Ever since the first televised presidential debate, TV has left an indelible mark on American political life.
It was television that fueled the anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam War. It was Barack Obama’s televised Democratic National Convention keynote address in 2004 that propelled him into the limelight. (His victory in that year's Illinois U.S. Senate race transformed him into a rising star.)
While the advent of TV has been largely positive for transparency and accountability in civic life, it has recently adopted a much more sinister quality: polarization.
This is especially true in the 21st century.
A Stanford University paper, Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization, found “the dispersion in the partisan slant across cable channels increased from 2000 to 2012.” It found that Fox News and MSNBC were especially partisan in their coverage.
Few conservatives will watch Rachel Maddow or her colleague Lawrence O’Donnell. Similarly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a progressive liberal who watches Sean Hannity on a regular basis.
While these political TV shows often air the same topics, the reporting is vastly different and reaches disparate conclusions. Take settled topics, such as voter fraud or Russia’s indisputable tampering in the 2016 elections.
MSNBC accepts both, citing findings from various national intelligence sources. Fox often traffics in claims of "fake news" on the subject on Russian collusion. It's pushed Trump's claim, without proof, of voter fraud in the presidential election.
Voters end up stuck in their own political echo-chambers with little chance of being exposed to opposing points of view. Such polarization in our news consumption has been weaponized by President Trump. He relentlessly shows aggression toward anyone who disagrees or criticizes him. (In so doing, he ignores a basic American tenet: the freedom to dissent.)
The inability to find common ground, as well as a knee-jerk pugnacity, can have dire consequences. The D.C. “pizzagate” shooting was kick-started by a fake news report about a child sex-trafficking ring. More recently, the shooting of a Republican congressman and police officers during a baseball practice was fueled by an angry, disenfranchised Ohioan.
Both incidents lead to an inevitable conclusion: Politics has become violent.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the President pro tempore of the Senate, elucidated this growing problem and suggests an answer in a TIME commentary he wrote last month.
“Something that once moderated our partisan feelings and bridled our baser instincts has gone missing in an era of unprecedented polarization. Something fundamental to our civic culture has been lost amid the chaos and disruption of the Information Age. The question is, What has been lost? In a word: civility.”
He is absolutely right. And while TV and the news media have played a large role in the degradation of our civil norms, it may also hold the remedy.
Shows like CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ should play a much larger role in our civic life. John Dickerson speaks with lawmakers and officials on both sides of the aisle -- from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) on the left to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the right. The measured, nonpartisan approach Dickerson takes is an example of how questions of policy should be debated.
Call-in shows on C-SPAN also provide an important example of how we can hear more from the American public. Policy should be informed by listening and addressing the public's needs. Instead, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and his party are crafting life-changing laws in private back-rooms of the Capitol — with neither the Democrats nor ordinary Americans in town halls allowed vital input.
TV anchors, aspiring network executives and most importantly politicians, should take Sen. Hatch’s words to heart:
“My unlikely friendship with Ted Kennedy is but a small example of what our nation can accomplish if we choose respect and comity over anger and discord. Only by doing so can we look beyond the horizon of our differences to find common ground. Today, I want to make a personal commitment to exercise greater civility in my day-to-day interactions with fellow Americans; I hope you will join me in doing the same.”