Support the news

As Long As Our Press Speaks In Partisan Language, We'll Remain A Nation Divided

People pass the front of the News Corporation headquarters building in New York, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. (Richard Drew/ AP)MoreCloseclosemore
People pass the front of the News Corporation headquarters building in New York, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. (Richard Drew/ AP)

Like what you read here? Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.


I’ve been thinking about the Tower of Babel a lot these last few months.

You’ll recall the story from the Book of Genesis. After the Great Flood, all the people of the earth speak the same language. They settle on a plain in Shinar and build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. Offended by their ambition, God responds by confounding their speech and scattering them to the far corners of the earth.

There are plenty of ways to interpret this parable. As news of the Trump administration’s new Speak-English-Or-Else immigration proposal spread last week, for instance, I thought about the long and ignominious history of leaders who have exploited cultural, ethnic and linguistic differences to enhance their power.

In fact, we can expect more of this from Trump, as his presidency further degenerates into ineptitude and corruption.

But the more profound connection I see to the Tower of Babel has to do with the balkanization of our Fourth Estate.

A significant percentage of Americans now speak the language of baseless innuendo and conspiracy, fed to them by for-profit demagogues.

Freedom of the press was enshrined in the Constitution specifically because the founders believed that the people needed a representative in Washington. The job of the free press is (to quote the maxim) to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Or, to put it more precisely, to hold the powerful to account, and to ensure the disenfranchised have a voice.

Journalists also have an epistemological mission. They are supposed to help citizens make the distinction between verifiable truths and the sort of propaganda generated to serve a political or financial aim.

This is how Supreme Court Justice Byron White put it back in 1964: “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.” The ideal outcome, obviously, would be a citizenry equipped with the facts necessary to make sound political judgments.

That is not how our Fourth Estate operates. Instead, we have what amounts to a Tower of Babel, in which media outlets profit by speaking the partisan language that its given demographic craves.

This is most obvious in the paranoid ravings of right-wing talk radio hosts and online conspiracy theorists.

Members of the media gather outside the entrance to the White House press office on July 21, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Members of the media gather outside the entrance to the White House press office on July 21, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

But mainstream media outlets, particularly cable news programs, have enjoyed banner returns in the Trump era because they have turned news coverage into entertainment, with a never-ending series of pundit brawls that play out like reality TV catfights.

Trump and his paid prevaricators love this sort of coverage, because it feeds the sense of tribal grievance that fortifies the base. But the result is an astonishing degree of ignorance and misinformation.

Consider the survey commissioned by The Economist a month after the election. Trump voters believed:

*Obama was born in Kenya (48 percent)

*Leaked emails from Clinton staffers contained code words for pedophilia, human trafficking and Satanic ritual abuse (53 percent)

*Millions of illegal votes were cast in the election (38 percent)

*Vaccines cause autism (69 percent)

So long as this prevails, our nation will remain divided, unable to speak the same language, or even agree on the same facts.

Not-so-fun fact: A fifth of Clinton voters also believed the stuff about satanic ritual abuse, and vaccines, and illegal votes.

This is the most obvious evidence of our modern Tower of Babel. A significant percentage of Americans now speak the language of baseless innuendo and conspiracy, fed to them by for-profit demagogues.

So long as this prevails, our nation will remain divided, unable to speak the same language, or even agree on the same facts.

As in the parable, we will be unable to solve any of the crises bearing down upon us, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to income inequality and health care. Instead, a monstrously insecure leader with a God complex will continue to sow discord.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.

Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

More…

+Join the discussion
Share
TwitterfacebookEmail

More from Cognoscenti

Support the news