During his commencement speech at the University of Michigan today, President Obama took on the partisanship in both the Left and Right Wing media, “Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before.” Obama urged Americans to be less partisan and try to see both sides of an issue.
Obama called for a more civil political dialogue, “But we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut”– that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.”
He continued, “Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning –- since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”?”
The President implied that the partisan media environment is dumbing down America, “Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. And it’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.”
Obama asked partisans to try to see the other side, “But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from. Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
He called on Americans on both the Left and Right to break out of their partisan shells, “Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.”
Obama is totally correct, but the odds of what he is recommending actually happening are slim to none. The reason is simple. Partisanship makes money. Fox News has a license to print money because they appeal to the right. MSNBC’s profits skyrocketed when they moved to the left. One look at the ratings struggles of the non-partisan CNN can tell you that moderation is not where it is at in today’s media environment.
The President was calling for a harkening back to the days when news organizations were not supposed to make money, and ratings didn’t matter. In the time before corporate ownership, news organizations didn’t have a political agenda, and were there as more a public service and a civic duty to keep the American people informed, but as soon as corporate America discovered that news can be a gold mine of profits, the pressures on news divisions increased, and their role changed.
Most consumers of media have been trained to not seek out facts, but to rely on sources of information that confirm their own opinions and biases. The American people no longer have the ability to critically think about what is being presented to them. People expect to be entertained by a Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly. Their job is to present the news in a fun fashion to their audience. The media has gotten rich by fueling partisanship, while our national IQ and dialogue has sunk to an all time low.