BELLINGHAM - A fragmented nation and a fragmented audience for news is making the country more difficult to govern, PBS News Hour co-anchor Jeffrey Brown said during a weekend talk at Western Washington University.
A generation ago, before cable news channels and internet news sources, most people got their news from the same small collection of sources: three major TV networks and a hometown newspaper or two, Brown said. People gathered around their televisions for the assassination of a president, a walk on the moon, and other major events.
"It was an age of mass media news, one audience sharing a common experience," Brown said. "For the most part, the mass audience experienced such things together."
Brown, featured speaker for the university's Fall Family Open House Saturday, Oct. 27, contrasted that world with the one we live in today, in which Americans can restrict themselves to cable news stations and internet news sources they find most congenial.
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"For the most part, we now live in the world of niches," Brown said.
He acknowledged that the availability of more choices was a good thing, but also noted that the change seems to be part of a far more divided and bitter political atmosphere.
"If we only connect with like-minded people, how do we hear other views?" Brown asked. "It's hard not to feel it has some relationship to the divisions around us."
Brown said he has interviewed departing members of Congress from both parties who have told him they no longer want to be a part of an institution where compromise has become impossible and political parties are intent on scoring points rather than addressing national crises.
Brown cited polling data that seems to show fear and bitterness transcending political and ideological boundaries. Pollsters have found that both Democrats and Republicans fear the loss of what they have and see their values as under siege.
"Each side sees itself as under siege," Brown said. "Each side sees itself as losing ground. They can't both be right. Or can they?"
Brown also observed that most people probably are moderate rather than left-wing or right-wing, and are less than obsessed with political issues and the public sector. Most people devote their energies to their jobs, their families, their churches, their hobbies and their sports.
He called for some way of enabling people to have civil discussions of public issues.
"We need better places and spaces to connect with one another," Brown said. "I simply ask that all of us ... find ways to expand our universe a bit. ... We must seek out today's public square and public voices."
He offered no specific ideas to that end, but did suggest that public broadcasting has a role to play. Brown also observed that all things "public," including public schools, public parks, public universities and public broadcasting, seem to be under some degree of attack.
In his own work reporting for the PBS News Hour, Brown tries to give some attention to the arts and humanities. He believes those things are just as important to the human race as economic issues.
To make that point, he quoted from an interview with Israeli novelist David Grossman, whom Brown said tries to keep a focus on basic human problems in a place where it is all to easy to be overwhelmed by political issues and security problems.
"We are now in danger of becoming like a suit of armor, but without the knight inside," Brown recalled Grossman saying.