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Media echo chamber polarizes politics, damages democracy

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/
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Editor’s note: this is part two of The Pragmatist’s Manifesto.This weekly column encourages civil discussion about politics in the U.S. Find previous installments @ thetartan.org.

Welcome back! Last time we took a whirlwind tour of U.S. election history as I opened my defense of the two-party system. This week, we will analyze the evolution of our media outlets over the past two decades and discuss how we all can individually work to bridge our country’s partisan divide.

As the son of someone who works in the news media, I was raised listening to NPR. I was not particularly dependent on any television network for my information. And just like you, I experienced the mass expansion of the internet as I grew up. Since 2007, the number of internet users worldwide has tripled.

Carnegie Mellon students are too young to remember when there were only three channels on television: ABC, CBS, and NBC. They were staples in people’s everyday culture that provided news every evening. People did not listen to the news to reinforce their own opinions; they listened to the news to get the news.

Then came CNN. (For those of you who don’t watch TV, you probably have seen it in airports whether you like it or not.) The Cable News Network was founded in 1980 as a 24-hour news service. News, all the time. More news shows were created to fill time with the same stories. One of my favorite CNN spectacles was its coverage of the lost Malaysian Airline Flight 370; it constantly covered every little detail about it for weeks on end. CNN took an event that was a tragic loss of life and sucked its emotional value dry with overwhelming coverage; it ended up becoming incredibly boring.

Things began to change during the 1990s. FOX News and MSNBC were both created in 1996. Both politically lean far more drastically to either side; FOX being conservative, and MSNBC being liberal. Now viewers could choose which type of news they wanted to watch. If a Federalist chose to read a Federalist-leaning newspaper in 1793, he would probably reaffirm his own views. Due to the availability of television, the same principle applies here, except on a much larger scale.

Through the Bush and especially Obama years, as we will talk about in greater detail next column, partisan obstructionism led to more gridlock than actual governance. Many on either side of the divide chose the media that they agreed with most. The news reporting may be accurate, but when people do not watch or listen to sources that they disagree with, it reaffirms that their own opinion is the right one. This problem worsened with the rise of the internet.

As we know from last week, the two parties act as large umbrellas, with more extreme minority voices on both sides. With the rise of the internet over the last decade, these minorities created their own sources of online news. The progressive liberal show The Young Turks started broadcasting on YouTube in 2005. Things got even more extreme with the founding of the Breitbart News Network in 2007. Breitbart has been described as “conservative news” by other networks, but it often peddles conspiracy theories from the “alt-right” movement.

The omnipresence of the new media forces more traditional media like newspapers and cable TV news to adjust their strategies by pushing more flashy headlines and less substantive stories. This is one reason the GOP nominee in our current election got so much more momentum than people predicted. The TV networks could not help themselves every time the nominee said anything out of the ordinary, giving him over two billion dollars of free advertising instead of covering the candidates with, for example, actual plans. We will dive into this in far greater detail in our fourth installment.

When these large media outlets start to compromise the quality of their reporting, it allows others to create false stories that they can advertise as the truth. This comes from more partisan news sources, or even the politicians themselves. If a politician peddles the same narrative over and over, he sometimes can convince a group of people that opinion is actually fact. This is a typical political strategy, sure, but when online media sources verify the claim or other news sources do not challenge the claim, (ahem, Matt Lauer) people can start to believe these “facts,” and in some cases there can be dangerous consequences.

People no longer have to settle for one of the three nightly news shows of generations past. They can get their news whenever they want, with whichever spin they want. Those on the far right delight in Breitbart headlines, while Bernie Bros stay dedicated to The Young Turks. Both think they are completely in the right, and neither is willing to even try to talk about it.

This encourages an increase in the partisanship we have known for the past decade. Now I’m not saying that everyone in those organizations is a charlatan. In fact, sometimes people in the media on the other side of the political spectrum make points that I do not consider when forming my own arguments. And this brings me to my solution to our extreme partisanship in the era of modern media sources.

Listen.

Be challenged.

Seek out someone with whom you disagree, and ask them why they believe what they believe. There is often an argument that is more reasonable than you might expect.
When you open up a new tab for news, choose two differing outlets to gather several perspectives. Conservatives: Give MSNBC a chance now and again. And liberals: Even though you disagree with the Wall Street Journal editorial page, that does not mean it is always wrong. One of the beautiful things about our country is that so many people can have so many different opinions, and generally speaking, we can all hold these opinions openly. If we all read from news sources we don’t agree with, maybe we would be more willing to understand where our political opponents get their motivations. Perhaps we would be more willing to work with them and compromise to find solutions to our problems.

In a world where our presidential debates are being advertised as something along the lines of “Smackdown 2016: America Edition,” facts do not tend to matter. That simply would not be good for ratings. Facts can once again be valued if we as a nation can understand that maybe our opinions might not be totally right all the time after all. If we work to stem this tide in our own lives, we may find a return to the sanity of a pragmatic democracy again in our government.

Join me next time as we dive back into modern U.S. history and analyze how our two current parties have ended up so ideologically far apart, and how events 50 years ago put us on the track to the election campaign we have on our hands today.