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.