11/14/2012 12:41 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Media Nostalgia, For What It's Worth

There's nothing new about politicians playing fast and loose with facts. The election behind us, I thought I'd reflect on the oft maligned and amorphous media, the public's primary source of political information. The old approach was to check facts before reporting them. The new approach is to allow advocates to say what they wish and check facts afterward. It's possible to say just about anything and hope that no one notices the fact-checking street sweepers who follow the elephants in the parade, sweeping up what the elephants leave behind.

Perhaps I'm guilty of having an overly romanticized remembrance of the media of old. Growing up in Kansas City, I remember watching the evening news on a black and white television with my grandfather. His reading speed limited by a second grade education, getting news from the Kansas City Star would have taken all day. If I remember correctly, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (1956-1970) were his favorites, but Walter Cronkite (1962-1981), homeboy from up the river at Saint Joe, later took their place.

It was an era when the three networks competed for one big American audience. Each invested in overseas correspondents who might report live, but in my recollection, the anchor "talking heads" reported the news, things that actually happened rather than speculating about what was happening. As Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet (1951-1959) so often said, "Just the facts, ma'am." The big three news shows contributed to the "shared American experience."

The cost of entry for a fourth channel was prohibitively high. But something big happened. The cost of communications and information technology got cheaper and cheaper. Ted Turner paid the extraordinary costs to create CNN. Technology costs continued to plummet and new channels proliferated. The late 1980s Wayne's World skit on Saturday Night Live comically depicts the proliferation phenomenon with two teenagers having their own cable show broadcast from the family basement.

Competition up, the majors drew down their networks of overseas correspondents to save costs. Reliance increased on a small number of wire services like UPI, AP, and Reuters. The number of genuine news sources contracted while the number of retail news shows expanded.

Competing for market share, the three networks had to appeal to the mainstream public. But with the low cost of a channel, one could target a narrow audience rather than compete with the majors over the full spectrum audience. Specialty channels targeted Spanish and Farsi speakers, at home shoppers, and even political parties. Today, one can get the news tailored to their political tastes.

Back in the day, a politician could deliver a speech tailored to an audience in the Deep South one day and a speech tailored to an audience in New England the next without fear of having the differences exposed. The ubiquity of the media changed that. No matter where you spoke, it would be broadcast everywhere. But that condition appears to have been only temporary. The advent of specialty channels meant that the disconnect would be glossed over by the channel favoring the speaker and seized upon only by the channel opposing the speaker. We could all see the world through whatever colored glasses we preferred.

Those channels that attempted some degree journalistic objectivity adopted a more entertaining format.

The Hollywood Squares game show (1965-1981) positioned a stable of comedians augmented by visiting celebrities in a 3 by 3 tic-tac-toe arrangement. Each was presented with a question and responded with a correct answer, a wild guess, or a plausible lie. The contestants were challenged to determine the veracity of their answers by choosing to agree or disagree.

Rather than reporting events collected and analyzed by the network, anchors interview a stable of Republican "strategists" and Democratic "analysts" who spin events one way or another with all parties shouting down the others. Apparently debates are to be won by those who talk the loudest and fastest. The talking heads were replaced by shouting heads. The public is challenged to determine the veracity of their answers by choosing to agree or disagree. Or they could turn to a channel they could reliably agree with.

News channels targeted to ideological groups had even greater consequences than the change of format.

Marc Sageman, a forensic psychologist and terrorism expert, reminded me of an important finding of the scholars who sought to understand the authoritarianism of World War II. Social psychologists observe a tendency towards authoritarianism in cliques -- groups of people who exhibit a high degree of interactivity between like-minded people within the group (ingroup) and a low degree of interactivity with people outside the group (outgroup).

Where authoritarianism is prevalent, members conform to the norms of the ingroup, submit to the group's authorities, and exhibit aggression (punishment and condemnation) toward the outgroup and non-conforming members of the ingroup.

The social psychologists' view may shed some light on some current issues in American politics. Terrorist groups clearly have the characteristics of cliques. Fundamentalist groups (whether Christian, Islamic, Hebrew, or secular) prefer isolation from cosmopolitanism in religion, education, and other elements of social life. Liberals and Conservatives now have their own news sources allowing them a degree of isolation from each other.

Three news channels seeking broad appeal contributed to a shared American experience, while the proliferation of channels targeted to narrow audiences today might be contributing to Balkanization of American thought. One can easily choose a news channel and listen to what the ingroup has to say while being safely insulated from the heresy of the outgroup. The news hour takes on the character of a high school pep rally. "Hooray for our side (1967)."