Polarization: who is to blame? | Analysis

President Obama gave Vox an interview last month. In it, he blamed a lack of uniformity of facts and worldview as we had them 20 and 30 years ago on a “balkanization” of the media. He blamed Fox News and MSNBC for contributing to polarization, and technology, presumably the internet, for furthering it.  It has been reported that MSNBC is currently making changes to make the network less progressive. President Obama doesn’t watch cable news.

Balkanization is generally used in political science to describe the hostile breakup of a region or nation.  But the trend in media, over the last two decades, has been to consolidate – not break up. In fact, polarization didn’t start in the media. It also isn’t what currently ails it. A lack of consistent, well-rounded news across the press is far worse for America than polarization.

We should consider the impact of changes in ownership of media outlets, concurrent with the advent of money in politics. Those two items appear to coincide, gradually, with significant shifts in media ethics that now affect what is being reported across the board. Subjectivity in the presentation of hard news pervades a majority of the press, with news personalities being as important as the information they convey.

News of the shooting of Trayvon Martin took quite some time to filter up to the national news media. The same is true of Jordan Davis, a teen shot by a Florida gun owner in a parking lot. It took quite some time for the case of Renisha McBride to be mentioned in the news. Even then, mentions were very brief and understated.

Police brutality is not new. Rodney King’s brutal 1991 beating is still fresh in the national consciousness. Out of dozens of brutality cases, selective reporting on Michael Brown, Eric Garner and a half dozen young men in the aftermath of their deaths does not give the public a feel for the magnitude of police brutality. While these cases have sparked outrage in the African American community, sympathy from white communities has largely depended on spotty reporting, making one wonder how aware the public is about the frequency of deadly police encounters. National outlets do not systematically report on individual cases of brutality, even though it has been a top national concern for some time.

Hate crimes are not fully and consistently reported, though the press regularly quotes from yearly reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  The disturbing hanging case of young North Carolina teen Lennon Lacy has yet to gain national attention, even though his death may have been the result of lynching. The Guardian and Al Jazeera are the only large media outlets to regularly update the Lacy story.

Domestic reporting on police and prison abuses has been sparse, with less than a handful of unusual deaths having been widely reported. This week, The UK’s Guardian,  reports on torture by US law enforcement:

The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden ‘black site’

“The Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site.”

This type of news item hearkens back to the desaparecidos of 1980’s Argentina. It should have immediately ended up as breaking news. These days, such a news item is most often found in The Raw Story, Huffington Post, TPM, Atlanta Black Star, and The Root, but seldom in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, or even The New York Times, even when the story is local to those papers.

On the economy, what snapshots are seen by the reader depend on the perspective of the newspaper, or some star analyst in particular. There are marked differences in what parts of economic news are reported and how, going from publication to publication, one can get different impressions of the same economy we all participate in. The last eighteen months has seen the nearly complete disappearance of substantive discussions of macroeconomic topics. Quantitative and qualitative issues in employment are discussed mostly on blogs or buried deep in nerdy economics sections of major papers. The resultant picture is at odds with the reality that many Americans live. Yes, more jobs are available to apply for, but they aren’t the jobs millions of Americans are still waiting to return to. We are told the employment picture is greatly improving, but the closest we get to knowing how many are unemployed and underemployed is via passing mention in a November 2014 article in Forbes that the U6 rate was 11.5% in October 2014. How many readers even know what U6 is?

While President Obama is correct in pointing to a problem with the press, let us not substitute polarization for what, in actuality, is the main symptom of money in politics. For as long as there is a Fox, there needs to be an MSNBC to balance it out. In Public Trust in Government, a Pew Research Center report, it was found that Americans who trust institutions is at a historic low of 24%. Citizens United doesn’t only affect influence over government. It taints every aspect of our daily lives, including what we see, hear, read, and which issues are emphasized and go on to become the issues of our day, whether or not it matches the reality we all live. A better-informed populace would be far less given to polarization and more trusting of its institutions, including the press.

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