Divided America - Constructing our own intellectual ghettos
NEW YORK (AP) — Meet Peggy Albrecht and John Dearth. Albrecht is a free-lance writer and comedian from Los Angeles who loves Bernie Sanders. Dearth, a retiree from Carmel, Indiana, grew up a Democrat but flipped with Ronald Reagan. He's Trump guy.
They live in the same country, but as far as their news consumption goes, they might as well live on different planets.
Abrecht watches MSNBC's Rachel Maddow each night. She scans left-leaning websites Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and Down With Tyranny, where recent headlines described Donald Trump as "pathetic" and "temperamentally unfit" to be president. She can read stories that describe Trump University as a scam and question whether the Republican candidate is as rich as he lets on. The website Think Progress, which has contrasted Trump's Republican endorsers with criticisms they've made of him, sends her email alerts.
Dearth is a fan of Fox Business Network anchors Neil Cavuto and Stuart Varney. He checks the Drudge Report, Town Hall and Heritage Foundation websites, where recent stories talked about Trump supporters being "terrorized" by demonstrators and suggested Hillary Clinton answered planted questions at a supposedly unscripted event. An American flag tangled in red tape illustrated a story about Obama administration business regulations.
Because of his internet search history, he's bombarded with solicitations to donate to conservative candidates and causes. The Democrats don't bother.
In a simpler time, Albrecht and Dearth might have gathered at a common television hearth to watch Walter Cronkite deliver the evening news.
But the growth in partisan media over the past two decades has enabled Americans to retreat into tribes of like-minded people who get news filtered through particular world views. Fox News Channel and Talking Points Memo thrive, with audiences that rarely intersect. What's big news in one world is ignored in another. Conspiracy theories sprout, anger abounds and the truth becomes ever more elusive.
Americans are becoming used to speaking at political opponents, and not with them. Prominent political observer Barack Obama is among those who have worried about the implications for democracy.
"Increasingly what happens is, we don't hear each other," the president said in a recent Fox News interview.
In this world of hundreds of channels and uncounted websites, of exquisitely targeted advertising and unbridled social media, it is easy to construct your own intellectual ghetto, however damaging that might be to the ideal of the free exchange of ideas.
"Right now the left plays to the left and the right plays to the right," said Glenn Beck, the former Fox News host who started TheBlaze, a conservative network, in 2010. "That's why we keep ratcheting up the heat. We're throwing red meat. We're in a room that is an echo chamber, and everybody's cheering."
Albrecht and Dearth don't rely exclusively on partisan media. Albrecht starts her day with the Los Angeles Times, and Dearth occasionally flips to MSNBC to hear opposing viewpoints, particularly on "Morning Joe."
That makes them typical: relatively few of the people who rely on opinionated news completely ignore the other side, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
They do share mirrored misgivings about the major broadcast networks, newspapers and their related websites — the mainstream media.
"I don't call it mainstream," Albrecht said. "They don't give me points of view that I think are necessary to understand stories ... I have to go to my liberal sites if I want to get a liberal point of view, other than my own."
"The so-called liberal media is not that at all," she said.
Dearth, meanwhile, avoids the evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC because, "All three of them have a strong liberal slant on a lot of things."
That's the kind of thinking that inspired Roger Ailes to launch Fox News Channel in 1996. The former GOP operative mixed news during the day with a prime-time lineup that appealed to conservatives. The network's early slogans — "fair and balanced" and "we report, you decide" — were knowing nods to what mainstream outlets promise yet fail to achieve in the eyes of many conservative viewers like Dearth.
"It did reflect my views a lot more than any of the others," he said. "It wasn't that I turned the others off, but I saw them much, much less."
By 2002, Fox had raced past CNN to become the top-rated news network.
This was the beginning of a golden age of partisan media, though Rush Limbaugh had started a boom of conservative talk radio in the early 1990s.
There wasn't anything to compare on the left, at least until summer 2006 when MSNBC host Keith Olbermann read about a speech where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld equated Iraq War opponents to pre-World War II appeasers. The next night, Olbermann angrily denounced Rumsfeld. Olbermann half-expected his boss to fire him, but management instead saw viewers had responded.
"The next day he came into my office and said, 'could you do one of those every night, buddy?'" Olbermann recalled.
His show became home for disaffected liberals in the Bush administration's final years. MSNBC hired Maddow and eventually made the entire network left-leaning. It didn't really stick: Low ratings forced a turn to straight news in daytime the last two years, but vestiges of partisanship remain.
Liberals like Jeff Cohen, communications professor at Ithaca College, believe that conservatives will always dominate mass media because of corporate ownership. That's less of an issue online; there, fueled by Fox's primacy and opposition to the war in Iraq, liberals began finding their voice in the early 2000s.
Writer John Marshall began blogging and reporting, developing the Talking Points Memo website. His work forced wider attention to issues like the firing of U.S. attorneys in the Bush administration, Republican voter suppression efforts and the fight against Social Security privatization. TPM has grown to 25 employees with offices in Washington and New York, with an average of 20 million page views a month.
