How tribalism has has come to dominate U.S. news

Nov 10, 2020

Some of the U.S. cable news tribal leaders.

The tumultuous presidential campaign and its razor-thin result place much of the mainstream news media at a crossroads: They can continue to aid and abet polarization in the search for profits, or they can dial back and help shift the tone of the country.

Make no mistake: The profit motive is strong. Tribal journalism is very alluring, as revenue numbers for the major cable news channels prove, quarter after quarter. There is no financial incentive to do anything differently. But there are a couple of simple changes these channels could make to turn down the heat without freezing the bottom line.

First, media could reclaim the original, dictionary definition of “news” — something along the lines of fact-based reporting — once referred to as, simply, “reporting.” Calling the major cable channels “news outlets” is a misnomer: news is not opinion, nor is it commentary. But on cable, those things all blend together, leading loyal viewers to see Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow as “news” in the same measure as, say, John King or Bret Baier.

Election Day was an eye-opener. For at least 24 unique hours, most cable outlets pre-empted their opinion hosts and stuck with news. It reminded viewers what journalism actually is: reporting important facts, figures and events as accurately and quickly as possible. Journalists like King on CNN, Fox’s Bill Hemmer and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki updated election results in a responsible, non-partisan stream.

Opinion commentators were, for the most part, absent or relegated to another location — call it the children’s table at Thanksgiving — for occasional bursts of “analysis” before the audience was taken back to the vote count.

If they wanted to, cable channels could do that every day.

They could produce programming that makes it crystal clear which parts are “news” and which parts are flights of fancy to be shared only within the tribe.

A wall between information and commentary — with space for lots of both — would serve both revenue targets and democracy.

This could too: the news business should, right now, stop calling states “red” and “blue.” This electoral map color code was created by Tim Russert of NBC News during the controversial 2000 presidential election. It was no more than a simple visual that made it easy to see where certain totals stood. But since then, it’s become a handy way avoid hard thinking and toss states and their citizens into boxes that heighten polarization far beyond reality.

Yes, Americans are divided — but outside of die-hard partisans, most Americans are divided within themselves. Few check every ideological menu item assigned to red or blue, but those colors allow the national media to stereotype people into different corners of some political boxing ring.

You don’t get much bluer than my state of California. Joe Biden won more than 65 percent of the vote here. And, sure enough, Californians last week passed propositions to expand consumer privacy rights and fund medical research. But we also voted against bringing back a form of affirmative action, against eliminating cash bail, and against expanding rent control. How “blue” is any of that?

Look at deeply red Mississippi. The state, not surprisingly, went 60-40 for President Trump. But 74 percent of voters there also endorsed a medical marijuana initiative, and nearly 70 percent approved a new state flag that replaces the old Confederate stars-and-bars. The flag ballot measure was formulated as part of a racial re-examination following the death of George Floyd. That doesn’t seem to square with national media boiler-plate about red states and red voters.

The New York Times set off something of a Twitter storm a week ago with a feature about — seriously — red and blue refrigerators. The paper of record took photos inside various refrigerators and asked readers to guess if the owner was a Trump or Biden supporter. Right in line with unthinking red/blue stereotypes, the Trump fridge held items like a bucket of Kentucky Fried chicken, cans of Mountain Dew and a six-pack of Bud Light; the Biden fridge contained San Pellegrino water, low-fat yogurt and miso soup.

Readers in the heartland were not amused.

But that’s what the red/blue journalism shorthand has done to our national conversation — it has made polarization worse, and stereotyping acceptable.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News.


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