Editorial by John Ziegler

"A Continent, But Not a Country"

8/13/2001

Will a Fragmented Media lead to a Shattered Nation?

While it was largely ignored, President Bush made an extraordinarily accurate and important statement in his now long forgotten Inaugural Address when he declared that our nation’s divisions are so profound that “it sometimes seems as if we share a Continent, but not a Country.” There are many reasons for this unfortunate reality, but I believe that one of the most overlooked is the dramatic transformation that has occurred to the landscape our modern media.

As most of us know, we are living in the “Information Age.” In many ways this should be a glorious time in our history when more “knowledge” is more accessible to more people than ever before. With an informed electorate being crucial to the long-term success of a democracy, our republic should be strengthened by this development. However, it may be time to consider the possible (and already apparent) ramifications of this explosion of "news."

Fundamentally, what has driven this new era has been the massive fragmentation of our sources of information. As late as 10-15 years ago, the average person had access to only four television channels, one or two newspapers, a couple of magazines, and a handful of radio stations. Today, due largely to technological advances and governmental deregulation, that same average person is exposed to, and bombarded with, images from almost 100 television channels, countless newspapers, far too many magazines, even more radio stations, and a limitless number of websites.

To be sure, for those of us who truly care about what is going on in the world there has never been a time of more “enlightenment.” But for those who do not have a passion for current events it has never been easier to remain completely ignorant of reality while falling prey to the illusion of being properly informed.

This fragmentation of the media has created a disparity in knowledge that may be of far greater depth and consequence than the ever-growing chasm between our country’s economically rich and poor. For instance, within MINUTES of the polls closing in last year’s New Hampshire Primary anyone with Internet access was able to examine numerous pages of extensive exit polling data. For those who actually cared about what was going on, there had never been more news/data available more quickly. However, for those who DIDN’T give a damn (the vast majority of our electorate) it was never easier to completely miss even the most basic of results.

I wonder how many of our citizens (even those who would like to consider themselves to be informed) have ANY idea that Bill Bradley only lost by 6,500 votes in New Hampshire. By contrast, in 1968 a Democratic incumbent arguably did better than Al Gore in New Hampshire and the disappointment was so great that he decided to withdraw from the race. Then there was not nearly the media clutter and competition for the ever-shrinking attention span of the average American. Today most people get the headline (“Gore wins, Bradley done”) at best and, unless the news media goes out of their way to amplify the story, nothing else gets through the media muddle and into to the consciousness of the vast majority of busy/apathetic Americans.

This spotlights a peculiar side effect of the fragmentation of our media. While each INDIVIDUAL outlet now has far LESS power over public perception due to far smaller viewership, readership and listenership, as a GROUP the “News Media” now has a far GREATER influence over what the public knows and what it deems to be important. It used to be (in the “olden days” of the 1980’s) that what got REPORTED was crucial. Now (since EVERYTHING gets reported SOMEWHERE) it is what gets REPEATED that often has the most influence. Sure the news media has “reported” stories like the rape of Juanita Brodderick (barely), Bill Clinton’s bombing of innocent people in Sudan, Hillary Clinton’s suddenly found law firm billing records, Al Gore’s trip to the Buddhist Temple, Senator Robert Byrd’s use of the “N-word” on national television, and Senator Bob Torricelli’s fund raising scandal (does anyone else notice an ideological pattern here?), but they fail to provide any of those news items with enough “legs” to make any impact. Meanwhile, the same media jackals arbitrarily decided that John Rocker’s views on immigration, Jon Benet’s urinary behavior, Jenna Bush’s drinking habits, and Chandra Levy’s sex life deserved relentless coverage.

The most amazing Election 2000 example of a fragmented media coming together to create a story was that of George Bush’s speech to Bob Jones University. That visit became one of the MOST known facts about the entire campaign, which would indicate that it must have been a huge story, right? Well, not exactly. It was WEEKS after his visit that (with the power of a suddenly united media behind it) the story finally reached the level of “common knowledge” among the electorate. Whether it was “right” or “wrong” for George Bush to speak at Bob Jones University, it certainly stands to reason that if it was a big story a month later that it should have been an important item when it actually happened. It was not. The news media did not suddenly “find out” weeks later that Bush had visited Bob Jones, but rather it took that long for the drumbeat of repetition to finally find a foothold from which the story could be thrust into the orbit of significant public consciousness.

The increased influence of the new media over what stories pierce that public consciousness, and the greater ease with which the masses can “tune out” from reality (or at least relocate to “reality television” which is hardly real) are not the only consequences of our new fragmented media. While up until the mid 1980’s we may have been too homogenized by our common sources of information (for which the accountants for The Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Madonna should all be very thankful) today our society has been broken down into so many demographic groups that our common experiences have been virtually eliminated. While television used bring us together, today (other than the Super Bowl and when someone famous dies suddenly) it mostly divides us.

