This piece appeared in sharply edited form in the Lynn Daily Item.
“You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
― Daniel Patrick Moynihan
The words of the U.S. Senator, who had previously served in domestic and foreign positions under both Republican and Democratic Presidents, strike the ear and brain as a self-evident truth. Pat Moynihan would be horrified to return to life and see a nation rent into alternative realities. Those alternate realities, Conservative/Right/Republican and Liberal or Progressive/Left/Democratic (which can be used here almost interchangeably) were initially political but have spread to law, crime, sports, religion, science and all aspects of our culture.
The division has emerged over decades. Certainly, the rift was exacerbated by the intentionally contentious Presidency of Donald Trump but those who seem to recall the opposition to former Presidents as golden ages of civility delude themselves. Reagan and both Bushes were derided as not just mistaken but dangerous to our safety and freedom, as were Clinton and Obama in their turn. There have been heated political arguments throughout the history of our Republic but their increasing intensity has to do with our sources of information.
During the earliest days of our Republic, we obtained news and facts from newspapers every bit as partisan as today’s. Indeed, many were blatantly so, often containing the party names, “Federalist,” “Democrat” or “Republican.” Our revered founders were viciously and often personally attacked by the opposition papers. The papers were rewarded by a circulation fattened, like ours today, by what we now call Confirmation Bias – an individual’s tendency to accept information which confirms to his existing beliefs. When a paper’s party was in power, there was the additional reward of legal advertising revenue. An even less reliable and more partisan source of news was the tavern, our earliest form of social media. The difference between those early sources of news and today’s media is the extent and intensity of their reach.
In the late 19th Century and the first 75 years or so of the 20th Century our national news narrative was formed, first, by the advertiser dependent newspaper chains of Hearst, Pulitizer and Patterson and a few dominant regional newspapers of the Ochs-Sulzbergers, Otis-Chandlers, Binghams and Taylors, then wire services and radio and television networks. Mostly conservative publishers set editorial policy and generally more liberal reporters undermined it, all combining into a center-left view of things upon which most Americans settled. There was a variety of outlier opinion to both left and right but most Americans adhered to the consensus and confined their information collection to a daily newspaper and an evening radio or TV network news broadcast.
During Labor Day weekend in 1963 CBS expanded its nightly new broadcast from 15 minutes to a half hour, starting with a Walter Cronkite interview of President Kennedy outdoors at the summer White House in Hyannis Port. NBC and ABC soon followed suit. That expanded and more immediate news source heavily impacted the public’s reaction to events like the 1960’s assassinations, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and destructive racial and political, rioting.
With the advent of cable television, entrepreneur Ted Turner developed CNN, a network devoted entirely to news including a lot of news commentary shows. In 1996 NBC News entered the lists with its own 24 hour news network, MSNBC.
Also in 1996, Roger Ailes founded the Fox News Network for Rupert Murdoch. Ailes had perceived a dissatisfaction of a large segment of the public with what they saw as an increasingly liberal spin in story and fact selection by the major networks and CNN in their news broadcasts. His news network also spun the news but the story and fact selection were spun in a conservative direction. Ailes had the brilliant insight that Confirmation Bias would draw viewers to a news network that reflected their own views.
Fox News was a great success and from 2002 led the three cable news networks in the ratings. Fox’s success did not move the other news networks toward the center. Rather, if anything, the other networks turned to the left to obtain the benefit of that Confirmation Bias from the progressive direction.
That the ratings were affected by the political views of its viewers is demonstrated by the fact that Fox News Network dropped out of first place for the first time after the January storming of the Capitol. The CNN and MSNBC move into first and second and FNC into third place was assisted by the rise of more conservative news networks, Newsmax and OAN. Many FNC viewers turned to the latter two when they regarded FNC as insufficiently conforming to their own views, when FNC (but for a couple of commentary shows) failed to support the notion of a “stolen Trump landslide.” Indeed, a segment of Fox News viewers became furious when the network stuck to its election night projection of a Biden victory in Arizona.
None of the news organizations were initially intentionally reporting “fake news” (long before the expression came into common use), but story and reported fact selection can “spin” or cast events in different lights on many political issues. Over time some false story lines have been presented as true. Not just Newsmax and OAN but some Fox commentators, like Sean Hannity and others who have since backed off, spun presented facts supporting President Trump’s claim that he had won the election. More recently the more liberal-leaning networks have promoted the false notion that a Georgia election law tightening security by requiring Voter ID for mailed ballots was a “Jim Crow” law.
The immediacy of cable television news networks with a 24-hour news window to fill has intensified the divide. Any single isolated incident can be made to feel like a nearby and national crisis affecting the viewer personally. An isolated shooting or rough handling of a black youth by police on the other side of the country feels (and “feels” is the right word) as if it occurred in your own city of town. Several such incidents in a short span of days or weeks – among millions of interactions between the police and public – reported so intensely with video in your own home, feels like a national wave of racist police brutality. The same is true, on the other hand, of the killing of a police officer – a fine officer gunned down, a biography of dedicated service, a grieving family, memorial services attended by uniformed brothers in blue, all brought into your home.
