Our Divisions Are Worse Than You Think

And the news feed of alternative facts makes it impossible to move forward.

It’s no mystery that we are two countries now.

We’re all Americans, of course. But we famously live in two separate cultures with separate media bubbles and separate news feeds.

That’s old news, in many ways, but it has become especially apparent since the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd. Toggling between Fox News and MSNBC, I wasn’t surprised that they had different takes. Yet I was astounded by the degree that they each presented an America under existential threat, albeit for different reasons. And they’re both wrong.

Fox is obsessed with the “crisis” at the border and Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Never mind that BLM protests and other urban demonstrations over the past three years have been overwhelmingly peaceful, which is a little fact that Fox somehow fails to share. Analyzing over 7,000 protests between 2017 and 2020, researchers at Harvard University and the University of Connecticut found that 3.7 percent of the demonstrations—that is, fewer than 1 in 25—involved property damage or vandalism. Protesters or bystanders were injured in 1.6 percent of the protests, or less than 1 in 50.

Yet Fox makes you think that the exceptions are the rule, by recycling video of demonstrators burning police cars and looting stores. Did that mayhem occur? Of course, and we should all condemn it. But it’s pure demagoguery to replay the same violent clips, when the vast majority of protests looked nothing like that.

Similarly, Fox is rife with stories of undocumented immigrants from Latin America who commit crimes. And, yes, that happens as well. But immigration has declined overall, and not just because of Trump’s wall. According to the first results of the 2020 census, which were released on Monday, immigration between 2010-2020 slowed to its lowest rate for any decade since the 1970s.

Nearly two-thirds of immigrants during the past decade were college graduates, compared to one-third of the American-born population. Over twice as many newcomers migrated from Asia as from Latin America, belying another Fox stereotype. And immigrants—including those who are undocumented—are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans are. The immigrant “threat” is a chimera. We can and should debate the appropriate levels of legal immigration and how to treat those undocumented persons already here. That’s impossible to do when so many Americans are living in a polluted information stream.

But when you flip over to MSNBC, you see the nation threatened by a different peril: murderous police officers. They target African Americans, who are suffering an “epidemic”—or so we’re told—of killings at the hands of law enforcement.

But there is no such epidemic. According to a database collected by the Washington Post, police fatally shot nine unarmed African Americans in 2019, down from 38 in 2015. Those numbers don’t include Black people who died by other means, like George Floyd did. All of these deaths are disturbing at any level and should be investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted. Yet any way you count, there is no widespread scourge of police killings of unarmed African Americans in the United States.

Yet that’s precisely what you see on MSNBC, which shows a continuous loop of them. Since the Floyd verdict, especially, the network has devoted enormous airtime to recent police killings in Ohio and North Carolina in which the circumstances are still quite ambiguous. That’s not entirely surprising or wrong given the gravity of the Floyd verdict. But if MSNBC was all you watched, you could reasonably conclude that Black people are under mortal threat from the cops.

Let’s be clear: we do have a problem with race and policing. African American men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white men are. Black Americans are also disproportionately subjected to traffic stops, surveillance by employees in stores, and a vast range of other indignities. Those are facts, too, and everyone should know them.

But they should also know that the gravest threat to Black lives is not the police; it’s crime. In 2019, when nine unarmed African Americans died in police shootings, 7,484 Black people lost their lives in homicides. African Americans are six times more likely than whites to be killed in a homicide, which is the leading cause of death among Black Americans between 10 and 24. But MSNBC rarely shares these details, because they don’t fit the larger narrative of police misconduct and brutality.

To be fair, it’s wrong to equate the two networks. Fox has some straight broadcasters like Chris Wallace, who is widely regarded as a probing and fair interviewer. But many of its shows are simply divorced from reality. This week, Tucker Carlson urged his viewers to call child abuse hotlines to report parents who make their children wear masks. He’s downplayed the January 6 attack on the Capitol and refers to Joy Reid, a Black MSNBC broadcaster, as “race lady who went to Harvard” and President Obama as a “racial arsonist.” MSNBC may be one-sided, but Fox is often truly delusional.

In many ways, our present-day media environment echoes the highly biased, hurly-burly world of the 19th century United States. Newspapers functioned mainly as party broadsides, which spread rapidly across the country as printing technology and transportation improved. Then came the so-called professionalization of journalism in the 20th century, when newspapers—and later, network television news—proclaimed the ideal of objectivity. They ran stories that were “fit to print”—to quote the New York Times’ famous mantra—in order to inform the public, not to persuade or manipulate it. Think of mid-century Time magazine or Walter Cronkite at CBS. Conservatives may have felt, rightly at times, that the so-called objective media was biased. But that’s far different from where we’re at now, when one network reports extensively on Russian disinformation campaigns and the other denies Moscow has done anything wrong.

With the cable and digital revolutions, indeed, we have mostly dispensed with the Cronkite ideal. Growing numbers of Americans say they do not trust the media, and with good reason: it presents the news that fits our predispositions, not the news that’s fit to print. We all receive a “feed” on our phones, tailored precisely to our search histories. And that reinforces the slant of the media companies, which are only too happy to give us more of what we want.

Meanwhile, outright bigots and charlatans can access audiences directly through their own internet channels, bypassing the “lamestream media” (as they call it) altogether. America has always had its fair share of demagogues and conspiracy theorists, from the anti-Masons of the antebellum era to Alex Jones of “Infowars.” But now they can speak to you directly, spreading bile and disinformation with dizzying speed.

We need to discuss the real problems in our country—including racial disparities in criminal justice—with something like an agreed-upon set of facts. If one side thinks climate change is a hoax and the other believes thousands of unarmed Black men are being killed by police, we’re not going to get very far. The biggest threat to America isn’t protest, or immigration, or the police. It’s you and me, and our refusal to look at facts we don’t want to see.

As for me, I’m going to read more and watch less.

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press.