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Political stratification of America’s media represents a colossal challenge

11 November 2020

By Jamie Williams

Under one in four Americans voted for Joe Biden.

Let’s reframe that - over 75 percent of Americans did not vote for the President-Elect. This is an astonishing statistic which highlights the scale of the challenge that Biden now faces - how to unite this fragmented country.

Given that the majority of the traditional newspapers (bar the New York Post) threw their weight behind the Biden campaign, this statistic also brings to surface an interesting question: how are US citizens getting their news and information?

I would like to add a quick caveat before we dive into the issue at hand. By no means am I downplaying the significance of President-Elect Biden’s win. Given the scale of the task before him, he has managed not only to achieve the largest total number of votes than any other candidate in US history, but he also reassembled the so-called “blue wall” of states. Something, no doubt, that Keir Starmer will be studying as he attempts to do the same with the demolished “red wall” in 2024.

Despite these feats, it is clear that the way the Biden campaign won was to deal in the margins of a deeply divided nation. The election figures demonstrate that little has changed in the bitter polarization of recent years. There are two Americas which find themselves at complete opposites on a number of issues – abortion, size of Government, guns etc. Politics has become an impasse – with each side failing to recognise and articulate nuance. Most importantly, there is a clear failure to consider and listen to the other persons’ point of view.

The gap between rhetoric and reality is only widening. And the consumption of media is turbo-charging this trend. A poll released earlier this month illustrates that American’s recognise this tendency – two-thirds of US adults say they have seen their own news sources report facts that favour one side of a political discussion. Worryingly, the same poll also found that the vast majority of American’s say that Trump and Biden supporters cannot agree on basic facts about important issues facing the country.

The political stratification and splintering of our media for every taste is demonstrated starkly within our own social media feeds. Given that more Americans get news on social media than from print newspapers (20% vs 16% respectively), it is important that we pay attention to this trend.  The danger of these echo-chambers was reiterated by Obama who said in his farewell address back in 2016 that “we are becoming so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information – whether it’s true or not - that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” His words are even more relevant in today’s world.

These themes are as important in the UK as they are on the other side of the pond. The rise in frustration with the BBC, and the imminent launch of TV news channels seeking to provide alternatives to what is seen by some corners as the “left-wing bias” of the BBC, Sky News and Channel 4, all signal that we as a country are going down the same route. 

In the 1990s, it looked as if trade, technology and finance would unite the world – and now these forces are dividing our own citizens. These are the complicated issues that must be confronted. In the current media landscape, it is difficult to see how these can be tackled through vigorous debate whereby we listen to one another.

The President-Elect closed his acceptance speech last week saying, “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.” It remains to be seen how this is possible given the landscape which American citizens consume their information. I hope that President Biden will prove me wrong.