The media is spinning around theories of what happened to Malaysia Flight 370. Nobody seems to know the truth as of yet. Instead, seasoned pilots and security experts appear to be the best narrators on TV of any stories that we hear.
Joe McGinnis, author of The Selling of the President, died last week. McGinnis wrote about the media machine that led to Nixon's victory in 1968. In 1960, Nixon was uncomfortable around the cameras. What changed for him in 1968 was that he knew that he must sell his image in order to win. The president's staff worked hard at making him appear more TV-friendly. As a result, even he remarked in 1968 that it was a "shame that a man ha[s] to use gimmicks like this to get elected" (63).
A prominent communications professor once remarked that "all media is subjective because it is always told from a perspective." This would mean that even the most basic facts relayed to us are not objective. When we see on the screen that a plane has crashed and then the first news we hear is the potential or presumptive guilt of two Iranian men on board, where does objectivity play into this equation?
Professor Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania places the blame on members of Congress for more polarized rhetoric in the media. She has found that "When members of Congress represent some of the more extreme positions (as they do now), it then follows that a result of journalists' tendency to rely on official sources, the more extreme viewpoints are also more likely to be covered by the press." And for the most part, Fox News will cover Republicans favorably and MSNBC will cover Democrats favorably. People flock to what they like -- whether they want to reinforce their views or seek to learn more about their views is the real question.
In recent years, members of Congress appear frustrated with the current state of hyper-partisanship. After a 40-year career in the House, 74-year-old Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman of California is retiring at the end of his current term. "There are elements of Congress today that I do not like," says Waxman. "I abhor the extremism of the Tea Party Republicans. I am embarrassed that the greatest legislative body in the world too often operates in a partisan intellectual vacuum, denying science, refusing to listen to experts and ignoring facts."
Actually, the current Congress -- as measured in 2013 -- is characterized as more polarized than any Congress since National Journal started its congressional ratings in 1982. Gary Jacobson, a University of California San Diego political scientist who specializes in congressional politics, says that the last several Congresses have been among the most polarized in history. "This is just a continuation of that. There's nothing that will break this [trend]," he adds.
Yet on May 22, 1856, way before Nixon and more than a century-and-a-half before today, Congress was incredibly divided. In fact, it was so divided that a Congressman named Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber and beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his walking cane. And no cameras at all covered this incident. Senator Sumner was not surrounded by cameras when he said that Kansas should be entered into the United States as a free-state. He wasn't surrounded by cameras when he said that this should be done "in dutiful respect for the early Fathers." And he wasn't surrounded by cameras when he said that he made his last appeal in the name of the Constitution. Still, Brooks also wasn't surrounded by cameras when he took his walking stick and slammed Sumner on the head (and that would have made for some great TV).
While we now know who stood on the right side of history, both men were clearly subjective in their words and actions. And both were talking about something of incredible significance.
The main difference today is that, most often, too many are saying nothing of any significance at all.