As political tensions in America move closer to a boiling point, the question often asked is: Why is the nation so divided? Many have answered this query by pointing to politicians on opposite sides of the aisle. Indeed, that so many have taken a hardened partisan view is evidence of how far political discourse in the United States has devolved. However, in searching for solutions, many overlook the role of the establishment media, arguably the most significant contributor to this disturbing trend.
The Media’s Role
During an appearance with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union, comedian and former host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart blamed the press for fomenting tension between Americans of differing political beliefs instead of focusing on fact-based reporting. Tapper asked Stewart how he felt about new California laws requiring stores to have gender-neutral toy sections and the requirement for high school students to take an ethnic studies course before graduating.
“I mean, there are a lot of things a lot of people don’t understand,” Stewart responded. He then pointed out that the issue is typically “the lens through which you view everything.”
The comedian also complained about how the media’s objective appears to be “to expose the conflict lines” rather than reporting in a way that is “helpful.” He suggested that the press shouldn’t fixate on “stories on battles over masks” and instead report on the science behind mask requirements.
“I think the media does a terrible job at de-escalation. And de-escalation is the antidote to all of this nonsense. I don’t mean civility and nonpartisanship, I mean focusing on things that are more urgent and elemental in people’s lives, and really hammering away at those things.”
What Do the Data Say?
In 2020, Pew Research published the results of a poll that found how Americans consume media has become even more polarized as “Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments.” The report noted:
“Overall, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents view many heavily relied on sources across a range of platforms as untrustworthy. At the same time, Democrats and independents who lean Democratic see most of those sources as credible and rely on them to a far greater degree, according to the survey of 12,043 U.S. adults conducted Oct. 29–Nov. 11”
These findings are not surprising. A Hill/HarrisX poll conducted last year also showed that the majority of voters (75%) believe that the news media’s reportage “increases the political divide.” These findings were true for Republicans and Democrats alike.
How They Divide
The primary way the media have contributed to the great divide is through constant publishing of outrage porn, stories designed to elicit anger in the consumer. Many news outlets on both sides of the political spectrum routinely report stories in a way that demonizes those with opposing views, foisting labels on the opposition that are largely unfair.
One of the most effective means of stirring up rage is a practice known as “nutpicking,” when reports emphasize fringe individuals on the opposing side, highlighting outrageous, silly, or even evil behavior. Focusing primarily on such individuals gives the impression that a majority of those on the other side are just like these bad actors.
A left-leaning media outlet might cover white supremacists or open bigots to persuade its audience that most people on the right are in solidarity with these types. Conversely, a right-wing media outlet might hone in on radical leftists like Antifa operatives to give the impression that most on the left are in agreement with the group’s antics. No direct accusations, just fringe elements pushed to the forefront over and over again.
Stewart was accurate when he pointed out how the media do not “de-escalate.” They typically make their money through ratings and clicks, and guess what keeps those numbers high? That’s right: outrage. Until this business model becomes less profitable, it is unlikely the trend will change anytime soon.
~ Read more from Jeff Charles.