On this Independence Day, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge the increased polarization of our political discourse, both in our bodies of government and in our media. It’s an obvious phenomenon that has been commented on frequently (even on this blog. But I think more needs to be said. )
What’s less discussed is the role our news sources play in this ever-widening division.
The role of news organizations–newspapers, magazines, television, and digital media–is to provide information for citizens to digest in order to make informed decisions in a democracy. The role of a news organization is not to continuously promote a political agenda that makes its viewers and readers feel validated and comfortable.
There is an editorial page in newspapers for opinion, which is usually informed, brief, and often times moderate in its tone. Sadly, it seems that every hour of television news is five minutes of information and fifty five minutes of opinion masquerading as news. Except for the websites of established television and print news organizations and one or two digital-only investigative journalism websites, the internet seems to be the worst. While I have my issues with the mainstream media–which is overwhelmingly corporate owned–I have more issues with half-baked and often completely false content being promoted as news and accepted by many as fact.
To look at this problem objectively, we must first, ironically, disregard the notion of objectivity. Newspapers and television stations are run by humans, who are not entirely objective, as much as they may try to be. It is easy to label Fox News television conservative. It is easy to label the Guardian newspaper liberal. It is easy to see RT as a propaganda arm for Vladimir Putin. (Fully disclosure: my grandfather once owned a newspaper, The Stroud Democrat.)
What is more important than labels, or the reality that some publications or networks are biased, is the quality and consistency of information (facts, not opinions, and not propaganda) we receive from a news source. The quality of this information can affect the quality of our judgment when we decide to support a particular issue or a particular candidate. Emotions are fine and good, but they are, when it comes to decision making, poor tools most of the time.
As participants in democracy, we need information, and we need reliable information. We also need to put ourselves on a diet with regards to information. A 24 hour news cycle is wonderful: we get the news the moment it happens. The problem is that investigative journalism and hard news (as opposed to entertainment news and opinion) is expensive and time-consuming to produce. It can take months or years for a journalist to complete a story if importance. Editors, publishers, and lawyers may then clash over the article with concerns. Revisions are typical. Hard news, reporting a bombing in London, consists of a set of facts, which may expand over time. But the facts can often be presented in a very short period of time: this is the ‘who, what, where, when’ of a breaking story. But it requires journalists on the ground, where the story is happening, to report it and report it accurately. Again, not cheap.
So what happens to a cable news channel with 24 hours of programming time to fill? They turn to opinion: panels of experts, hours of speculation, and enough hot air to power a balloon and float me over and around the French countryside for a year. They also turn a cat getting stranded in a tree into ‘breaking news.’ Sensationalism doesn’t help us, folks.
What’s more, when we watch or read ‘news’ that only confirms or promotes our existing worldview, we aren’t receiving challenging and uncomfortable information that helps us exercise our critical thinking muscles. Like an athlete who never exercises, our body politic gets lethargic, out of shape, and irritable. This leads to us lashing out, making some bad decisions, and not making progress as individuals or as a country.
We must separate fact from opinion, and certainly from ‘alternative facts’ and outright lies. We must limit our exposure to commentary. We must use a variety of news sources as a way to draw informed, circumspect conclusions to the complex problems we face today. We must see more than two sides to every story in this multifaceted world. Only manipulators simplify issues and vilify those who hold a different opinion. They do this to acquire or maintain power, not to solve problems. Sometimes they do it to simply keep us as a nation divided while they quietly pursue their own agenda.
Yes, we need passion and decisiveness and even bold action at certain moments. But what we need more and more often is informed and moderated protocols for gathering information and making decisions, both in our public and private lives.
I’ve found over the years that the most intelligent person in the room (often an Old Money Guy or Old Money Gal) is the one with some reservations about a given issue. Not that they’re hesitant; they’ve simply looked at all the angles with as little emotion as possible, weighed the pros and cons, empathized with the parties involved, and run the options around the track mentally once or twice and tried to predict some possible outcomes and long term effects.
That kind of rigor will make you a little fatigued some of the time, but it will also make you much more wise most of the time. It will save you the exhausting exercise of hating the opposition. It will be a kind of crowbar that cranks open dogma and makes way for enlightenment. It will require you to change your mind, thoughtfully and over time, as you entertain new ideas. It may reveal to you that you were wrong. It moderates our opinions and steadies our choices. It leaves less room for ‘hangovers.’
If this is the kind of measured, thoughtful approach you’d suggest to your children when they consider buying a house or a car, wouldn’t it make sense to use the same approach with public policy issues and political candidates?
That’s a question we each must ask and answer individually. Having the television, newspaper, or internet confirm our existing opinions is comforting. It just isn’t healthy.
Happy 4th of July.