.

Connecting the optics of social media with the troubling retooling of curricula and textbooks used in American schools, Obama said the trends point to a growing need for children to be taught critical thinking skills.

“In our school systems … you start seeing this weird watering-down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment … where everything’s contested, that nothing is true, because if it’s on Facebook it all looks the same, and if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement—or his mom’s basement—on text, it all looks like it’s equally plausible.”

Obama waved off Maher’s contention that media outfits should not be run on a for-profit basis, remarking that when major US television networks willingly ran their news divisions as loss leaders, it was during a time when the networks had a near-monopoly on viewership. But he lamented what he described as the filters and “fun-house mirrors” through which much of the American news diet is now consumed.

“Look, if I watched Fox News,” he said, “I wouldn’t vote for me either.”