WTF is going on??

Does it seem to you the U.S. is a divided nation?  If you turn on one media channel there’s one story, a different channel tells the exact opposite story. 

How did we get this way?  I have a couple of ideas and invite you to comment below to share your thoughts.

There are a lot more people

And a lot more people mean more extremists. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you want to measure the height of everyone in your town.  Some will be shorter, some taller.  If you take the measurements and plot them on a graph, it will look roughly like the bell curve above, with the majority of the heights falling in the average range. 

Now, if your town size is 100, then 68 people will fall in the middle.  The farther toward the edges you go, the fewer people.  In fact, there are only 2 on the super short end, and 2 on the super tall end.  Even if you take the bulk of the edges, there are only 16 on each side.

Here are the data from the US Census Bureau, with 2020 projected in 2017.  The numbers show how one side of the curve in the U.S. grew:

yearpopulation16%2%
1960179,323,17528,691,7083,586,463
1970203,211,92632,513,9084,064,239
1980226,545,80536,247,3294,530,916
1990248,709,87339,793,5804,974,197
2000281,421,90645,027,5055,628,438
2010308,745,53849,399,2866,174,911
2020*332,639,00053,222,2406,652,780

There really is a larger group of extreme people,. But as a percent of the population, the fringe is basically the same. The ends have more people, but the middle has a LOT more.

The issue we’re dealing with is the size of the microphone.

Media madness

When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, it promised to promote competition and reduce regulation.  By opening the airways, it gave the microphone to anyone with an axe to grind and the dollars to invest.  One individual can own many stations and broadcast in multiple media, like both TV and radio.

The tiny fringe now has a more concentrated voice with an expanded reach.

Also, goodbye Walter Cronkite, hello Info-tainment.  The newsrooms were converted from a public service to a profit center.  The “news” is now driven by competition and ratings, not the journalistic principles of accuracy and balance.  

So not only is the megaphone of the fringe bigger, the motive for information sharing is profit, not truth.

How to stay sane

First, remember that an opinion is not a fact.  Second, know that your eyeballs mean profit for someone.

Here’s how to pay attention:

Curate the incoming – In 2016 my TV died about a week after the presidential election.  I never replaced it.  That means no cable news, no broadcast news.  What little news I take in is carefully chosen.  I invite you to follow the money and ask who will benefit from your eyeballs.

Ignore social media – Social media has proven itself to be a manipulation device.  If you see a post that juices your emotional reaction and makes you think “People need to KNOW this!!,” you are being manipulated.  Do you really need to share that manipulation?

Investigate – Opinions are not facts.  I love Google Scholar.  If I hear a claim, I find the original research to check their facts and form my own opinion.  Find a trustworthy unbiased source and check claims against reality, especially if that claim comes from the mouth of a politician. 

Check in – pull back from your news source and observe its impact on you.  If it stimulates your emotions (anger, pity, defensiveness, sadness), then it’s likely manipulating you. 

Are we really divided?

Honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems.  Those showing up for the Fireside Circles are willing to examine their beliefs and listen to others.  We have such a rich exchange.  They seem like a good representation of the middle 68%.

What divides is the relentless and escalating tussle for our attention.  We are forced to listen to the inflated judgmental voice of the tribal fringe.   Those media outlets with profit agendas trigger us with emotional manipulation to keep our eyeballs glued to their screen, so they can make money.

How messed up is that?

I believe that the majority of us are in that middle 68% and that we are capable of listening to both sides, doing our own due diligence, forming our own opinions and then acting on them. 

We’re capable, but do we?  What do you think?


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