In the 1960s, there were only a few television channels. Cable television, while available at the time, was not widely used. The Internet had not yet been invented. If you wanted to follow politics, you had only a few options. The network news programs, most notably the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, were the only source for same-day reports.
The lack of news sources forced viewers to watch shows that would not always say things they agreed with. Today that is no longer the case. The invention of the Internet and the spread of cable television have drastically increased the number of sources for news. It has also allowed for politicized networks, like Fox News, to establish themselves and attract viewers.
There is now an option for everyone. Conservatives can watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh, while liberals can watch The Daily Show and read The New York Times. Neo-Nazis can go to stormfront.org, and Communists can go to cpusa.org. This proliferation of biased news sources has steadily decreased viewership of the network news. Please note, I am not suggesting that the networks programs are unbiased, only that they represent a more centrist view than other sources.
In 1980, over 50 million Americans tuned in to one of the three network evening news shows each night. Today, the number of people is down to about 23 million, despite an increase in the population of nearly 90 million people. But the amount of time people spend following the news has increased, according to the Pew Research Center.
What do these facts tell us? They indicate that more and more people are choosing to get their news from places that will tell them exactly what they want to hear. By doing so, they are engaging in what I call intellectual masturbation. They seek out viewpoints that are similar to their own, and when those sources confirm what they already believe, they take this as an affirmation of their intelligence and derive pleasure from it.
This intellectual masturbation creates a society where people rarely encounter viewpoints that differ from their own. This leads to a reduced tolerance for different opinions and has contributed to the drastic increase in political polarization that has occurred in the U.S. over the last 50 years. This polarization does two things. First, it increases gridlock in the government. As more and more extreme candidates are elected, the moderates who are crucial to building viable coalitions are forced out, leaving two parties with very few ways to find common ground and compromise. Second, it decreases the overall quality of the political discourse. Rather than calm debate, we get screaming matches between people who are equally sure they are right because all the news they see confirms their own beliefs and reduces their ability to see other perspectives.
This problem is not one that can be fixed systematically. The only systemic solution would be censorship, which, to borrow a James Madison metaphor, would be like getting rid of air to prevent fires. Rather, I advocate an individual approach, for people to make a concerted effort to get their news from multiple sources with different biases and to make an effort to understand and respect other people’s beliefs, no matter how foolish and silly they may seem.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 3 print edition. Ian Mark is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.