The rise of near-universal email and social media – Facebook and Twitter in particular -has only intensified the problem.
If the early American partisan schism in the news has returned, intensified by the broad and graphic immediacy of television, the reach of partisan tavern gossip has been multiplied by a factor of millions by social media.
The uproar is heightened by incessant small donation mass fundraising, citing, for example, the apparently desperate need to “get rid of” Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell.
The result is our great divide.
- Your side’s response to criticism of a politician by pointing out similar or worse failings in the other’s politicians to point out a double-standard is dismissed as “Whataboutism.”
- One side’s claim of “Voter Suppression” is the other’s effort to prevent voter fraud.
- One side’s urging to welcome refugees is derided by the other as “Open Borders.”
- Both sides think a demonstration that escalates to injury and property destruction is a “mostly peaceful protest” or, alternatively, a “riot” or “insurrection,” depending on whether it is in aid of its own positions.
- One side sees the police as racists injuring and killing minorities and the other defends police for going in harm’s way to protect the public.
- One side claims any accusation by a woman against a politician should be “accepted” unless it’s one of theirs and then should be “investigated.” The other thinks false accusations have been made but urges the opponent to follow its own stated policy when one of the opponent’s adherents is accused.
- The great divide even has disparate positions on the Duchess of Sussex.
As this suggests, many on each side think the other side is not just mistaken but evil and insincere.
There are layers on each side. First there are The Crazy Extremes – the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers on one side and Antifa and some elements of BLM on the other. They are disruptive and can be violent. Their main role though is to be made symbols of their own side by the other side. Then there are the True Believers. They are inclined to accept even the most outlandish positions with a religious fervor and are not amenable to reason. They are not violent but their protests are used as cover for The Crazy Extremes. The Crazy Extremes and the True Believers are “the Base” for each side. Finally, there are The Persuaded, who hold strong opinions but are capable of reason and persuasion when their position on an issue is untenable. There is a middle group which tries to avoid it all and often, in disgust, won’t vote.
Current political practice has it that the most essential thing to do in any election to “bring out the Base.” Hence each side feels the need to appeal to its worst elements.
This is the point where I would like to bring out a “Solution” but I have none. Historically a great national crisis, like a war, generally perceived to be a “good war,” might bring out unity. The last such war ended 75 years ago.
The Covid-19 Pandemic, far from bringing unity has become just another divisive issue. One side’s “follow the science to prevent Covid spread” stands against the other’s “Shutdowns are harmful too.”
On an individual basis, I am as guilty as anyone of the quick snarky reply to a troll. Lately I have tried restraint, asking myself, if there is any chance I could say something that would change the mind of anyone reading. The answer is always “no,” and I find that ignoring obvious trolls is somewhat relaxing. Also we can check our facts before we pass them on. Some individuals, forwarding emails to a list of like-minded friends or posting online, have no such constraints. You may trust the friend but does the item show it’s from a reliable source. Stories one sees online that seem “too good to be true” usually are just that.
It would be good if either or both parties, at least after the primaries, could turn from firing up the Base to trying to reach that middle group or even some of The Persuaded on the other side. I believe the last election turned on many of The Persuaded on the Republican side staying home or voting for Biden, because President Trump became so personally obnoxious to them.
The death of affectionately remembered Walter Mondale and recent re-emergence of George W. Bush, calling for a practical and wise Immigration policy are hints of a way forward. The Persuaded on either side can try to engage with each other. The place where that used to be done was Congress. We need to politically punish, not reward, politicians on either side who seek money and votes from their Base, to the exclusion of compromise policy solutions.
Even biased media shows some restraint to maintain at least the appearance of objectivity and credibility. Social media has no such constraints. The solution is not fact-checking by a consortium of the large social media and high tech companies. I can cite no better example than the suppression of the Hunter Biden story during the recent campaign. One is free to consider whether Joe Biden was complicit in any of his son’s activities but Twitter and Facebook and, for that matter, NPR just shut down any mention of the story.
Social media, protected by statute from liability for statements it carries, should not be allowed to take on the function of a publisher and rate their truth. If it takes on the function of a publisher it should be subject to the law of libel under which a publisher is held responsible.
All media, including any social media, that undertakes the role of publisher, should be held accountable under the law of libel for false statements about public figures. The rule in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), protecting the press against falsehoods made against public figures, and especially later cases which broadened the rule, should be revisited. The media, including social media that undertakes editing for truth, are, Senator Moynihan’s observation, entitled to their own opinion. They are not entitled to their own facts.