Today virtually every demographic group has an entire series of media outlets that is built to appeal directly to them. The end result is that everyone ends up only hearing what they WANT to hear and no two groups are experiencing the same reality. America is slowly being shattered into little segments based on age, sex, race, wealth, religion and interest. Other than the Super Bowl, Holidays and a Presidential election it is hard to think of anything that we are all sharing in common at any given moment, which is why examining the public’s reaction to huge stories (like O.J., Princess Diana, Impeachment, JFK Jr., the Florida recount, and the death Dale Earnhardt) and fake ones (like Jon Benet and Chandra Levy) CAN NOT be over done.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that someone who regularly consumes MTV, BET, Fox, UPN, WB, Comedy Central, HBO, Cinemax, day time talk shows, tabloid and underground newspapers, rap music, black talk radio, and the writings of the numerous unreliable websites and seemingly endless specialty magazines (did you know that there is a major magazine that deals with nothing but the health of young black women?) will have a COMPLETELY different pool of information from which to draw their conclusions about the way things are than someone who is exposed to ABC, NBC, CBS, The History Channel, Lifetime, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Today, The New York Times, classical music, Christian broadcasting, Rush Limbaugh, and Time or Newsweek. In short, those two people are living in VERY different worlds. While diversity of thought is certainly a virtue in a republic, such a dramatic lack of "common knowledge" upon which to base those thoughts, would appear to be a significant vice.

One of the many consequences of this new media universe is that the shocking gap in understanding between whites and blacks is likely to only grow. One of the “dirty little secrets” of the media world is that whites and blacks are still not consuming any of the same products. I found out first hand about this remarkable disparity when I was part of a minor controversy in the black community of Philadelphia without even knowing anything about it.

I had made a local TV appearance with an African American writer and, after having disagreed rather vehemently for most of the show, we finally concurred that neither of us liked Don King very much (if you can’t agree on that, what can you agree on?). I raised my hand to give him a “high five” and he reciprocated. It was a light moment that I didn’t think much of until I later had the writer on my radio show as a guest. It turned out that a militant black newspaper had criticized this man for high fiving me on TV and suggested that he was a sellout. The man had apparently taken so much heat that he felt obliged to apologize to “his people” on the air. Here I had been involved in the “incident” and yet I had no idea that it was even an issue. Quite simply, I was living in a very different media world than my guest.

Nationally this stark reality can also be seen when it comes to race and the media. ABC’s smash hit show (the fact that a show that is watched by only 20-25% of the population is a “smash” is an indication of massive fragmentation) “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” continues to try to explain why so few of their contestants are black. While some have attempted to do contortions over the objective manner in which the contestants are selected (without implying that white men could be quicker thinkers than everyone else), the reality is that that most black people have never even been exposed to the show because they are watching another network. This fact made the recent blackmailing of the three major networks by the NAACP to force them to hire more black actors all the more ridiculous. It was as if the NAACP (and the rest of the media which covered the story) had completely forgotten about the existence of Fox, UPN, WB, BET and HBO where black viewers and actors are plentiful.

Already it is easy to see how this fragmentation of our news media has altered history. In the early 1970’s, the judiciary committee hearings into the Watergate scandal were shown live on virtually every major television station. Not only could you not avoid the story even if you wanted to, but it was clear to everyone that the scandal MUST be very serious if all the stations were carrying it and everyone was talking about it. Not surprisingly public sentiment turned strongly against Richard Nixon and he resigned before even being impeached. Twenty-five years later, when Bill Clinton was actually impeached and put on trial in the Senate the coverage of the event was almost completely jettisoned to the 24-hour news channels where only those who were most interested in the story would be likely to watch. A not so subliminal message was also sent that, because it was not being shown on the “major” networks, it must not be that important. ABC (which doesn’t even have a “news channel”) somehow even got away with not showing the testimony of Monica Lewinsky at the trial and then later still touted her interview with Barbara Walters as if it was bigger than the finding of Chandra Levy. No wonder the public never turned against Bill Clinton and he was able to dodge conviction.

Sadly, we seem to heading in the direction of a populace where the gap between the informed and the ignorant is widening and where the lens through which each separate group views its own “reality” is customized to allow in only the images that make its segregated members feel good. Unfortunately there may be very little we can do about it. In large part the genie is out of the bottle and any attempt to restrict its powers would likely be an even MORE dangerous violation of the First Amendment. Regardless, sometimes the most important step in dealing with a problem is realizing and admitting that it exists. There seems to be little doubt that this one does.

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