• Paul D. Wilke


Here's a thought: Cable news is like junk food. A little bit is probably not all that bad for you, but a steady diet over time will leave your mind weaker and less resilient. Think of Fox News as like a box of intellectual Ding Dongs; MSNBC is like cotton candy, and CNN is Mountain Dew. You are what you consume, my fellow Americans.

After living overseas for so many years, our extreme political polarization is something that has always baffled me. How did we get to this place? Now, after five weeks living in a hotel in Alabama watching way too much cable news, I get it. Fox, MSNBC, and CNN are all working feverishly to establish competing versions of reality, each relying on fear and emotion to stoke ratings. Until the shooting at Parkland, I honestly cannot recall a single news story that did not somehow revolve around the President. All day. Every day. If you watch CNN and MSNBC, it's all about the corruption, Russian collusion, and gross incompetence of the Trump administration. If you turn to Fox News, however, it's all about how well the stock market is doing under Trump, how little substance there is to Mueller's investigation of Trump, and how libtards hate America. All competing narratives to shape competing realities for a passive public. Pick yours.

And there's no escape from it, either. It's ubiquitous. Wherever I went, there it was, hanging up on the wall, non-stop cable news blaring its propaganda. At the medical clinic, CNN greeted me in the main lobby and Fox News in the waiting room. At the dentist, same thing: Fox News. Dinner at a Chinese buffet: Fox News. At the gym: CNN. Everywhere. There's no escape from the cacophony. Even if I tried to ignore it, the background noise started seeping into my brain, slowly rewiring the DNA from human to parrot. Before I knew it, I'm was watching more and more MSNBC in the mornings while I got ready for work and in the evenings while I ate dinner. And then after dinner. And then before I went to bed. And then at lunch. I had to stay informed! We're on the precipice! Everything's falling apart! The urgent sense of crisis and impending doom started to creep in.

People know that cable news is just partisan trash with high production budgets, and yet they still tune in to get manipulated. I knew this too, but watched anyway, thinking I was somehow immune to its influence. And what drives up ratings? A constant sense of crisis combined with a movie-villain portrayal of opponents. Nuance is not welcome; loud, incredulous opinions are. Ratings show we want just one or two stories playing on a loop and lots of people shouting at each other. We say we hate it, but that's what we watch, and so that's what they give us. That's why no one in America is tuning in to watch CNN's African Voices, after all. But Fox & Friends or Morning Joe? It's a part of our breakfast. As a result, our opinions end up skewed by echo chambers of our own making where one side is right and the other full of idiots. Or, worse, traitors.

For example, my liberal friends might be shocked by this, but many Alabamans I met seem just fine with how the President is doing. The economy is humming along. The President and his party passed a big tax cut package. He got a conservative supreme court justice voted in. He's taking a knife out and cutting into the Big Government everyone on the right has been taught to hate for so many years. Sure, the Tweets are embarrassing, but things are getting done. Finally! Fox News reinforces and gives form to those arguments. That's one reality.

And, at the same time, my conservative friends seem genuinely shocked when people point out what appears to be the yawning chasm between the conservative values they tout and the man they picked to espouse them. After hearing the same people rant and rave about the moral turpitude of the Clintons for the last twenty years, such an about-face is jarring. They may have held their noses and supported the President to get the short-term win, but the taint of moral hypocrisy will linger long after he is out of office. The evangelicals who overwhelmingly supported the President are terrified of our cultural decay, and yet seem oblivious to the irony of their choice to reverse that decay. And so CNN and MSNBC reinforce this narrative. This represents another reality. Both sides have their points, but viewers only ever hear one, and that's the one that ends up making sense.

So what's the answer? How about just tuning out? Don't equate overconsumption of partisan media with civic engagement. It's not. But tuning out doesn't have to mean disengagement. That's not the answer either. By all means, pay attention. Stay engaged, but do it selectively. Read. Subscribe to a few, core news sources that provide in-depth and quality reporting. And be willing to pay for it. Take the time to read a 5000-word article in the New Yorker. Turn off Fox & Friends and put that box of Ding Dongs away. Reading is infinitely better than getting machine-gunned by thirty- second sound bites of nonsense aimed at stimulating emotional responses from your pre-existing biases. The reading brain is better equipped to detect bullshit than the listening brain.

And make sure those news sources cover a range of opinions. I subscribe to the New York Times, Jacobin, Baffler, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Nation, and the Washington Post, but also pay for subscriptions to a few thoughtful conservative publications like the National Review and Commentary Magazine. Reading a variety of sources keeps me from going all Social Justice Warrior like I would if I let myself consume nothing but cotton candy and Mountain Dew. I'm still pretty far to the left on the social and political spectrum, but I realize there are other ways to see the world that are coherent, well-intentioned, and not malevolent. This approach leaves me more open to dialogue with those I disagree with, and most importantly, to the possibility of changing my mind when a better idea presents itself. I've done so before, and, I am quite certain, will do so again. After all, if you think about it, we're wrong about almost everything most of the time. If your opinions never change, sometimes radically, you should be very worried. The challenge is to admit the humble fact of our intellectual fallibility and then still work to try and make as much sense of the world as our puny little animal brains will allow. And then, when it's all said and done, be ready to choose again.