A friend strongly supports Donald Trump. My friend is a good person, a thoughtful person. For a while, I argued with my friend, but our differences began to interfere with our friendship. Friendship is more important than political differences, and so I decided to avoid the subject.
Still, it troubled me. I wondered why our conclusions about Trump are so opposite? I discovered that the primary reason for our differences is that my friend gets his information — his “reality” — from different sources than I do.
When my friend wants to know what happened during the day, he turns to Fox News, to Sean Hannity, to Rush Limbaugh and to other propagandists who pretend to be journalists. When he reads, his reading time is devoted to work-related subjects, to scripture and to activities of friends through internet gossip. Work, religion and friends are important to him, as they should be.
Of course, my friend believes my information sources are also biased. He thinks I listen to “fake” news, read misleading newspapers, subscribe to propagandistic magazines, read opinion-driven books and ignore “friends” on the internet.
My information-gathering habits were formed long before today’s divisive politics. At that time, the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, the Murdochs, the Sinclairs and other propaganda moguls could not exist. Wise leaders passed laws restricting the number of newspapers a single entity could own. And the Federal Communications Commission did the same for broadcast stations, limiting any single owner to no more than seven television stations, seven AM radio stations, and seven FM stations.
In addition, licensing rules required broadcasters to provide “equal time” to competing political candidates and to provide “fair” opportunities for on-air comment to “responsible individuals with contrasting points of view.” One key result of these sensible rules was to increase the quantity and quality of news, especially broadcast news.
But the deregulation fanatics of the 1980s eliminated most media rules. Anti-regulation sentiment was so strong that when cable and satellite broadcasting came along, the FCC decided it had no jurisdiction over those important new information sources. (That’s one reason you see so many commercials on cable and satellite channels.)
Still, even without sensible controls in place, my information environment today is very different from the information environment of my young friend. I seek information from sources more likely to offer the work of trained journalists and observers. My friend seeks information from sources offering the work of ideologues, entertainers and the general population.
It is not for me to question the “reality” in which my friend lives or the sources he chooses to sustain that reality. My sources are not necessarily better or worse than his. But they are certainly different and more balanced. Also, they certainly provide a more rational reality.
Other changes have occurred since the birth of the internet and the demise of rules about media ownership and responsibility:
First, the quality and quantity of journalism education has deteriorated.
Second, social media provide millions of unqualified information sources.
Third, virtual monopolies dominate all segments of the American economy.
Fourth, populism drives the information agenda more than quality journalism.
In other words, my young friend’s information sources are easier, less complicated and more simple-minded than are my information sources.
I can only hope our friendship is not based on similar childish values.
Don Gale studied and taught journalism before spending a lifetime practicing it in Utah.