03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Tone of the Debate Sounds... Familiar?

The teabaggers and the angry conservatives sure make a lot of noise these days. There seems to be as much noise talking about them making noise as the original noise itself. One thing seems to be clear, though: the online channel is a key element in the vitriol. It provides the fuel to keep those old media channels like TV and radio burning so brightly. Without the Web and social networks, the roar from the right, and the left for that matter, would sound a lot softer.

What is it about new media that brings out the worst in our national debate? If you look back 100 or more years at our own American media, you'll see some strong similarities with what's happening today. Maybe yelling and screaming at each other is our normal state, and that the last 40 years of the 20th century were merely an aberration.

At the end of the 19th century, the rush to industrialization brought with it the mass-produced urban newspapers. And with it came an intense competition for readership. The biggest contest was between legends Joseph Pulitzer (of the Pulitzer Prize) and William Hearst (of Citizen Kane). Talk about heavyweights! And what was the result of this free market media frenzy? Yellow journalism.

Some actually credit yellow journalism's hyperbole and truth stretching with starting the Spanish-American War in 1897. The fantastic headlines and overblown stories had one goal in mind: expand readership to pull in more advertising dollars. The more controversy, the better the economics. Sound like Fox News yet?


With the advent of radio in the 1920's and 1930's America entered it's next phase of new media meshuga. The medium not only allowed FDR to hold his fireside chats, it enabled the Rush Limbaughs and the Sarah Palins of the day a way to reach national audiences. People like Father Coughlin and Huey Long took to the airwaves to enflame political debate and call for people to rise up and revolt. It gave them each a mouthpiece to appeal to the baser emotions of troubled Americans. And it worked really well.

Only the initial TV broadcast medium broke this trend. Maybe it was because broadcast was too expensive and thus too centralized. Or maybe we did have a somewhat national consensus that grew out of our shared experiences in World War II and the Cold War. For whatever reason, the next 40 or so years saw a much more civilized political landscape, moderated by a few trusted people.

Cable TV started breaking this up, but it didn't reach full force until the Internet came along. Then, that great, democratic medium gave both the means of production AND distribution to the masses (uh, maybe democratic is the wrong adjective). After that, it unleashed every crazy passion known to mankind, with an emphasis on porn and politics. In the same way that we could read our narrow, political newspaper at the turn of the last century, we can surf to our very specific channels online and then tune into cable channels and radio to see and hear it live.

What's most surprising is that we're all surprised to see all of this happening again. We thought we had evolved somehow, into a higher plane of American civility. I mean, in Congress in the 1800s people used to beat each other with canes. Now we only get an occasional "Go F*** yourself."

I think there's hope, though. That hope is social media. I think social media will be the glue that ties lots of our Web presences and activities together and makes them visible beyond our own little network.

Why will that help? Well think about how you act with your family. You can be sloppy, inconsiderate and act in ways that your friends would probably call crazy. Bring in someone from the outside and you sharpen up. God forbid someone else should see you acting that way.

I think when people realize that everyone can see them acting crazy, they'll tone it down.  Because one thing is for sure: every time the media evolves, it seems to bring some of our very worst habits.