Why the bitter U.S. political divide? Blame the digital information explosion
Most Americans would agree that our country is more fiercely divided along political lines today — Democrat/Republican and liberal/conservative — than ever before in our lives.
Through the last two or three presidential elections, this divide seems to have become more and more bitter. In the 2016 race, it reached a fever pitch, which has shown no sign of abating since the election of Donald Trump.
I believe the answer can’t be found at the political or tactical level. I think the answer is in the very widest context of human life — the fundamental changes happening to the flow of information among humanity.
Recently my son emailed me to ask that important question — why? Here’s his question and my answer.
From: Ben Gray
To: Steve Gray
Sent: Thu, Mar 16, 2017 7:30 pm
Subject: cultural divide/partisanship
So, I have a broader question for you, not necessarily as a conservative or as a member of the media, but just as an American —
What do you see as the future of government/politics in the US? This question is inspired partly by an article I read about the growing cultural and political divide between red states and blue ones, and partly by a growing sense I have that politics are getting generally nastier and that compromise has all but disappeared in Washington (at least publicly).
Here’s the article below — it’s from fivethirtyeight.com, which I think is usually an interesting read because everything they do is driven by data, so even though they clearly lean left, they have numbers and cited sources to back up their more concrete claims:
I guess what I’m asking is, do you share this sense that, increasingly, there are two bubbles in America, and that neither has much real interest in learning about the other’s perspective? Or maybe that doing so is actually approaching impossibility because of the fact that we’re geographically and socially and economically so separated?
And if so… is there anything we can do about it?
From: Steve Gray
To: Ben Gray
Sent: Mon, Mar 20, 2017 9:46 pm
Subject: Re: cultural divide/partisanship
I’ve been thinking about this subject since your email. And before that, for months and months, I had been not exactly thinking about it, but aware of it. And I had been thinking I needed to spend some time figuring it out.
The result is this very long email. Sorry about the length of it!
The Monitor [The Christian Science Monitor, where I was managing publisher from 1997 to 2005] focused on this increasingly bitter partisanship more than 10 years ago, when I was there. They did it through a series of op-eds in which they asked experts of various types to explain it.
One of those pieces stressed that it isn’t a new phenomenon at all — that you could find equally or even more bitter political battles a century ago and more. The climate during the presidency of Andrew Jackson was especially fierce, it said. (BTW, did you know Thomas Jefferson paid an editor to write scabrous untruths about John Adams at the time of Adam’s presidential race? Fake news is nothing new.)
Over recent months, I’ve been thinking that the explanation of what we’re seeing is found in my theory of the Infinite Pipe. (See the first post or two on my blog, listed as “The Basics” in the left nav).
That is, it is a product of the change from 100 years of constricted information going out to the entire population through very few channels to, now, about 15-20 years of information expanding toward infinity and going out to splintered audiences through a huge and expanding number of channels.
I think this change is the cause of a vast array of social, cultural and business changes we’re experiencing. I thought it had to be the explanation for the harsh polarization of politics, too, but I hadn’t thought out just how.
Here’s what I’m thinking now: I think we’re seeing the result of the guardrails falling away as information and channels have expanded exponentially.
When the whole population got all its news from a handful of sources (e.g., one local daily paper, maybe three networks and some radio stations), everybody drank from the same small information pipe.
Behaviors of the media were self-constrained and mostly hewed to pretty serious standards of neutrality. I think this was because we all knew we had to serve everyone regardless of their political leanings. Therefore we had to set aside our own biases, to keep from alienating those who would disagree with them.
But, of course, the individuals on the receiving end were free to believe what they believed and think what they thought. I think that spectrum was about as wide as today.
But, importantly, they didn’t have access to their own channels for distributing their views. There weren’t vast networks (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) through which they could pump out their opinions non-stop.
The only exception back then was letters to the editor, but those tended to be held somewhat in check by editors.
Back then, the “audience” beliefs and reactions moved in close, personal circles only through word of mouth and letters. It was, perforce, done pretty much in private, although there were a few conservative and liberal opinion magazines.
Today, though, the volume of individual, non-media reaction and commentary through digital channels outstrips the volume of mainstream content by some huge multiple. I’m guessing individual output is a million or more times the number of words the mainstream media put out each day.
