In the category of argument by irresistible anecdote, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report tells of meeting with a group of young Democrats in wealthy, suburban Northern Virginia. In the course of his presentation, he made reference to “Cracker Barrel voters” — those in counties with Cracker Barrel restaurants (President Trump won about 75 percent of such counties). “Excuse me,” interrupted one of the young liberals. “Do you mean Crate and Barrel?”
This is an extreme form of a cultural bubble — a life arranged by fate and choice so that other ways of life are unimaginable. Technology makes such isolation easier, through flows of information we shape and algorithms that shape news to us. It is possible to consume news and entertainment in such a way that our backgrounds and biases are never challenged. And a variety of media outlets — particularly cable news channels and Internet sites — seek profit in the incitement of bias rather than through the provision of information.
Assuming that a democracy benefits from commonly recognized facts and mutual sympathy among citizens, how are these bubbles popped?
Even the way this question is posed contains a bias of sorts. Most Americans do not live in ideological bubbles, because they take little interest in politics at all. According to polling by the Pew Research Center, only about 13 percent of Americans say they talk about politics daily, making most people reading this column and me a minority smaller (much smaller) than gun owners. Americans at the ends of the political spectrum on left and right — about 20 percent total — are more engaged politically than those in the center, at least when it comes to making donations and determining the outcome of primaries.
The dedicated 10th on both sides have a vastly disproportionate influence on the public affairs of a great nation. And here is where media bubbles matter most. Pew found that Fox News dominates on the right — cited by 47 percent of conservatives as their main source of information. (Many must feel adrift as the Fox News model buckles.) Liberals consume more diverse news sources, but are more likely to de-friend someone on social media for political reasons.
The reputation of all news media sources has taken a beating. Every time that two or more journalists are gathered, they should recall: In 1997, 53 percent of Americans expressed trust in the media. Now it is 32 percent, and down to 14 percent among Republicans. Conservatives tend to view all nonconservative sources of information as biased, putting The Post and the Huffington Post, for example, in the same category of untrustworthiness (by any serious standard an absurdity).
At the seedy crossroads of political polarization and declining trust in media is where fake news loiters. Without a belief in professional, vetted, reliable sources of truth, truth may be determined by loyalty to an ideological team. In a 2006 survey, a majority of Democrats agreed that it was likely or somewhat likely that George W. Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. A 2015 poll found that 43 percent of Republicans believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim. One gets the impression, in both cases, that partisans would have agreed with any polling description perceived as negative — that Bush was a closet thespian or Obama a notorious masticator. Call it the “any stick” epistemology.
It was Trump who saw the golden potential in this trend, not just presenting a vision, but creating a world in which Trump is always the answer, the highest and best. But the inhabitants of Crate and Barrel America can be just as isolated in their sympathies.
What is the answer? It is obviously complicated to rebuild ties of institutional trust and individual empathy. But one response must be: a journalism of rebuilt standing. A journalism that enforces the highest standards of accuracy and professional conduct. A journalism that refuses the temptation to join the ideological battle as a combatant. A journalism that describes worlds that are not our own and invites us to enter them. Without this, there is no common basis of fact to inform public decisions and no invitation to empathy.
This cause is not hopeless, because the power of words to shape the human spirit is undeniable. These can be words that belittle, diminish and deceive. Or they can ring down the ages about human dignity. They can also allow us, for a moment, to enter the experiences of others and widen, just a bit, the aperture of our understanding. On the success of this calling much else depends.