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Media Outlets Claim to Speak for ‘The American People,’ But Do They?

Aside from reminding everyone that Christmas is the best (or worst) time to garner oodles of free publicity, the “Duck Dynasty” fracas — with A&E suspending and reinstating “star” Phil Robertson, primarily over comments about gays — illustrates just how talk-past-each-other divided the U.S. is at this point.

So while politicians perhaps can be forgiven when they seek to buttress arguments by citing the will of “the American people,” it should be different in media, a major contributor to an environment where it’s not so funny that we don’t talk anymore. Consequently, any reporter or pundit caught using such an overly simplistic phrase should be promptly drummed out of the corps.

It’s comforting, of course, to say that underneath it all, Americans are more united than divided, and it’s tempting to dismiss talk about a modern cultural Civil War as the latest manifestation of divisions that have always existed. As PBS’ recent “American Experience” documentary “1964” notes, almost every current roiling dispute can be traced to events from that year, from Lyndon Johnson’s introduction of the Great Society to Barry Goldwater championing a staunch go-it-alone brand of conservatism.

What feels different a half-century later is an environment in which the squabbling sides don’t need to converse, fed by self-selected (and self-serving) media outlets that champion specific views and present dissenting voices only as straw men to be knocked over.

“Ideologies have always had their own organs of publication,” says Bill Moyers, an aide to Johnson then and a sober voice of progressivism today who’s still fighting the fight on his weekly program “Moyers & Company,” carried by PBS stations. “What’s different today are the wall-to-wall options,” he says.

Regarding the familiar concept of America as a great melting pot of diversity, Moyers says, “We don’t melt the way we used to. … The pot’s boiling, but it’s not melting.”

Indeed, while Internet comment sections are hardly representative of much more than the sorry state of literacy, a common theme found in them pertaining to something like the “Duck Dynasty” scramble is the near-delusional assumption that everyone agrees with your viewpoint. Which is true, so far as one stays safely cocooned within the bubble of ideologically like-minded radio stations or websites.

That’s why Salon’s Brian Beutler was on to something when he suggested Robertson’s comments and the firestorm they unleashed “explain more about our country’s political culture than almost anything else that happened all year.” Cynics can dismiss the furor as another overblown tempest in the proverbial teapot, but the reactions encapsulate an absolutism that derails the possibility of dialogue.

The “Duck Dynasty” brouhaha also exposed the thorny role religion plays in many of these debates, with New York Times columnist Charles Blow suggesting Republicans and conservative media have cultivated a siege mentality to keep the base riled up, concluding, “Infidels are deserving of your enmity, not your empathy.”

Beyond the customary issues of left and right, though, is a larger one regarding the divisive role of technology, fragmenting “the American people” into thousands of tribal offshoots. And if the fundamental debate echoes what was being litigated in 1964, the key difference is that back then there were at least areas of commonality — with five TV channels, we were almost forced to watch the same shows — so fragmenting the audience into a multitude of alternatives is a blessing that comes at a price.

While that nearby person at the mall might look friendly, it’s possible she occupies a completely different media ecosystem. It’s also why the man-and-his-operating-system movie “Her” feels less like science fiction than a preview of the self-imposed isolation that’s the natural and perhaps inevitable progression of where we stand right now.

Still infused with idealism, Moyers says he remains “intoxicated by the conversation of democracy” but adds that as U.S. politics is practiced now, “What’s missing today, by so many people, is empathy.”

Then again, how can I be expected to feel for you when, thanks to the noise from my self-regulating earphones, I can’t even hear you?

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