Much worse was my conversation with Jason Carr of Green Bay, Wis., a middle-aged member of the Oneida Nation who was visiting his girlfriend in western New York. Wearing a “Born to Chill” T-shirt and sitting behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 pickup truck in a KeyBank parking lot, Carr told me that media reports strike him as nothing but “a puppet show” that is “filtered and censored” by big business. He buys into the conspiracy theories that the United States government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the 2012 massacre of Connecticut schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged. Carr didn’t vote in the presidential election and said there’s nothing the news media could do to earn his trust. “I don’t believe anything they say,” he said. “They get paid to be wrong.” I left the conversation shaking my head, knowing that, as is clear from the huge following of sites like the conspiracy-promoting Infowars, he’s far from alone in his beliefs.
But Carr was the exception, not the rule. And his complaints didn’t worry me as much as something else I encountered again and again: indifference. This was the real surprise and the most discouraging takeaway of my inquiry. So many people were happy to complain vaguely about “the media,” without really caring about the news, or following it with much interest. The concept of being a responsibly informed citizen? That was all too rare.