These were the words uttered by Steve Bannon in a recent interview with the New York Times. The words of President Trump’s chief strategist (and resident jack-of-all trades) echoed the sentiments of many across the nation--the media is the corruptive force in the American psyche. While there is a great deal of debate about the role that media plays in politics and society as a whole, to cite the media as enemy-number-one is a move that is unfamiliar in the partisan atmosphere that saddles the body politic of 21st century America. These words have helped further deepen the divide between those who believe the White House and those who go to mainstream media to find answers. In a recent poll conducted by Emerson College, 49 percent of registered voters found the Trump administration to be honest, compared to just 39 percent who thought the news media was truthful.
What is the result of this divide? Unfortunately, it means that there are multiple realities that exist within American society. Through the careful cultivation of alternative narratives, woven over the course of decades, we now live in an environment where the shared experience of being an American is more ambiguous than ever before.
Of course, the media itself is the first place where you can point to in order to understand the genesis of the schism. Through the privatization of news outlets and the invention of the 24-hour news cycle, media corporations have been able to build machines that are capable of creating stories to fit into the narrative that they strive to push, despite the fact that the original event may have acted counter to their own narrative. By perpetuating these narratives, they have diluted the actual event into multiple quasi-versions of the event. Obfuscation is the goal. It’s easier to impose ideology when the audience isn’t privy to the entire story. News channels like MSNBC and Fox News are notorious for molding events to fit their agenda, but it's important to note that all media is affected by bias.
Social media, an example of “new media”, is rife with bias despite the fact that it serves purely as a platform for people to air their own ideas and observations. In 2008, Bill Bishop wrote The Big Sort, which describes the phenomena of like-minded people clustering together geographically at increasing rates over time. The same principle dominates social media. The result is the creation of partisan echo chambers that are becoming harder and harder to operate outside of. Personally speaking, I have had three friends on Facebook who vocally supported Donald Trump during his campaign, but clearly that wasn’t a proper indication of the popular opinion in America (although calling his support the “popular opinion” is dubious).
Although this example is crude, it illustrates the situation well. People don’t want to log into their respective social media accounts and be challenged by opinions opposing their own. They search for reaffirmation about the way they perceive the world, and in their search for validation, they strengthen they reinforce the feedback loops that have fabricated the alternate realities that exist within contemporary American society. We have a population who can witness the same events but provide different accounts for the context that they occurred in.
The implications of this rift are pervasive. How can we talk about social issues if we can’t understand or agree on a definition of racism or white privilege? How can we talk about existential issues if we can’t agree on the existence of global climate change or whether or not radicalism is a problem exclusively Muslim? There are issues that have gone unresolved because those with opposing ideas are living in separate realities. The problems we face are not due to a lack of ingenuity, motivation, or intelligence. We are faced with these problems because there are few who can see the big-picture, the rift destabilizing effective discourse in politics.
Instead, we’ve been reduced to calling each other “deplorables” and “snowflakes” because we simply can’t see how anyone outside our reality can believe what they believe. The divide is growing because we have dubbed our fellow Americans as delusional — we’ve decided that their voice is simply not worth hearing.
This is the greatest demon of all, and the reason why Bannon’s words are concerning. In the face of fundamental misunderstanding, there cannot be an administration that reinforces the existence of multiple realities. To conquer the myriad of issues we face today we must build bridges between our ideological differences, not walls.