By John Stark
At a Western Washington University lecture last week, PBS News Hour co-anchor Jeremy Brown suggested that the wide range of politically-inflected news outlets–including both cable channels and websites–may be at least one of the causes of a divided nation.
I just can’t resist sharing my own thoughts on this topic, so I’m not going to. Here is a portion of my account of what Brown said, as written for the paper, with a few of my own observations added.
BELLINGHAM—A fragmented nation and a fragmented audience for news is making this country more difficult to govern, PBS News Hour co-anchor Jeffrey Brown said during a recent talk at Western Washington University.
A generation ago, before cable news channels and internet news sources, most people got their news from the same small collection of sources: three major television networks and a hometown newspaper or two, Brown said. People gathered around their televisions for the assassination of a president, a walk on the moon, and other major events.
“It was an age of mass media news, one audience sharing a common experience,” Brown said. “For the most part, the mass audience experienced such things together.”
(Stark: This was a different country in the 1960s. We had the media that technology permitted us to have. But we also had a very different generation of people running the country. My parents were (still are, bless ‘em) in many ways typical of that generation. The Great Depression and World War II helped to forge national unity through crisis. While that generation had the same broad range of ideological perspectives that we do, they were usually willing to set their own preferences aside and accept the decisions made by people in authority, while they focused on the economic opportunities offered by the post-war economic boom. )
Brown, featured speaker for the university’s Fall Family Open House Saturday, Oct. 27, contrasted that world with the one we live in today, in which Americans can restrict themselves to cable news stations and internet news sources they find most congenial.
“For the most part, we now live in the world of niches,” Brown said. He acknowledged that the availability of more choices is a good thing, but he also noted that the change seems to be part of a far more divided and bitter political atmosphere.
“If we only connect with like-minded people, how do we hear other views?” Brown asked. “It’s hard not to feel it has some relationship to the divisions around us.”
Brown said he has interviewed departing members of Congress from both parties who have told him they no longer want to be a part of an institution where compromise has become impossible and political parties are intent on scoring points rather than addressing national crises.
Brown cited some polling data that seems to show fear and bitterness transcending political and ideological boundaries. Pollsters have found that both Democrats and Republicans fear the loss of what they have and see their values as under siege.
“Each side sees itself as under siege,” Brown said. “Each side sees itself as losing ground. They can’t both be right. Or can they?”
(Stark: Yes, they CAN both be right. Conservatives see their once-prevailing cultural values mocked in popular culture. Liberals feel their values may be threatened by a conservative backlash. But most important, both liberals and conservatives know that their savings and their livelihoods are at the mercy of global economic forces that don’t care what party they belong to.)
What do you think? If cable television and the internet had never been invented, would our politics be any less divisive and bitter today? I don’t think so, although this is one of those questions where all answers are speculation. I don’t think proliferation of channels caused political divisions (and I’m not sure Brown thinks so either), although they certainly helped to fuel those divisions and deepen them. And I think those divisions would have become more evident anyhow, as the more team-oriented and self-effacing Greatest Generation surrendered the reins to their children and grandchildren, and a more difficult economy made everyone feel fearful and suspicious.
I also suspect that the new technologies simply enabled people to do something they wanted to do back in Walter Cronkite’s day. Agree or disagree?