It was an Internet connectivity double whammy this week. I was celebrating my upcoming birthday by camping with my family and some friends in the hills of Vermont. Our site had no electricity and there was also no cell signal except for one lonely bar that came up if you walked to the top of a nearby hill. I started writing this post looking out at beautiful Ricker Pond last weekend but getting these words to join the billions of bytes traveling the Interwebs turned out to be more than I could muster.
I was chatting with a friend on the trip about Project to Find America; I am not good at this yet. If you have been reading this blog lately it would be reasonable to assume that I am an insufferable person to hang around with. That may be, but it’s not because I talk about PFA all the time. It is a difficult topic to bring up. It is not in my nature to enjoy making people uncomfortable and from my perspective, bringing up the topic of politics does exactly that.
But she brought it up. I’m beginning to try to make some sense of next year’s election, she said, but I don’t know where to start, I don’t know what to believe. She went on to say that she thinks most of the people she talks with are in a similar spot and I have seen this happening with my other friends as well.
The idea of a representative form of government is based on the idea of an informed electorate. We can hardly do our duty to choose an individual to represent our views if we don’t know what is really happening and have little to base those views on. But instead of an informed electorate in the United States today we have a populace that is increasingly misinformed, which is much worse than not informed at all.
For reasons that are pretty well articulated in this Prezi but I won’t rehash here, our perception of any news we get is likely biased in the first place. Here is an interesting but troubling view of this. The statements below look pretty easy to me to parse but almost half of the survey respondents were able to correctly identify three or fewer of the five statements below in each category as fact vs opinion.
But it exacerbates that problem ten-fold when media organizations decide what to write about or show us based on what their mountains of data tell them we will continue to read and watch. We like stories about who is winning and losing because it’s easy to keep track of, particularly if there are only two sides… so those stories are what we get. Sensational stories are even better at drawing us in and politicians have learned this, so despite the fact that most of the issues our government is trying to sort through are nuanced, often the coverage is about people making outrageous statements rather than offering constructive ideas. Give us too much nuance and we’re clicking a link and off to find out the amazing truth about what Marcia Brady looks like these days (actually it’s not that amazing, she got older like the rest of us)…it’s called clickbait for a reason.
But the point of this post isn’t to bash the media. It is too easy a target and this problem does not have easy solutions. There are a lot of very good media outlets in this country and reporters providing excellent fact-based coverage of the news. But they are hard to find amid all the flotsam and jetsam. Even more difficult is finding stories that provide the objective nuance we need to understand complex issues like how to make healthcare more affordable for most people and what a sensible approach to immigration policy might look like.
Enter 435 Voices. My original intent for the podcast we will launch next month was to invite people with a variety of backgrounds to talk about the outcomes that matter in their congressional district and approaches to delivering those outcomes. I may well come back to this before the series wraps up on Election Day 2020. But for now, I’m going to focus on at least two journalists from each district and my hope is to leverage the excellent work many journalists are already doing in their local coverage to contribute to these topics at a national level. Look for the schedule of the first congressional districts we’ll cover in the next few days and if you know someone who would be a great guest on 435 Voices please let me know.
Finally today I’d like to thank all the folks who sent me birthday well wishes yesterday on e-mail and Facebook and LinkedIn. They are most appreciated. Could I ask for just one more present from you this year? If you can think of two more people that might be interested in improving the way we talk about and cover political outcomes in this country would you send them the link to this blog (findamerica.org) and ask them to follow it too? It’s going to take a lot of us to begin to change the discussion.