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The media and partisanship

Media's evolution has shaped political discourse since America's founding. Early newspapers were fiercely partisan, but later aimed for a broader audience. Today, digital media and funding have fueled partisanship again. The challenge lies in finding common ground amidst this polarization.

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  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    Is it possible that all of these very astute observations will be dismissed by those on the right? The right seems to be more nationalistic, less tolerant of just about any other sector that doesn't look and think like they do, oblivious to environmental issues and the impending crisis that climate change is going to bring, willing to seat a petulant, non-distinguished jurist to the Supreme Court with the sole purpose of dismissing the future charges that will be forthcoming against a corrupt chief executive, and the list goes on. 10/18
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Video transcript

- So John, when our nation was founded there was media. It was essentially newspapers. How has the evolution of media affected the evolution of political discourse? - At the beginning of our country the editors of the rival newspapers, there was no middle of the road newspaper, you were either for one or the other, you were either a Federalist or you were the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans, as they called themselves, and the editors were at each others throat so violently, they would sometimes get in fights in the street and knock each other down. And you had lawmakers who were supposed to be men of virtue as all men in those days would be leaking documents. Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary, and Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, would leak documents to their favorite papers in order to attack the other. And eventually George Washington had to come in and say knock it off fellas, because this isn't good for the country. So the bitterness carried out in the press was with us from the founding. What changed over time is that it became interestedly, newspaper particularly, to appeal to a larger audience. That means you didn't want just the left or the right. You wanted both. So that created a tradition, along with a few other things, where there was an attempt to give just the facts, a kind of middle of the road perspective. We are changing from that now, where the economics of covering the news and the digital change where you now can have anybody speaking and gaining access to the public has created a situation where you have a more partisan press now, and we're in the middle of trying to figure out where that's going next. - This is interesting because a lot of people when they talk about well, not it's getting polarized and partisan, the good ol' days when you got the truth, the wisdom from Walter Cronkite or whoever, but what you're really talking about is maybe what's going on now is a little bit of a reversion back to where we started. - That's right. In terms of the partisanship of the press it is a reversion towards the early days of America, and in terms of the partisanship of the individual members of Congress or of the White House. What is a little bit different is that the call to virtue, which would snap people out of their partisanship, is still up for grabs. The founders, when they fought like cats and dogs during the early years of the administrations, Thomas Jefferson was best friends with John Adams, and essentially then hired a newspaper writer to undermine Adams when he was president. I mean, this was a very dirty pool. The argument they were making was our country is new, and what is at stake is the very survival of the American experiment. So they were fighting for real stakes. They weren't just trying to primarily keep power. They were really trying to make this flower bloom that they had just planted. So now the question is what role does virtue play in the American experience to pull people away from their partisanship? To make them work together for common interests? And what is that shared area of common interest? What pulls them away from, what the founders knew, people would behave like dogs sometimes, but they thought they could pull away if they thought about the common interest. Well, is that pull still there? - So there's a lot of talk these days about polarization of the media or polarization of politics in general. How much of it do you think is due to things like social media, or do you think it was inevitable? - We've always had polarization in American politics, but there was a dose of something else, which was a call to a higher American ideal. And also voters would vote on people based on their virtue, on their larger than life statesmanship, which was not partisan. So you had to keep a balance. If you were being highly partisan, you kinda did it in quiet. What's changed now with social media and also with the flood of money in politics is that it has encouraged people to be more and more partisan. The louder and hotter I talk on a specific issue the more money I'm gonna be able to raise, the more interest groups are gonna like me, and the more clicks I'm gonna get because I'm the one making the most flamboyant noise. The problem is that means the arguments are always containing flamboyant noise. And the people who want a calm steady measured conversation, well, they're not getting read on social media. They're not in charge of the interest groups that pay millions and millions of dollars. So the system encourages people to stay apart, and that's one of the biggest challenges Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, says it may be the greatest threat to American democracy, that polarization. - Do you see a way of this getting resolved? Or does it get worse? Does it get better? - There have been periods of American history where we have been this split. Obviously the Civil War was a period of great rending in the American fabric. What changed it was an actual conflict. So that, God forbid, would be one way to do it. Another would be if there was a threat to America from outside its borders and people would feel an acute sense of national pride and patriotism. But other than that there doesn't appear to be at the moment a quick fix for what is a complicated problem for why the two parties have gotten into a inescapable fight that they can't seem to get themselves out of. - It's like we need a shock to remind ourselves how much commonality there is so all of the polarizing quibbling goes away, or at least gets covered up a little bit. - Big changes in American history usually happen from a shock and it's what breaks people out of their behavior, and also which tells a lot of the people in the rest of the country who don't participate in presidential elections and don't participate in congressional elections, it reminds them that something real is at stake. And there is a vast group of Americans who really want solutions in the middle, who don't care about the bickering and the ideology. But a lot of them don't participate in politics. And so the kind of shock that would make people behave who are partisans is also the kind of shock that would draw in people who are just apathetic and not participating in the political system.