Every day’s news contains signs of our political-media complex, which is similar to our military-industrial complex: an interlocking and interacting set of organizations and interests that has powerful tendencies over time. We need to get increasingly clear about how it works, how it affects us, and what we might do.
Our political-media complex includes three main businesses. One is the political business, which comprises all of the people and organizations who make a living by acting in politics: Incumbents and wannabes; their political and policy staffs; pollsters, consultants, and lobbyists and their outfits; people who work for alphabet organizations (DNC, the RNC, etc.); and so on.
One visible product of the political business is a stream of messages in the following form: “The other guys are bad. Just look at what they are doing now. Send money.”
People who study the matter tell us that our politics have been very competitive in recent decades, and that the competitiveness has consequences.
[T]he period since 1980 stands out as the longest sustained period of competitive balance between the parties since the Civil War. Our politics is distinctive for its narrow and switching national majorities. Nearly every recent election has held out the possibility of a shift in party control of one institution or another….
Competition fuels party conflict by raising the political stakes of every policy dispute. When control of national institutions hangs in the balance, no party wants to grant political legitimacy to its opposition by voting for the measures it champions. After all, how can a party wage an effective campaign after supporting or collaborating with its opposition on public policy? Instead, parties in a competitive environment will want to amplify the differences voters perceive between themselves and their opposition.
One possible implication: If we know we are participating in highly competitive politics, then we need to demand bipartisan cooperation, to offset the effects of competition.
Then there’s the news business, which includes all of the people and organizations that make a living, or try to make a living, by supplying “news,” “analysis,” “commentary,” and “opinion.” People and organizations in this business also are caught in fierce competition, for visibility in the 24-7 torrent of infotainment. At the same time, in a changing media environment, many of them are trying to find business models that will succeed.
Those problems tend to press them all in the direction of chasing: ambulance chasing, explosion chasing, scandal chasing, conflict chasing, controversy chasing, etc. The news takes the constant supply of new material from the political business and turns it into view-getting drama by applying a set of techniques that could be familiar to anyone who pays attention while consuming news. Those include provocative framing, vivid photo or video, incendiary quote, extensive speculation, and selective treatments of evidence.
The news business operates like an amplifier for the political business: It makes everything louder, sharper, harsher, etc. And, it gives access to its microphones quite selectively, to people who shout more, offer more provocative framing, give more incendiary quote, play fastest and loosest with evidence, and so on. That is, the main bias in the news is in favor of polarized partisans, left and right.
And of course, we can have the news channel we like. We can find the outlets and speakers who agree with us, and we can live in our bubbles, where it can seem to us that everyone, just everyone, agrees with us. Our bubbles (we construct them) tend to make us unfit for living in our actual society.
One possible implication: Deliberately get outside your bubble
Finally, there is the social media business, which offers us at least the illusion of having a voice and participating in the great conversation. In the social media, we further amplify the political and news businesses. Again, we can have the channels that suit us. And, since we are amateurs, what we produce tends strongly to be even less civil and reasonable than what happens in the political and news businesses.
Now, all three businesses have impeccable rationalizations, including “representative democracy,” “informed citizenry,” and “citizen participation.” All three businesses have ideals and hopes, particularly this: We can get better at this. Most powerfully, I think, they all have the question, “What’s the alternative?”
Perhaps for us ordinary Americans, the most important thing to notice is this: The people in the political business can’t succeed without getting our votes. The news business can’t succeed without getting our subscriptions and views. And the social media business can’t succeed if we don’t write, read and “like.” We Americans get the political business, the news business, and the social media business we deserve. Maybe not what we want or what we need, but what we deserve.