Last week I had the pleasure of attending an event with NationSwell featuring David Axelrod, best known for his role in helping get Barack Obama elected to two terms as President. During the closed-door conversation (this piece is published with the consent of his office), Mr. Axelrod shared insights and stories from the campaign trail and the early years of a president tasked with mending a failing global financial system.
Particularly because the NationSwell event took place amid a backdrop of New Yorkers preparing for a not-inconsequential primary vote, the conversation quickly turned to the politics of the moment. Most of the questions from fellow NationSwell Council members concerned how we can repair our current system of SuperPACs, super delegates, low voter turnout and so forth. His answers throughout were deft but unsurprising, until the final question came from a gentleman in the back of the room who wanted to know why our country seemed so horribly divided and dysfunctional. Mr. Axelrod's immediate, succinct response: "The media." In my role as Executive Director of The LAMP, a nonprofit teaching people to comprehend, create and critique media, this is where the conversation took an especially exciting turn for me.
He expanded by noting that there are many factors which lead to a culture of disagreement - laying blame solely on the media oversimplifies the issue - and historically, Americans are not at their most divided. We are not in a state of armed rebellion and nation-birth, as we were under President George Washington; brothers are not killing brothers in seceding states, as they were under President Abraham Lincoln; nor are we reorganizing the American economy between World Wars, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did. We have real and significant challenges in 2016, but as Mr. Axelrod stated, mass media are contributing to a perception that we are irreparably bifurcated like never before.
Media have every reason to desire a tumultuous environment like this; it lines their pockets. For example, a few weeks ago, Les Moonves, the Chief Executive Officer of CBS told a room of investors at a Morgan Stanley conference that Donald Trump's campaign "may not be a good thing for America, but it's a damn good thing for CBS." In saying this, he exposed the game plan of one of the world's largest media corporations, in which broadcasting vitriol, bullying and lies lead directly to profit and revenue - the fate of the country be damned.
Mr. Axelrod's statement is exactly why I started The LAMP, which brings basic media literacy training and tools to communities nationwide, but I would add that the problem has to do with more than the media. Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt may not have had to deal with Twitter rants and obnoxious GIFs, but they faced hostile media environments, and ultimately had to trust that Americans were intelligent, inquisitive people who could think for themselves. Perhaps the bigger problem now is media literacy.
I don't mean to suggest that there ever was a golden age when everyone understood how, why, for whom and by whom media are made, or when everyone had the needed tools and skills to produce and distribute their own messages. But there seems to be a gradually willing contract between the American media and the American people to deceive and be deceived, to allow our fears, egos and bank accounts to govern discourse at the expense of rational thought, or even an acknowledgment of our own subjectivity.
I've heard enough pledges from various friends and associates that they are leaving the country if "x" gets elected. I think they feel this desperate because the media benefit from raising the stakes of this campaign season to impossibly high levels, as though the United States would be dissolved tomorrow and great black hole would emerge between Canada and Mexico where once lived millions of people. Not to discount the importance of voting and civic engagement, but honestly, we're going to be fine, whether the next President is my worst nightmare or yours. The difference will be in how we treat each other, and for that we need a populace able to push back on a media industry which currently profits from misinformation and divisiveness.