Thursday, November 5, 2009

Niche Market News, or, How The Sky Got a Crack In It

It was about six months ago that it fully dawned on me that my sister and I are getting different news. Dolly was sitting with me at my kitchen table, with some of the coffee cake that I always make (that she later taught me would stay moist longer with 1/3 of a cup of applesauce in the batter), and she was talking about tea parties.

I don't know if she could tell this at the time, but I had no idea what she was talking about. Tea parties? British high tea? I was a little distracted by my heavy pregnancy -- the very day before Stella was born -- and I had a momentary image of a friend's three-year-old daughter serving me plastic doughnuts.

My sister continued, "It's hard to see that as anything but bias. When that many people come to a protest and the media doesn't cover it at all. That's a bias."

I didn't hear what she said next. Instead I transformed her accusation into its shadow: a claim that her preferred news sources are somehow not biased, while mine are. This shadow claim -- the thing that Dolly didn't say but, I imagined, she must have meant -- is so absurd and strange that I stopped listening.

Media bias? My sister, who is a card carrying member of the Christian right, is talking to me about media bias?

As we always do, my sister and I continued our conversation in perfect civility until one or the other of us changed the subject, and we still get along just fine, even though we remain politically minded and pretty much diametrically opposed. But I didn't learn anything about the tea parties.

It was more than a month later, near July 4, that the phenomenon of tea parties finally made its way into my news stream, and I came to realize that they were gatherings of political conservatives convened to protest various financial policies of the current administration.

Maybe I wouldn't have been interested anyway. I'm a garden variety bleeding heart, by which I mean that my alliances are forged along the lines of social issues, and financial policy concerns would have a hard time coming near enough to unseat my convictions. But my greatest conviction of all has to do with clear vision, in this case, the ability to hear, and on that front I had experienced a failure.

And the most maddening part of this particular failure? Is that I don't even watch television news, which I'm pretty sure is the sector of media my sister was critiquing. So what was I defending? I don't watch TV at all. And neither does my sister. We both read our news...on the internet.

In different places on the internet, clearly. The phrase "niche market" comes to mind, and I'm remembering how my brother Dan, who is a businessman, explained this to me. On the internet there is financial reward for gathering what would once have been considered a puny audience. If you can gather a thousand people, a couple of thousand people, you're doing all right. A generation ago, nobody would have kept creating content for that small of a market. It would have been too expensive. It wouldn't have made money. It wouldn't have worked.

But now it does work. And as a result, even in circles of people who wear the same political stripes, it can take a few minutes to get on the same page. I listen to NPR. She's watching CNN. He's reading Slate. And even though many of us still read the New York Times (in my liberal-ish circles, obviously), we are using our browsers to scan that huge paper for the particular articles we're looking for.

Welcome to the age of consumer-driven news. I can search the internet for the position statement that most closely matches my vision of the world, for the evidence that supports my already-formed conclusion. And with as little effort as type-type-type-click-click-scan-scan, I will almost certainly find it. It wants to be found.

Quite a few years ago now, I worked as a stage manager on a play written and directed by a San Diego radio personality. The play was a simplified and humor-ized rendition of that disc jockey's life and career, with great pop hits and a twenty-five foot turntable. It ended each night with a montage of television news footage of the most significant events in the prior thirty years of San Diego's history, ramping through the devastating crash of PSA Flight 182 on its way to the fall of the Twin Towers. That house held 414 people. It was packed every show. And every show there was a collective mourning, a together mourning, as they relived these horrific events writ large on the projection screen in front of them.

I couldn't have anything to do with it. Maybe I genuinely needed to maintain emotional distance in order to be effective in my job. Maybe I'm just weak. But every night I invited the stage crew to open their headset microphones, asking them to cease their wonderfully breezy and distracting conversation only moments before the closing sequence, in which, as the second of the two towers collapsed again into that living cloud of dust, I would call the projection screen to black, and the turntable back around to its final position.

I can't exactly remember the lines that were spoken then, by these DJ characters with their funny names, as the stage lights came up to a theater sized replica of a grieving nation. The truth of those words was too bald for me to really appreciate it at the time, and I would guess the insight was also lost to most of the audience. But what was said went something like this:

"When you turn on your radio in the morning, what you really want to that you're not alone."

To the hundreds of fans of a single radio show, seated shoulder to shoulder in that darkened room, that was a rallying cry. It was a celebration of their togetherness in the face of unimaginable tragedy. But to me, it just made me feel more lonely. I wasn't a part of that group. I couldn't be a part of that group. I couldn't buy what that particular DJ had to sell.

Once again, I find myself thinking of the world less in terms of left and right and more in terms of in and out. "Do you believe what They are telling you?" so many of us ask, every day. The thing that differs -- widely! -- is who we think "They" is. "They" could be the Communists or it could be the President. It could be a pastor or it could be an environmental scientist. It could be the corporations, or the United Nations, or talk radio, or your sister, or the network news.

This is our culture now, this dogged pursuit of our deceivers -- even to the extent that an elected Representative calls out, "That's a lie!" to the President during a joint session of Congress. In this, he is accurately representing his constituency. We all believe that somebody is lying.

I felt this deeply as I recently drove across the center of the country, letting my radio dial meander across the band and hearing, in succession, fully opposite statements presented equally as truth. What is this doing to our minds? When you can sit there with another person, and you know they're not crazy, and you know you aren't crazy -- at least, you weren't yesterday -- but you're finding that their understanding of reality is different from yours? That they're literally living in a different world?

When we talk about the political polarization of recent years, I believe this is what we're talking about. I don't have reason to believe that our legislative representatives are drifting apart from one another. From my humble single-point perspective, all five hundred and thirty five of them continue to have more in common with each other than they do with me.

But we are becoming more polarized. Across these ideological chasms -- the culture wars, the mommy wars, the political wars -- we are less likely to have shared experiences: less likely to have heard the same program, read the same book, admired the same public figure, or dreamed the same dream. And as we surf the internet each day, we can feel our reality shifting, just a tiny bit, depending on in which universe we land.

I don't blame the internet for all this. It is a reflection of changing culture as much as it is a cause of it. But I do feel the need to aggressively reach out, at least to a few people. Maybe just to my one Republican sister. Or even to people whose political values are similar to mine, but have heard me focus on the minute differences in our thinking instead of digging hard into the human souls we have in common.

And I find that, on occasion, I close my computer and look up and out at the real sky, which doesn't have any cracks in it at all and wonder, what on earth am I talking about? These dire imaginings, all these concerns, however poetic they might appear on my computer screen, can hardly stand to the challenge of a real November wind.

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