IMO, this unrestrained personal expression — on both left and right — has become the background against which all reporting plays. I think it has become the environment, and I think the mainstream media has lost track of “impartiality” or “objectivity” because there’s so little of it around them. And because it seems so boring and even irrelevant compared to the bushwhacking that’s served up through opinions.
And here’s a second cause of the cultural divide: The rapidly widening information pipe has created far more channels to carry conflicting accounts of similar sets of facts.
My first encounter with what I’ll call “counter-culture” information channels happened in 1991. That year, a local guy started calling and visiting me at the paper to complain about the Associated Press coverage of a long summer of anti-abortion protests in Wichita, Kans.
He claimed to have eye-witness accounts from other sources that directly contradicted AP’s coverage. He disputed the AP’s take on specific events at specific times on specific blocks and street corners.
I’d never heard of such a thing. I took it seriously enough that I wrote Lou Boccardi, the CEO of AP at the time, asking for a serious examination of the accounts contested by the local guy.
[When Boccardi didn’t reply for weeks, I thought he was blowing me off. But then a 10-page letter arrived, in which he responded to the specific contentions of our local critic.]
For a local guy to be wired into some kind of information network carrying alternative accounts of major news events was completely unprecedented, as far as I knew. It seemed to me that something weird and different was happening.
In hindsight, I’m guessing that Operation Rescue, the pro-life group conducting the protests in Wichita, was distributing a newsletter or conducting a phone tree among its followers to distribute its own accounts of the protests. And probably telling them to complain to the local media.
That was 1991. Since then, add fax machines, email, websites and social media, and you’ve got untold thousands or millions of groups distributing their own accounts and interpretations of everything that happens, feeding them constantly to the people who share their views. This shapes the views of these individuals.
People can now draw virtually their entire view of reality from sources that share their political views. This reinforces their belief that their take is correct — and that anyone who disagrees is hopelessly misinformed. Bitter disagreement becomes inevitable.
That is the new media backdrop against which traditional and unbiased reporting is supposed to happen. But all those in the media are besieged with accusations of bias, inaccuracy and distortion now, from a population feeding on its own widely divergent information sources.
As a result, I think it’s gotten harder and harder for mainstream media to tell what “neutrality” looks like. Opinion-driven interpretation of varying fact sets is so rampant that I believe most “mainstream” reporters, editors and producers are resonating at some level with what they personally agree with in this vast, opinion-saturated ecosystem.
And therefore, as I see it, most reporting on the national level has taken on the opinion colorings that its practitioners once suppressed in themselves. [I would add that I don’t see this as nearly so prevalent in reporting of local news … but I’m concerned, because no one is immune to the environment being created by national political reporting.]
Okay, but why do I believe the mainstream media is so consistently liberal-leaning? [This is a belief of mine that Ben and I had discussed previously.] The biggest reason is that reporting is a job that pays very poorly but attracts very intelligent people willing to sacrifice earning power for the hope of “making a difference.”
Those attributes occur far more often among liberals than among conservatives, who usually gravitate to jobs they believe will enable them to earn incomes proportional to the amount of difference they make.
One more point: I think that the intensely bitter politics of 100 years ago and more reflected the fact that there were NO universally shared accounts of major news events. Everything went through the political press or through privately written letters.
There was no tradition of neutral journalism until the last half of the 19th century. There was no AP and there were no national newspapers, no TV, radio or internet.
So, in a way, I think that environment was similar to today’s. That is, all “news” accounts came through the colored lenses of personal opinion. Then, as now, everyone felt fully justified in his own interpretation of the facts, which tended to be received through channels sharing his or her political leanings.
What’s old is new and what’s new is old?
My apologies, Ben, for the length of this. But I thank you for asking.
In closing this post, I will add another point. Because today’s fiercely divided opinion landscape results from systemic change in how information flows, I believe there’s very little anyone can do to heal it.
But we need to be patient. We need to remind ourselves that we are barely 20 years into an entirely different information ecosystem. We are still babes in this very different new world, and humanity is still adjusting to this deep-reaching change.
I choose to believe that, over time, people will mature in their reactions to those who disagree with them. I hope that we will learn that, after all, these political views are just opinions. And opinions are not nearly as important as friendships, family relationships and cooperative interactions with our fellow human beings.
Posted on April 18, 2017, in Content, Disruption, human progress, Investigative reporting, Journalism, leadership, management, Media business model, media management, News, Newsrooms. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.