People complain about how divided Americans are. The internet and other tech present so many viewpoints that we don’t have common ground. We’re not united as a nation the way we used to be.
Sure — but back then, a gripe about the U.S. used to be its sameness.
A plurality of Americans got the news from one of two sources: Walter Cronkite on CBS or Huntley & Brinkley on NBC. Their producers often followed the lead of the big New York and Washington newspapers, whose owners and leaders usually knew and often socialized with government leaders.
Whether in government, media, or other fields, America’s leaders — who usually were or tried to appear white, male, Christian (primarily Protestant), hetero, born in the United States, and educated in the Ivy League or its equivalent — imposed a bland, blinkered way of thought on the nation. So the gripe went.
Back to today, when the gripe is that we seek out news, opinions, and entertainment only from people and groups who confirm our biases. Thus we’re fractured.
Both gripes are oversimplified generalities. But they contain some truth, which makes me ask: Which way is better?
I vote for today.
You can say, as my colleague Patrick Block does, that we don’t actually have as many media choices as we used to, since fewer conglomerates own more news outlets. True enough, for old media like newspapers. But when you look at who owns what on a larger and more detailed scale, things get fuzzier.
Then add the internet, where everyone can speak out and find an audience, and where everyone can see every news and opinion source.
In the old days, if you wanted alternate viewpoints, you had to find a newsstand or library with a variety of papers and magazines. Today, a quick online search offers any news and opinion you want.
If you wanted to spread a piece of news or opinion widely, you’d have to convince grandees like the editor of Time or the executive producer of the CBS Evening News that you deserved air time or column inches. Today, just put your point online. If it’s clever enough and you promote it well, millions will see it.
If they want to.
I confess: I usually avoid seeing, hearing, and reading things that make me uncomfortable. But if I want to find them, I can do it instantly and easily. And sometimes (not often enough), that’s what I do.
Americans may often barricade themselves in their mental towers and engage with opposing groups only to shout past each other. But at least everyone can hear the shouts.
And some of us listen. Sometimes.