Barack Obama has met his adversary, and it is us, or, at the very least, our diverse and clamorous media environment.
In an interview with CBS News this week, the former president said what keeps him awake at night is “the degree to which we now have a divided conversation, in part because we have a divided media, a splintered media.” “When I was growing up, you had three TV stations… and people got a similar sense of what is true and what isn’t, what was real and what wasn’t,” he said. Now “we almost occupy different realities.”
Of course, there is something to this. When there was nothing else to watch and few other alternative sources of information — no internet, social media, talk radio, etc. — it produced a shared experience that will never be recreated. It’s also true that there’s more nonsense masquerading as news than ever before, and social media, particularly Twitter, has had a detrimental effect on our politics.
Still, Obama is operating under a false assumption: that if only the media were more consistent and we had “a common set of facts,” our politics would be less polarised.
This is the wrong way to say things. In contemporary politics, we have a conflict about values and philosophical foundations from which factual disputes follow, rather than a consensus on first principles that is being disrupted by disputes over minor factual issues.
No logical individual has ever thought or stated, “If only we could agree on what constitutes a foetal heartbeat, this abortion issue could be settled once and for all.”
Poisonous debates about the fundamentals of disputed issues — or, as Obama calls it, “a divided conversation” — are nothing new in American history. We didn’t agree on what was going on in Bleeding Kansas, the early years of the Soviet Union (New York Times reporter Walter Duranty famously earned a Pulitzer Prize for reporting that downplayed Stalin’s cruelty), or the Vietnam War.
To use an example from the latter, was the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive a victory or defeat? That is a fundamental subject about which people have disagreed since the beginning. In the aftermath, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite said, “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of American leaders, both in Vietnam and in Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.” According to him, “we are mired in a stalemate that can only be broken through negotiation, not victory.”
He wasn’t just relaying facts, whether he was correct or not.
So, sure, the media environment was a source of coherence, at least in comparison to today, but at the cost of devoting excessive authority to three people who happened to win the lottery and become network anchors, as well as their supporting crew of writers, producers, and reporters. The newsreaders were dubbed “voices of God” because of their ability to read from a teleprompter smoothly and convincingly, a characteristic that should not have conferred such authority.
By the way, we shouldn’t overestimate the amount of cohesion they brought.
Despite the network tri-opoly still in place, the 1960s and 1970s were the most severe time of political and social turbulence in recent memory in the United States. Cities were destroyed. Political people were killed. Protests erupted in droves in the streets. Domestic terrorists frequently detonate bombs.
Harry Reasoner was powerless to stop the tide.
Not that Obama is proposing it, but it’s worth considering what would be involved in returning to a bygone media landscape. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram would cease to exist. There will be no more YouTube or Substack. Forget about Medium. What about cable news? Gone. Countless new media organisations with diverse interests, philosophies, and business methods will vanish from the internet. Podcasts would become extinct.
No, we’d be back to three entities with enormous ability to report and define the news, and — if we really want to recreate the post-World War II era — the same world view.
Who would want something like this? Rachel Maddow and I do not agree. I believe she promoted foolish conspiracy theories during the Trump-Russia inquiry and is a bitter partisan. Still, it would never occur to me that the existence of such a show is harmful for America; differing viewpoints, especially when held truly and intelligently, are good for America.
In the United States, we have five major newspapers: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Is it better for our cohesion if we only had one?
There is an advantage to having fewer news sources if they match your point of view. Even if Obama isn’t thinking in these terms overtly or consciously, this is what he’s driving at.
He takes gun control as an example of an issue where we might have a better debate if we had a similar factual framework. He cites higher levels of gun violence in the United States as a predicate we should all accept, but that fact isn’t really debatable.
His use of weapons to illustrate a lack of common knowledge is telling, but not in the way he intended. He shows little grasp of how gun control activists frequently believe in and promote falsehoods about guns; in reality, they frequently have no idea what they’re talking about on fundamental issues.
They believe AR-15s are more powerful than other rifles when they are not, and that they fire faster than pistols when they do not. These advocates appear to be unaware that rifles of all varieties account for only a small percentage of gun violence. They speak out against the “gun show loophole,” which requires persons who buy guns at gun fairs to complete background checks. They complain that people can buy guns on the internet without having to go through background checks, even if this is not the case. And so forth.
The public would be immensely harmed if every media outlet in the country stuck to what gun-control campaigners consider the truth, and there were no conservative media and specialised gun magazines, Twitter accounts, and substacks to push back. As it stands, most major media outlets either participate in or ignore these falsehoods.
If groupthink is still a problem today, consider how horrible it used to be and how powerful it would be if we had fewer media instead of more. This brings us to the root of the issue.
We should recognise that a relatively small group of people will inevitably lack the knowledge and judgement to answer all or even most of the big questions correctly, and that it is preferable to have everything litigated and argued about in a chaotic and permeable media ecosystem with a diverse range of formats and voices.
There are numerous genuine reasons for sleeplessness in modern America; but, the fact that we are no longer as limited in our sources of information and media choices should not be one of them.