Why we’re divided

With the recent debate on health care reform, one thing has become painfully clear.  We don’t just have differing opinions of the facts.  We have differing sets of facts.  Indeed, differing realities.  These differences seem to have more to do with our choice of television programming than with age, education, opinions or ideologies.   For example, a recent NBC News survey asked respondents their opinions of 4 discredited myths regarding health care reform. 

According to the survey, 72% of Fox News viewers believe that health care reform will provide coverage to illegal immigrants (it won’t).  79% of Fox News viewers believe that it will lead to a government takeover of our health care system (it won’t).  69% of Fox News viewers believe that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions (it won’t).  And 75% of Fox News viewers believe that it will make decisions about when to stop care for the elderly (are you kidding me?).   These percentages were much lower amongst viewers of other cable news networks. 

This research points to a very real problem for our nation that goes beyond health care reform.  It’s one thing to debate facts.  It’s quite another if those “facts” are entirely different.  As a communications professional, I know that the most difficult communications task is to disprove a negative.  If the viewers of Fox News believe that Obama is out to kill Granny, there’s almost no way for him to disprove it in their minds.  If Obama says it’s false, the people who believe the negative will just say he’s lying.  If he points to credible news sources, the believers will just say that those sources are biased. 

Of course, we can’t blame all of our nation’s problems on Fox News.  There are plenty of politicians, cable networks, talk radio hosts, websites and PACs (Political Action Committees) across the political spectrum that are perpetuating myths and lies.  But since Fox News has larger audiences, it bears greater responsibility. 

So how do we break this conundrum and get back to debating the same set of facts?  The answer certainly can’t be bringing guns to public debates, shouting at each other and calling the other side Nazis or un-American.  The answer is to seek the truth from multiple news sources – preferably news sources with competing opinions.  Everyone must understand that many “news” programs are more entertainment than news.  We must understand that media are profit-oriented; if they can generate ratings by encouraging their staff to stretch the truth and pander to audiences, they will, regardless of the consequences.  Finally, we must hold the media and our politicians accountable for their lies. 

Our democracy relies on an informed public.  That’s a responsibility we must all take seriously.  That means seeking the truth.  And not being force-fed falsehoods and distortions by one or two pundits who have unlimited access to a camera and a microphone.