9/11 still seems like yesterday to me. After that day, we banded together and appreciated each other as part of one common Western culture. Yet, I'm sure we all agree that 20-years later, we live in what seems like an opposite universe. Pluralism embedded in the democracy framed by our founders is tested to the limits by tribalism — with each side refusing to recognize any counterargument to the political and societal issues that tug daily at the very fabric of our constitution.
But what is the root cause of this "we, they" (rather than "us") world we share today? I submit that it is not the politicians who crave sound bites and social posts to gain funding and political capital to increase their power. Nor is it the lobbyists who sprinkle their money on this political environment to advance their agendas. Instead, in my opinion, those most at fault for this social shift are the ones who give critical cover to the politicians — the media!
Gone are the days when officeholders needed to have the word "integrity" on the top of their internal resumes. I ask you, in today's media ecosystem, could Edward R. Murrow have really brought that critical "truth to power" that took down Senator Joe McCarthy? Or would Richard Nixon have had to resign over his many documented cover-ups revealed by Woodward and Bernstein? The answer is "no!" Today, some media "commentator," who places ratings over truth, provides cover for the politician citing rumors born on social media over fact-checked journalistically sourced content — thus fanning the “anti-pluralistic flames.”
But do not mistake my criticism as being only directed at far-right media, which was recently used as a defense against a January 6th Capital rioter whose lawyer coined the term "Foxitis" during his trial. I think the left media can be just as one-sided — possibly in a different way. For example, the left media is much less apt to propagate documented lies about elections and vaccines. But they can contribute to our cultural divide by being overly condescending to the right.
It is a documented fact that a Fox viewer is likely less urban, affluent, and educated than an MSNBC viewer. So what? Does that person not deserve the same respect, dignity, and access to all our government has to offer? When I see commentators on MSNBC call anti-vaxxers "stupid," it is no wonder that a quick video of that very segment will be released onto social media to "fan" the same flames. Do not forget how one word — "deplorable" — had a significant effect on where we are today.
I have always appreciated writer, director, and producer Aaron Sorkin’s ability to create protagonist characters on both sides of the political argument, helping us understand both sides of our culture. And I think he “nailed it” with one sentence in a 2006 episode in a show called "Studio 60." The main characters were Matt Albie, a leftist, Jewish producer/writer (played by Matthew Perry) and his girlfriend, Harriet Hayes, a far-rightist, highly religious Christian comedian/ performer (played by Sarah Paulson), where she says to Matt, “I don't even know what the sides are in the culture wars.” And he responds: “Well, your side hates my side because you think we think you're stupid, and my side hates your side because we think you're stupid.”
I wish I could offer a “vaccine” against the “Foxitis” and “Condescenditis" our "echo chambered" news outlets spread across our land each day. But, as editors and publishers, perhaps we should remember that the words "free press" do not mean "freehand." And if I may suggest, we police ourselves by remembering to show both sides of an argument in a respectful and well-balanced way.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has a "Code of Ethics,” with a preamble that includes these words: “…public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
Mike Blinder is Publisher of E&P Magazine, who invites (and encourages) comments. Contact him at: email@example.com