Others followed Marshall's path, exposing readers like Albrecht to stories they might otherwise have not heard about.
Besides, she said, "I enjoy it more. It's always more fun to listen to people you happen to agree with."
Conservatives took advantage of new media, too. Georgia lawyer Erick Erickson became the best-known voice on the Red State site, which established itself with its quick advocacy against Bush's choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, whose nomination was withdrawn due to conservative opposition.
Breitbart, NewsMax, The Daily Caller and TheBlaze are other prominent online options on the right. Erickson recently sold Red State and started a new site, the Resurgent, and sees web outlets moving from simply informing readers to guiding them into political action.
We are left with fascinating parallel worlds.
Fox reports every December on a "War on Christmas," and Planned Parenthood is a huge target for right-wing media. Liberal organizations made Edward Snowden a hero and drummed against Pacific trade agreements. It took a while for the Flint water crisis to be noticed beyond the liberal press.
"I don't think it's as much a danger to democracy as people think it is," Olbermann said. "When the business changes to being all conservative media or all liberal media — though I don't know how that would happen — that's when it becomes dangerous."
Yet today's political media gets at least some of the blame for a hardening of attitudes. In his 2009 book, "Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide," Harvard University's Cass Sunstein argued that when like-minded people gather in groups, they tend to become more extreme in their views.
A generation ago, majorities in each political party described themselves as moderate. That's changed. In ABC News exit polling between 1976 and 1992, the number of Democrats who described themselves as liberal fluctuated between 24 to 34 percent. This year, 62 percent of the Democratic primary electorate said they were liberal. Similarly, 76 percent of today's Republicans identify themselves as conservative, roughly double what it was in the 1970s.
Social media amplifies political isolationism, because people are likely to spread information to people who agree with them, said Penn's Jamieson.
Who are you going to believe: the link you get from a trusted friend, or a mainstream media source that tells you the article is bunk?
Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, spoke with some distress this spring at the commencement of Temple University's School of Media and Communication.
"Today we are not so much communicating as miscommunicating," he said. "Or failing to communicate. Or choosing to communicate only with those who think as we do. Or communicating in a manner that is wholly detached from reality. Too often we look only for affirmation of our own ideas rather than opening ourselves to the ideas of others."
That thought was on Beck's mind when he had lunch a year ago with Arianna Huffington, founder of the left-leaning news site that bears her name. They talked about the need for an outlet where a conservative can talk about ideas to a liberal audience and vice versa.
"Let's try to make the case that a story matters to people who don't agree with me," he said. "Because my language would change, my approach would change. Things will be ratcheted down. We'll be able to understand each other again. I think there's a real need in the country for that."
For now, nothing's come of the idea.
So we tried it ourselves on a small scale. Peggy Albrecht, meet John Dearth. John, here's Peggy. We set up a conference call to let them do something they rarely have a chance to anymore: carry on a conversation with someone who's a polar opposite politically.
So what political position held by the other side most baffles them?
For Albrecht, it's the effort in some Republican-led states to require IDs to vote. She understands the political motivations — Republicans want to depress Democratic turnout — but doesn't fathom why the greater good of having as many Americans as possible vote doesn't prevail.
"I'm on the other side of it, to some extent," Dearth said. "I believe that everyone who is legal should be allowed to vote, I agree with that ... What I do have a problem is that I'd like to make sure that people are legally able to vote."
How do they feel about Barack Obama?
"I think he's overreached with his executive actions and so forth," Dearth said. "I believe that the country is not as well off. Don't get me wrong, I know he came in during a tough time, but I don't think he's made the country better."
Albrecht, meanwhile, thinks he hasn't been liberal enough.
"Overall, yes, I like him, but I don't agree with everything he says," she said. "I find a lot of Democrats believe that, but sometimes when I say it I'll get attacked — 'you're not a real Democrat.' I am, actually."
Said Dearth: "I hear that from my side, too — people who say if you don't agree with this, you can't be a real conservative. That goes both ways."
Dearth voted for Ted Cruz in the Indiana Republican primary, but he's on board with Trump. Albrecht hasn't decided whether to support Hillary Clinton in the fall. "I will never vote for Trump — on so many levels," she said, and began to list several reasons.
"What Peggy says about Trump, I could probably echo the same things about Hillary," Dearth said. "There are a lot of untruths. Maybe that's just the way it is. I think the pot calling the kettle black is probably happening on both sides."
Unfailingly polite, Albrecht and Dearth talked politics for nearly an hour without raising their voices. They agreed on the need for more investigative reporting from the media. The discussion left Dearth nostalgic for a time when "we had people of different parties get together, go out to have a drink together. We don't seem to have that anymore."
"I know," Albrecht said. "The camaraderie has disappeared in favor of taking sides and outdoing one another. It helps to co-mingle and get to hear people as people. Here Jack and I are talking and we have different viewpoints — completely different viewpoints on some things and similar on others. And look at that, nobody got murdered."