News should inform opinion, opinion should not inform news.
There was a moment, ancient as it seems, when communication options were few. The telephone was, well, just the telephone, not a small computer that you carried around. Smart TVs—huh?
The reason we have a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was to manage a scarcity of radio-frequency based channels—in the “public interest”. The legislative act that originated the FCC was passed in 1934; scarcity has disappeared.
Aging myself as I write, in 1986 I headed to Washington where I eventually chaired the FCC. Then most TV viewers watched one of three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) and a public one, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Most critics, and it seemed to me there were an infinite number, wanted more choice. We succeeded. My predecessors and I, in a sense, collaborated with technology, capital and human drive to produce what became a tidal wave of choice.
And our mission worked, at least the hard science part. Social and political divisions that might develop were not subjects that were considered.
Given dramatic changes in technologies we can now choose our own island and view only what caters to our preferences. Masterpiece Theater? Cat training videos? Poker as a sport or food and drink as an obsession?
It used to be said that TV viewing brought people together. That we would talk over the proverbial “water cooler” about the latest episode of Hill Street Blues or Seinfeld, for example. Or earlier, share observations about Walter Cronkite’s CBS Nightly News. Or later, Dan Rather. Today news is like an ice cream shop, what flavor do you want?
I have friends across the spectrum of political thought. None of them are friends because of politics, but most enjoy a round of discussion on the latest development or as it is today, “BREAKING NEWS”. It is easy, as discussion unfolds, to discern their chosen channels of news.
What I increasingly find is that Americans risk being victimized by propaganda. Many choose the propaganda flavor that appeals to them and receive news shaped by opinion. Walter Cronkite was not perfect. I am sure there was some bias in his interpretations and if he made you mad enough you could watch Huntley and Brinkley on NBC or Howard K. Smith on ABC.
Somewhat later you could watch Jim Lehrer on PBS. I got to know Jim and appreciated his efforts to lead with well researched journalism. I was especially impressed that he seemed to always be chosen to moderate presidential debates because both Party candidates found him of moderate temperament and honest inquiry.
Perversely, virtually unlimited choice often works against that sacred FCC covenant—the public interest. Back in the day viewers were “forced” to choose among a handful of news sources, which meant the networks tried to appeal to everybody.
The business model has been turned on its head. In the highly fragmented world of today, news executives operate with smaller budgets because they attract smaller audiences. Rather than appeal broadly, they appeal narrowly. Rather than putting a premium on good journalism, they put a premium on agile tongues, polemics and visual magnetism.
Public opinion is down the road from sources of information and its interpretation. Polemics in news inevitably produce polarization. Worse, hard-edged commentary turns neighbors against each other. Politicize Covid 19 and you have fights on airplanes over masks.
The abrupt and dramatic changes in communication technologies have overwhelmed us. Tribal causes pushed by unrelenting electronic stimuli have divided a nation made great by unity—“out of many, one.” We now gather around color coded water coolers.
In Robert Putnam’s prophetic book “Bowling Alone”, he lamented the loss of social capital which he defined as “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” John C. Danforth, a former US Senator, observed an especially problematic dynamic, “…..the most ideologically pure person tends to become the standard setter for group thinking, the pole to which other members of the group gravitate.”
In the last eighteen months we have been urged to stay apart. What we really need is the motivation to get together with our neighbors. True understanding and related empathy will not come from the digital divide no matter how many Facebook friends we have.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.