Spending the weekend with an intelligent crowd from San Francisco I was struck with just how different even the informed can think about the same things with the same access to the same information. Obviously not shy to express my own opinion, I gladly shared with the crowd my election prediction of a 327-211 Romney win. All of them developed this little smirky smile that you give to a four-year old when he says he wants to be an astronaut and a few actually guffawed – and not nicely at all. Following that I was treated by these folks somewhere between the village idiot and a tragically misled and sadly mistaken fool. Now, they all treated me politely, but they genuinely thought that I was crazy. I think that in a different crowd I might not have been treated so well.
Politics has always been a touchy subject for Americans and I have never understood this but then I thrive on confrontation whereas my wife would rather volunteer to watch a slaughterhouse operate than have a political argument. (See About Thinking Right) There has always been a division of the “political sides” in the United Sates, but I think it is far more pronounced today than it was even 20 years ago. Why is that?
First, I think that people now choose their news source to match their views. If all you do all day is watch MSNBC, you are going to have a very different world view than if you watch any other news source. If all you are told all day is that Romney is a liar, many will believe that without actually doing any looking or thinking on their own. In “days gone by,” for better of for worse, the media were generally reporting on the same things in largely the same way and it was much more difficult for anyone to match their news source to their personal perspective.
Second, one of the primary sources of information was newspapers which required reading and thinking. This often led to discussion and exchange of perspectives which is a healthy thing. Today, there are a million sources of information (like this blog) where people can turn to get their information. With so many sources, anyone living in Maine can get their information from Seattle as easily as Bangor. People do not have the same information, same reference points or enough common information to start an intelligent conversation.
Third, politicians have taken advantage of the “new media” and the “social media” to reduce their message to the 5 or 10 second sound bite instead of actually developing solid platforms. This is unfortunately extremely effective because it can take 10 minutes to explain how the five second sound bite is just a lie and half way through the explanation the audience has fallen asleep.
Finally, once the “equal time” legal requirements were dropped for news agencies, they have largely abandoned any pretext of neutrality. I think this is both a terrible shame and potentially the biggest crisis facing our country today. First, media has largely abdicated their role of investigative reporter, often acting as a propaganda wing for a political movement rather than doing ANY actual reporting to hold the government accountable. Second, people now largely distrust large portions of the media depending on their own political perspective. Because much of the information provided by the media is in direct conflict with the information provided by other media, people tend to choose to believe the media reporting from their own perspective completely discounting, and worse yet, facially disbelieving any opposing media. If I source a story with Fox reporting I get rolled eyes and a contrary citation from Media Matters. I don’t care what your political affiliation, if you can’t tell the credibility difference between Fox and Media Matters your views are symptomatic of America’s current ailment.
Talking to the San Francisco crowd yesterday, which was an intelligent and generally well-informed crowd, there were times when they literally tuned me out because what I was saying created so much conflict with the facts that they had been given. I tried to explain about the “stand down” orders that had been given in Benghazi and they instantly replied “that is still under investigation.” When I tried to give source support, they didn’t really care. When I tried to talk about faulty polling analytics, they simply didn’t care and cited Nate Silver back to me. I am certainly not saying that these folks were somehow “worse” than me simply that we all have become so inundated with our own world view that meaningful discussion is far more difficult than it was a generation ago and that is sad to me.