We no longer have media that speak to all Americans. There are New York Times and Washington Post readers or Fox News and One America Network viewers. We divide ourselves up into Twitter followers and subscribers to blogs and podcasts that represent every dot on the political spectrum and every imaginable interest, from plant-based foods or Nordic literature to child poverty or cryptocurrencies.
By contrast, in 1980, 53 million Americans — one-fourth of the population — watched the three networks’ evening news broadcasts, and in the mid-1960s as many as one in four adults read Look magazine, the most popular news medium with original content.
Today, 21 million Americans — one-sixteenth of the population — watch the three networks and another 4.5 million tune in to the three cable news networks. Combined, they make up a smaller audience than Walter Cronkite netted night after night.
And the news media were once overwhelmingly trusted, something that is anything but true today.
The differences between Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News” or Look and today’s media go beyond popularity and reliability, however. Americans with different political views, from different social classes and parts of the country and with widely different interests watched or read those media. In addition to being truly mass media — as opposed to today’s maelstrom of micro media — they covered a remarkable variety of subjects, from science and social trends to politics and the arts. And they didn’t avoid politically or intellectually tough subjects, like racial injustice or medical advances.
The political, economic and cultural dysfunction and divisions of recent decades have stemmed from many factors, but one that has received surprisingly little attention is the disappearance of mass-audience media.
Look and Life magazine and the three networks’ evening news facilitated a national discussion in which tens of millions of Americans had access to the same facts and ideas. This enabled the kind of “common conversation” that President Obama astutely has said is sorely lacking today, about events, trends and issues of the day — “about something other than the Super Bowl.”
The forward-looking and increasingly tolerant America of the mid 20th century didn’t just happen. It was founded on shared information, ideas and values — not niche media or the intellectual ghettos of the internet. While the web has “democratized” information and taken its control from an exclusively white male elite, it has left us with often biased and unreliable “sources” consumed by tiny segments of the population. By contrast, Look covered the nation and the world with objectivity, honesty and a human face. And it informed people rather than scaring or riling them up.
What mass-circulation media accomplished was to edit, bring coherence to and deliver a thoughtfully selected cross-section of knowledge and ideas to a broad and diverse population. While differences of opinion are healthy — and very much existed during the post-World War II era — the American people need to find a new “common core” of shared aspirations and values. Central to this task is the need for media that could once again engage and help Americans discover what unites the country and not just focus on what tears it apart.
Re-creating Look or Cronkite may be a pipe dream, but our media could strive to reach broader audiences with a broader diet of information and opinions. We might again be able to talk with and better understand each other and agree on at least a few national goals.
Look expressed the supremely optimistic view that people could embrace similarly humane values if given enough information and multiple perspectives through words and images. As its editors once wrote: “We believe that the problems confronting our civilization — peace, poverty, population and pollution, just to name a few — can and will be solved. But only if more people understand what’s really going on around them and why.”
Andrew L. Yarrow (www.andrewlyarrow.com), a former New York Times reporter who teaches at George Mason University, is the author of the new book, “Look: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-20th Century America.”