Some wishful thinkers are telling us that we are coming together as a nation in response to the horror of COVID-19, and that television and streamed media are helping to make that possible.
Wouldn’t it be nice if that was true.
David Brooks made the argument in a recent column in The New York Times saying, “The polarization industry is loath to admit this, but once you set aside the Trump circus, we are more united than at any time since 9/11." His support for that claim included a PBS show titled “In This Together” and a stream-a-thon, “The Call to Unite.”
I could not disagree more with either half of that argument. We are less united than at any time since The Civil War. Even in the late 1960s, the nation was not this divided. Furthermore, television and streamed media are driving that divide as much or more than ever.
As a media critic, it is that last sentence that most concerns me, because it contains one of the largest and least understood cultural stories of the last 75 years: the epic failure of American television to live up to almost any of its public service promise as a unifying force in American life. Instead, it has mainly divided us with programming geared to demographics that can be sold to advertisers. Streamed media have only accelerated that process, contributing to the fragmented ecosystem of silos and tribes in which we now find ourselves. And not since World War II have we needed media to help unify as we do now.
Television did hold tremendous promise as a unifying force when it arrived in American homes in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And it delivered on that promise to some extent for a considerable time.
In 1963, TV truly did help lead us through a process of collective mourning in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. At 13, I was young and raw enough not to understand the powerful emotions that overwhelmed me as I watched the coverage and funeral proceedings that ran for several days. But even at the age, I knew I was part of something larger.
In 1967, we came together in a less serious and profound way for the first Super Bowl. It was an act of celebration rather than mourning, and it was a commercial rather than a cultural experience. But it was nevertheless a unifying moment via television.
It continued into the 1980s with the last episode of the CBS sitcom “M*A*S*H,” for example, and the 1990s with Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Civil War” on PBS.
But then came the explosion of cable and channels like Fox News, for years now the most watched cable news channel in the nation.
I don’t want to belabor the point that we are definitely not more unified, but consider the recent images of protesters in camouflage outfits armed with assault weapons marching on state capitols in Wisconsin and Michigan. Or, how about the sign bearing a Nazi concentration camp slogan directed against Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a stay-at-home protest in that state May 2?
The sign said, “Arbeit macht frei, JB,” which translates as, “Work will set you free."
“Arbeit macht frei was a false, cynical illusion the SS gave to prisoners of #Auschwitz," is the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial wrote on Twitter in response to widespread distribution of the image. “Those words became one of the icons of human hatred. It’s painful to see this symbol instrumentalized & used again to spread hate. It’s a symptom of moral & intellectual degeneration.”
What we are finding in the wake of COVID-19 is not unity, but even more societal divides, like the one chronicled in a Politico piece last week on the culture war that has sprung up over wearing a mask.
“Wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans. Welcome to Washington’s latest partisan standoff,” the Politico headline said.
And it’s not just a Washington thing by a long shot. The mayor of Stillwater, Oklahoma retracted an order for customers to wear face masks in stores after owners there were threatened, in one case with a gun, for trying to enforce the order.
How do television and streamed media contribute to such divides?
One way is by putting the president of the United States ― who has inflamed protests with such tweets as, “Liberate Michigan!” ― on TV for two hours daily week after week last month.
Some critics have urged TV executives not to carry the president’s so-called “briefings.” I wrote that if cable executives felt the necessity of covering the sessions because he is the president, they should marginalize Trump in image and word by carrying video of him at the podium in a small window in a corner of the screen and telling viewers that since he has spread so much disinformation at these sessions, they can no longer responsibly carry his words live. Instead, they will monitor his words and inform viewers of any newsworthy information they can first verify.
And that was before he talked about getting household disinfectants like Lysol inside the bodies of infected patients in an April 23 briefing.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told ABC News the day after Trump’s remarks that Maryland had hundreds of calls from residents on its emergency health department hotline “asking if it was right to ingest Clorox or alcohol cleaning products, whether that was going to help them fight the virus.”
The primary responsibility of journalism is to give citizens verified information that they can use in making the sound decisions about their lives. What the channels that carried that briefing live did was exactly the opposite. That’s more than enough for cable executives to just say no to live coverage of Trump.
TV also contributes to the partisan divides by putting former and current politicos on the payroll and presenting them as experts alongside journalists.
Remember Trump campaign official Corey Lewandowski joining CNN as a contributor after leaving Team Trump but still being paid in 2016? Or how about Donna Brazile reportedly leaking debate questions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 while she was a contributor at CNN? The channel denounced her and ended their relationship. Now Brazile’s a contributor at Fox News.
Perhaps no program better illustrates the way TV falsely sells the notion of uniting us even as it feeds partisan divides than “America Together: Returning to Work,” a Fox News virtual town hall with anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum interviewing Trump at the Lincoln Memorial recently. It was little more than a two-hour infomercial for Trump’s plan to reopen America before many medical experts and governors think it is safe to do so. And the Lincoln Memorial, one of the nation’s most scared shrines, was used as a TV prop for that propaganda.
That’s at the political level. The deepest societal divide that TV and streamed services drive is through the new economic structure of high subscription rates for premium cable and streamed services like HBO and Netflix, respectively.
Last month, I offered a preview of several quality limited dramatic series as an “escape” for readers staying at home as a result of COVID-19 directives.
“Thanks for the recommendations, but I, and many others, cannot afford these premium channels,” one reader wrote in an email. “I’m envious of all the good shows I’m missing … Are these TV channels just engaging in price gouging or what?”
Two Americas: One for those who can afford the best in American and global programming, and another for those who cannot. I have long lamented this development particularly with some of the best documentary filmmakers only working for premium platforms like Netflix instead of PBS. (I led that column of previews, by the way, with a PBS drama so that there would be something for all readers.)
The gulf is only widening as fewer people can even afford food in the wake of losing their jobs to COVID-19. But don’t expect the prices for premium streamed or cable content to come down ― ever.
For decades as a critic, I continued to believe in TV as a unifying force in American life. The metaphor that inspired me was television as an electronic campfire. We in the audience were the villagers who gathered around it each night to see and hear the beliefs and values of our tribe sounded as the dramatists and journalists told our shared stories and musicians, singers, comedians and actors sounded the notes that resonated with our collective memories and current fears about the darkness beyond the village.
No more. TV only looks like that primordial campfire in all its brightness and big-screen light. But there is no warmth or sense of community inside its circle any more.