I grew up in a world where everyone was forced to watch the same news — the voices of Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather — “The Big Three” — almost single-handedly shaped the nightly dinner-table conversation. Today we see the principle of three networks monopolizing our news as archaic and undemocratic — not having the freedom to choose sounds altogether un-American.
The fall of the news anchors — beginning with the 2005 death of Jennings — left the networks in flux, causing a vacuum effect within the media that paved the way for today’s new-media age of mass customization and niche coverage. We suddenly had the freedom to choose and customize; it wasn’t the news, it was our news. We heard what we wanted to hear. But with our newfound freedom we also created a monster.
One-sided narratives took hold and absorbing the news became an exercise in reaffirming and strengthening our pre-existing beliefs, thus hardening our stances and views — we created a culture of ideologues. In support of the older model, communications scholar Cass Sunstein asserts, “gathering citizens in a single public space” to discuss the news actually helps democracy by stimulating conversation across ideological lines. It’s now easier than ever to filter out information that conflicts with your particular leaning — it takes just a click of the mouse.
John Stuart Mill once proclaimed, “It’s hardly possible to overstate the value… of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves… such communication has always been… one of the primary sources of progress.” Unfortunately, when we only listen to people who are similar to ourselves, we each see the world with tunnel-vision, grinding progress to a halt. Enter the current debt crisis.
Congress must raise America’s debt ceiling by August 2 or the Treasury will be unable to fulfill its obligations. The Bipartisan Policy Center says failure to raise the debt ceiling would result in an immediate 44-percent spending cut and a ten-percent drop in GDP along with another recession — or we could default on our debt. The other choice is for our representatives to compromise and raise the debt ceiling. Anyone with a brain knows what we need to do as a country, but we’ve shown we don’t tolerate compromise from our leaders.
The partisan divide and legislative gridlock is so severe that Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. credit due to the lack of a plan for meeting its financial obligations. Markets have frozen, hiring has stopped, and another recession could occur simply because the leaders of the current Republican Party care more about preventing Obama’s reelection.
Republican governor Charlie Crist of Florida, the once highly-popular moderate politician, was suddenly abandoned by Republicans because he compromised with Democrats too often. Crist is now out of politics. John McCain was once considered a “maverick” before he leapt rightward to dodge his party’s recent rightward ideological purge. As Jeffrey Friedman of Harvard presciently wrote in 1999, the ability to organize information leads to ideologues splitting the world into good people and bad people, and that “opponents must be written off entirely if their ideas are to be safely ignored.” Crist and McCain can certainly relate.
Everyone inevitably realizes the dire consequences of not raising the debt ceiling, whether they admit it or not. Each of the seven times George Bush needed it raised, sanity prevailed and both parties came together. Whether or not to let the country default has never been a partisan issue — and it’s sad to think of it as such. Both parties bear responsibility to fix the problem they both created. We must find a way to reopen conversation across ideological and partisan lines, at all levels.
The options today are plenty. Freedom to read whatever we please has never been so great. Anyone who wants to be heard can be heard. But human tendency leads us to use these freedoms in ways that simply harden our own pre-existing beliefs, and that’s making us less sophisticated and able-minded. Members of Congress answer to their constituents, and in a world where compromise is so heavily exposed and penalized, hard-line ideology wins and we all lose. We must all turn off our niche channels and gather in one room — one channel — to have an honest debate. If only the new-age media could lead that charge across ideological lines the way Jennings, Brokaw and Rather could. Hopefully our narrow-mindedness doesn’t make the ceiling come crashing down on us next month.
Roger Sauerhaft is a University alum.