No, that title is not a typo. The title of this article is simply an expression of reality at this point. It is time we face the facts and drop the “United” from the quaint name “United States of America”. America is anything but united at this point and, well, there’s no going back. In fact, things are only going to get worse, not better. If you doubt this simple, undeniable truth or have a burning desire to understand the true culprit behind this division, read on.
In order to understand how we have arrived at this moment and the inexorable march we are on to an even more divided future, we have to dial up the way back machine and understand a bit of history of media and, in particular, news. If we focus on television news then from pretty much the invention of television up until the 1980’s, Americans primarily received their news from just three organizations, ABC, NBC and CBS.
Now, at this time, each of these organizations were essentially fair and honest brokers of news and information. What mattered was that the news of the day was reported factually and without opinion. And while there may have been slight differences in the news stories each organization covered or in presentation, the same core set of content was delivered with very little filtering. If we were to picture this improbable, by today’s standards, state of affairs, it would look something like the following:
The little blue dots are the audience. Hey, we’re writers here, not graphic artists, give us a break for Christ’s sake. More importantly than the god awful graphics, the takeaway here is that all Americans were essentially receiving the same information. While there were differences of opinion among Americans, we at least had a core, common set of essentially unfiltered facts that everyone agreed were true.
Importantly, we must point out the economics of this situation. As long as the available audience was every individual within America, there were enough viewers to support these three networks via advertising revenues. There was no need to “spin” the news as these organizations differentiated themselves through their entertainment programming. The news was the news and was a relatively small part of the overall programming.
So what happened? Well, technology happened for one. HBO and cable TV became a thing. Now, cable TV technically dates back to 1948 but after the advent of HBO in 1972, cable TV saw exponential growth in the 1980’s and reached 50 million homes by 1990. With it, cable TV brought dozens of news “channels”. News organizations like CNN launched in 1980, Fox News in 1996 and ESPN in 1979. Hey, some people only care about sports news. What are you going to do? Regardless, Americans now had a much greater choice of sources from which they could self select their news. And we thus saw the advent of specialization. CNN specialized in only news 24/7. ESPN specialized in only sports news 24/7. Later, Fox News specialized in a more conservative view of the news. The audience became more fragmented between these different channels.
And yes, we kept the old style logos for ABC, NBC and CBS because we’re lazy and not graphic artists to begin with. So tough.
Anyway, at around the same time this increase in channels and specialization was occurring in television, similar things were going on in radio. Whereas NPR had been the primary source of news via radio, suddenly conservative talk radio became a thing in 1988. And here we see a harbinger of things to come. Here we see the advent of the news being filtered through the lens of a single individual, like Rush Limbaugh, versus broad filtering of say, sports. Here too we witness the movement towards news analysis and opinion versus solely and dispassionately delivering facts. It’s a here’s what happened but more importantly, here is my opinion on what happened. Not saying right or wrong but this is an important portent of things to come.
What hadn’t changed? Newspapers. Good ol’ newspapers. Each major city only had one or two and everyone could be assured that the politics and opinion were relegated to the editorial pages. Here still could Americans get unbiased, unfiltered, fact based reporting on common information we all had access to and could all agree upon the facts. And then…yep, the Internet.
While cable TV channels continued to grow from dozens of channels to hundreds of channels, the Internet created not hundreds, but thousands, if not millions of new channels through which information could flow and be filtered. Things like the Drudge Report became a thing. Suddenly news websites were springing up all over the place and individuals could further self select and “tune in” to only the websites they liked. But nobody really got their news solely from the Internet back in “those days” (1990’s). And many news websites were just the online avatar of newspapers, radio stations and the like. And then came…social media.
Ah yes, here now arrives social media circa the 2000’s. The channels of information now become exponentially fractured yet again as individuals self select their “friends” and join specialized “groups”. Don’t like what someone is saying? Simply unfriend that idiot. Retreat from differing opinions into your own myopic tribe of facts and opinions. People started to now only receive their information via these “social circles”, solely via the Internet as it were.
Cutting to the chase, the end game here is that every individual eventually has their own custom “channel” of filtered information and this channel has little or no commonality of base content with anyone else’s “channel”. Nobody can agree on anything because nobody is talking about the same thing, the same base set of unfiltered facts. It is all just filtered analysis and opinion.
And here we must once again address the economics of all of this. The economics of millions of channels is vastly different than the economics of three, or just a handful, of channels that reach mass audiences. Instead, sources, news providers, must specialize in order to cater to and reach some specific, target audience. This is why certain news organizations, we won’t name names, have swung hard left while others have swung hard right. Take a look at the front pages of CNN.com, MSNBC.com, FoxNews.com. Oh shit, did we just name names? Damnit. Anyway, the disparity between the news stories covered is striking. Depending on the channel, the base set of content delivered is vastly different. How are two people supposed to agree on anything when there are zero facts and content that those two people have in common?
It is only going to get worse people.
So where do we go from here? We need a true and proper villain after all. Luckily, we can be much more specific about who is to blame for America’s current and future woes rather than simply the broad strokes of “technology”, the “Internet” and “social media”. In fact, if you are looking for someone to blame, we can pin that blame on one specific individual…
You see, Al Gore created the Internet. Note that this is, in fact, a correct attribution, unlike the false claim that Al Gore “‘invented’ the Internet”. Al Gore never, at any time, said that he invented the Internet. Never. Instead, Al Gore’s words were exactly as follows:
“During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” – Al Gore
So, if you need someone to blame, blame Al Gore, it’s all his fault. With utmost certainty, it is Al Gore and only Al Gore that has doomed us all to live perpetually bickering and misunderstanding one another within this most divided, State of America. Jackass.