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Media for the Common Good
How better commercial, non-profit, and public media operations can combat tribalism and help Americans solve problems—together.
The Pew Research Center, one of the nation’s best non-profit organizations, just released a sobering new report on the dismal state of American politics. Put simply—Americans really dislike the political system, most institutions, and the two major parties.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they always or often feel “exhausted” thinking about politics these days, and another 55 percent say politics makes them feel “angry”. A mere one tenth of Americans feel “hopeful” when thinking about politics and less than five percent say they get “excited” thinking about politics.
Only four percent of Americans believe the political system is working extremely or very well and more than 60 percent express little confidence in the future of the political system. Pew also reports that majorities of Americans view both parties unfavorably, and nearly three in ten Americans now hold unfavorable views of both political parties—the largest percentage in three decades of tracking on this measure. Consequently, nearly seven in ten Americans say they “often wish there were more political parties to choose from” in our system.
The emotional see-saw on politics is tilted entirely towards the negative.
Clearly the U.S. political system and the two major parties are not delivering for those who aren’t diehard partisans. And as last week’s column highlighted, the overwhelming sentiment among opposing partisans is one of extreme hatred of the other side.
Deep disaffection from politics coupled with high partisan animosity is not a recipe for long-term success for the American project.
So what can be done to improve the situation?
For starters, we need better media operations—of all kinds. We know people can be tribal about politics and other identity-based traits. We also know that Americans weren’t less tribal in the early nineties than they are today. Someone or something had to exploit these human weaknesses and stoke “us versus them” divisions. That something is the media—along with political institutions (to be examined next week).
The media business of politics—radio, cable, podcasts, social media, online video, newsletters, email solicitations, paid advertising—is little more than 24-7 pumping of partisan vitriol, anger-inducing stories, and often biased coverage of arguments based on the interests of specific leaders and movements aligned with the respective parties.
Not surprisingly given the context, many committed Republicans and Democrats have a hard time seeing fellow human beings on the other side of the partisan divide and are unwilling to give the opposition any hearing whatsoever. Other less partisan Americans have responded by tuning out from politics altogether to avoid the madness.
Despite some excellent journalism from many mainstream and ideologically-aligned news outlets, Americans themselves have mostly concluded that little of substance or use to the country gets regularly featured by the media and politics writ large. For example, in the new Pew research study, nearly eight in ten Americans say there is too little attention paid to important issues facing the country these days, and roughly two-thirds of Americans feel that way about policies that local elected or national officials are working on. In contrast, nearly six in ten say there is too much attention paid to disagreements between Republicans and Democrats.
These concerns implicate politicians and the government, and not just the media. But the media’s role in amplifying partisan divisions and mutual hatreds over substance and civil disagreements about important issues is well comprehended by Americans.
Controls and regulations of media and content don't work, generate backlash, and shouldn’t be pursued. Citizens and businesses should be free to take in and put out whatever they want.
What we need, instead, are well-funded professional media operations to act as an effective counterbalance to the billion dollar partisan media infrastructure. These new or expanded operations would come in three areas:
Commercial media. A wealthy person or investor group somewhere can certainly figure out how to create top-notch journalism and social media platforms that are interesting to consume and use, while also being neutral and more analytically focused on substantive concerns facing the country. Editorially, these new ventures should reduce partisan politics and elections to one quarter of coverage, and dedicate the other three quarters to reasoned examinations of issues, consideration of a range of empirical evidence, critical analysis, and compelling personal stories about economic and social problems facing the nation—and possible solutions to them.
Flip the script on political media and give the disaffected masses what they want: measured, independent, non-partisan news and analysis. Surely some enterprising business minds can determine how best to make money doing the right thing for American democracy.
Non-profit media. Much of what really affects American life occurs at the local level—the actions (or inaction) taken by municipal and state governments, local businesses, and organizations. Yet the demise of high-quality community journalism has eliminated nearly all coverage of these local developments, and opened the door for regular partisan screeds and cultural fights from national outlets to flood the zone. Philanthropists could do much more to seed high-quality non-profit journalism at the local level, like The Baltimore Banner, to provide rich coverage of city governments, local neighborhoods, and regional businesses and cultural offerings.
Like The Banner, fully digital operations can be less expensive than other media ventures to set up and maintain and can be augmented by small donations and subscriber fees.
Public media. PBS and NPR, plus Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, are excellent public media outlets offering more substantive coverage of national and world affairs—and most importantly, are widely available and mostly free to Americans and others around the world. But we could raise our national ambitions to match those of the BBC—a full-scale, professionalized operation with branches across the country and globe with a mission “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain."
Americans would gladly pitch in some of their tax dollars for the development of high-quality, neutral, and substantive coverage of national and global issues and interesting cultural and personal stories. Public media must be independent to be effective. But given the reality of politics, a group of bi-partisan members of Congress could get together to create a mutually accepted framework for oversight of this expanded public media operation.
The verdict on contemporary politics and media is clear: Americans don’t like the current state and trajectory of our political system. The media plays a huge role in this decrepit state of affairs.
But rather than try to curtail free speech, or over-regulate the media ecosystem, we need to build better alternatives—media platforms that serve the common good.