I recently read an interesting opinion piece from Tom Nichols about Americans seem to be unable to talk to each other about politics or current events. The title of the MarketWatch.com article, sums up the starting point of his analysis: “Americans are now utterly intolerant of ever being told they’re wrong about almost anything“. Nichols starts with the sound behavioral argument for our information intolerance: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our tendency to process information in ways that agree with what we already believe. This leads us to seek out evidence that confirms those beliefs and shut out or discredit disconfirming information.
Confirmation bias is well known. The question is why does this intolerance seem to be getting worse, making it impossible for us to reach agreement or even civilly discuss public issues? Nichols gets into the changes brought by the Internet (previewing some of the ideas in his recent book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, which got me thinking about that one of the big causes for our polarization is the segmentation of media — not just the availability of different types of information sources on the Internet, but also the fragmentation of “traditional” media outlets. The changes in media have been so dramatic that we are lagging in our ability to adapt to those changes. This has come at a big cost to public discourse.
There has always been a push-pull between two revenue-generation strategies for media businesses: cast a wide net versus targeting a niche. Due to costs of entry and (until recently) limitations on bandwidth, the wide-net strategy dominated in news and entertainment. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the daily media options were the three major networks and a few daily newspapers per metropolitan area.
For those enterprises to succeed, they had to get big audiences. In 1977–78 for example, the highest-rated TV shows (Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days) reached an estimated audience of about 23 million households (out of 73 million households with TVs). The thirtieth ranked show captured a weekly audience of over 14 million. Get eyeballs, get advertisers.
To appeal to the widest possible market, programming has to appeal to a broad market. In news and information programming, that led to a moderated, more centrist point of view. For a network news show or daily metropolitan newspaper to be viable, it had to open its arms as wide as possible, presenting the news in a way that would alienate the fewest people. This meant that the news had to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. One paper or network or commentator could lean toward one direction but it could only be by degrees, certainly compared to many of the commentators we see today. Because we were all exposed to the same three news programs, we shared a common reality, exposed to a lot of the same information.
I’m not saying that method of acquiring news, information, and entertainment was better. I’m setting aside the discussion of what we missed during those aim-for-the-middle days, or what we’ve gained now that media bandwidth has become almost unlimited. We’re probably living in a golden age of scripted entertainment, when a show like Mad Men on AMC can become a cultural phenomenon. Mad Men‘s audience peaked at just over two-and-a-half-million viewers. Mad Men could never have been economically viable on a major network. Its network, AMC, couldn’t have existed.
The explosion of bandwidth has made it possible — and then viable and then advantageous — for outlets, programmers, and advertisers to target and serve niche markets. The downside is that this fragmented media landscape contributes to the inability of people to talk to each other. If you can financially support a one-sided view that speaks to a small slice of the population, you no longer need to appeal to other views. In fact, because people want to hear what agrees with them, this targeted audience finds it appealing that they don’t have to be exposed to views that make them uncomfortable.
When I was growing up, people would point to the extremes in the media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It’s kind of hilarious to think of those as the extremes because there’s no question that they’re now lumped together as “the mainstream media.”
Once the market can support targeted messages to niche markets, people have the opportunity to only seek out to the views that already agree with them. And there is a news flavor for everyone, no matter how extreme. That encourages the media outlet to amplify that niche. This circles on itself. The result is that people can’t seem to talk to each other anymore. If I read Breitbart and you read Slate, it’s almost like we’re not reading about the same world. There is little agreement on the basic facts. So how could we ever have a conversation with each other when we have no agreement about the facts? When everybody sat down and watched CBS News, we could have a conversation because we were all seeing the same thing. We had a shared reality. The diversification of information sources certainly has advantages, but creating a series of echo chambers isn’t one of them, and we have to deal with the fallout from that.