I’ve written before about my concerns that the divisions between conservatives and liberals,
Republicans and Democrats have become extreme. I, and others, have noted that we have lost the ability to have civil disagreement and to find middle ground. Unfortunately, my concerns have not lessened, but I do have a theory about one contributing factor. I think our perceptions have been altered by the existence of 24-hour news networks.
When I was growing up, we had three television channels. Each had their own news program, which lasted one hour or less. In that hour, they had time to report the events of the day, but little else. They did occasionally express their views, but commentary was minimal. You heard the facts and formulated your own opinions.
I’ve shared before that on occasion, I will flip channels between CNN and Fox News to compare their coverage of a day’s events. The difference is amazing. In fact, I’ve concluded that they are actually reporting on alternative universes. It couldn’t be the same country.
A 24-hour news network has to fill up, well … 24 hours of programing. There aren’t enough events in a day to do that. Thus, they bring in commentators, analysts and panels of “experts.” They discuss each day’s events at length. They state opinions, and they state them with vigor.
Each 24-hour news network knows its viewer base. They cater to that base in their choice of which stories to cover, which angle to present, and which opinions to express. Every program is carefully crafted to pull their viewers in and say what they want to hear.
We have to remember that news programs, like situation comedies, game and reality shows, are designed to sell advertising. They aren’t donating their resources for free just to keep us informed. They sell advertising minutes, and the more viewers they have, the more they can charge for those minutes. They also know that people pay attention to negative stories more than positive, and that agitated people will stay glued to the screen for longer periods of time.
The more we hear stories that reinforce our pre-existing opinions, the more extreme our opinions become. The opposing side becomes our enemy. We focus on the differences between “us” and “them,” and ignore the similarities. We don’t trust, like or respect the other side. We don’t talk to the other side. We just argue, and we certainly don’t listen. Our divisions deepen. Conservatives become more conservative, and liberals become more liberal.
So, the next time you find yourself ranting about the correctness of your own opinion, and the foolishness or evil of the other side, consider the possibility that you may have been influenced or inflamed by programming actually created simply to sell stuff. Neither side has all the answers. All our perceptions are influenced by our own bias. As Walter Cronkite used to say, “And that’s the way it is.”