Divided America: Changing the channels.

I keep hearing how America is “the most divided it’s been since the Civil War.” Superlatives aside, we are obviously incredibly divided along political lines. People seem confused about it, but I think the reason is pretty obvious:

Based on the news we watch, we no longer live in the same America. Look at our media. As much as America has been divided since the 1860s, we’ve all pretty much had access to the same news channels, be they a handful of newspapers, radio stations, or television channels. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, as Conservative Talk Radio was taking off, we were all still pretty much getting our news from four or five TV stations. We might have disagreed about interpretations, but we all had the same facts.

Nowadays, we’re getting our news from a dozen different TV stations and a million different blogs and news sites. The quality of journalism is incredibly varied, and the various channels adopt editorial positions that are intended to attract and cultivate viewership, not to report fact with integrity. Viewers naturally choose to watch the channel or read the blog that appeals to them – which means that [pullquote position=”right”]when a politically liberal person debates a politically conservative person, they can’t possibly find consensus because they don’t have the same facts.[/pullquote] One of them lives in a world where Barrack Obama is a probably-Muslim, probably Kenyan-born socialist who has raised taxes, smuggled guns across the Mexican border, and declared amnesty on illegal aliens, where Iraq DID have WMDs and WAS involved in the 9/11 attacks, and where Climategate demonstrated forever that Global Warming is a Myth. The other lives in a world where 9/11 was an inside job, George W. Bush stole the 2000 election via his brother Jeb, and Fast and Furious is nothing but a spurious political ploy with no merit whatsoever.

What really bugs me is that channels like MSNBC position themselves as the “Anti-Fox News” by adopting a Liberal slant. But the opposite of Fox News is not to adopt a liberal bias. The opposite of Fox News is to adopt journalistic integrity.

I don’t generally buy the argument that the rest of the “mainstream media” has a liberal bias. Sure, it may be true that certain reporters go out on a limb here or there, but I think mostly that’s a talking point for people who find facts inconvenient to their agenda. I’m a big believer in Jon Stewart’s theory that the modern media is just lazy and sloppy, but I don’t even think that’s the main problem. The main problem is that the news has become a product – and since news itself is a commodity, the only way to make YOUR product stand out from your competitors’ is to change the way you present it – to slant it to cater to a certain sensibility, to affirm your viewer’s preconceived opinions and make them feel right at home. That’s how Fox News became the most-watched network on TV, and that’s how a lot of news blogs have become successful. In a novel yet-to-be-published I wrote about fictional software that would slant the same news story to either liberal or conservative readers, depending who was reading – only to learn that some blogs are already filtering their articles to meet their readers’ tastes using a similar, though more basic, method.

At some point we have to start coming back together, or as a culture we are going to tear apart. We’re pretty close already. Yes, there is a place for snark – Lord knows it’s my stock in trade most days – but snark isn’t going to build any bridges or get us back to a place where we can arrive at collaborative solutions.

So what can we do? For now, I think there’s only one thing we as viewers have the power to do: Change the channel. We have to stop rewarding bad behavior. If you are watching the news, and you find yourself cheering because they’re affirming your political views, stop and turn it off. If you have a particular blog you love because they really give it to the “other side” (be it The Blaze, Drudge Report, or AlterNet) stop reading. As long as we keep acting as consumers of the news, these companies will continue to treat it as a product.

4 COMMENTS

  1. These are some great thoughts! I love it!

    As you noted, the problem is that everyone wants to be affirmed that their belief is correct, so to willingly change the channel would be to tacitly admit that your view may not, in fact, be correct. Or put differently, in our “black and white” culture, we assume that there must be ONE correct view, and of course we believe we have found it, and thus we believe that the news we receive that affirms this view must be the “true source” of news.

    I think the more likely source of journalistic accountability would be in the creation of a new government agency (or if you prefer smaller government, trade organization with enough clout to pull it off) to oversee journalistic integrity. If NBC doctors a Romney campaign video to make him sound like he is trying to get more cheers for himself, or NBC edits the George Zimmerman 9-1-1 tape to make him sound racist, or ABC edits a George Zimmerman clip to obscure the gash in his head — they would have hefty fines to pay.

    On a similar note, the same agency could be in charge of fact checking campaigns and fining candidates (and moderators) for blatant lies or misleading statements during debates as well. Of course, there is so much gray that this would certainly require a bit of oversight and integrity in itself, which starts the whole cycle over again.

    You’re right that these organizations will only listen to their wallets. But the problem is that changing “buying behavior” is simply not going to happen as long as people keep having their egos stroked. The only answer is for the system to be fixed through forced accountability.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sam. I can’t say that I really agree with you, but I certainly think you offer a valid counterpoint. My disagreement is with the mechanism – I just don’t believe that any agency, be it government or private, can be trusted to police veracity. All that does is move the manipulators and deceivers higher up the ladder. Four years ago I thought FactCheck.org and PolitiFact had integrity and could be trusted, but in this election cycle we are seeing biases emerge in both.

      The only viable solution I see is for people to educate themselves and draw their own conclusions. I still believe the people you should trust the least are the ones giving you the news you want to hear, and the guideline I try to live by is to do the most fact-checking on stories that elicit the greatest emotional response, either positive or negative. Unfortunately we, as a nation, have not done an adequate job of educating our citizens, and so we are surrounded by people who are incapable of parsing the news stories and picking out reliable information. That’s a huge problem – but I don’t think handing authority over truth to any single agency (or even to a panel) is a viable solution.

      I think what we should all be doing is pushing our government for better education – and by that I don’t mean better test scores, I mean a system that equips individuals to think and function on their own. And I think we should be pushing each other to stop treating politics like sports, where our loyalty to “our team” is the most important thing, and to take the time to think critically about the issues.

      …and yes, I’m aware of how idealistic that is. I’m not terribly confident that it will work.

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