Not that many years ago, the warfare-by-other-means of politics was carried out in certain widely accepted places — the media, advertising and marketing campaigns, rallies and door-to-door direct appeals. Partisans made their cases for choosing leaders, understanding issues and changing governmental policies, and the people decided.
The media had provided a space for political competition since developing professional standards in the late 19th century, covering politics and offering moderated venues for officials, pundits and citizens to voice their political views. Their oversight promised and usually delivered a high level of credibility and fairness to all partisans.
And that was enough. Politics was singled out, along with religion and sex, as a subject unsuited to polite conversation, leaving people to hold their private and different views in peace. Dining out, shopping, sporting events, businesses, places of worship and any public gathering not expressly intended for politics were free of partisan clamor.
Over the past 50 years or so, the political divide has intensified and there has been a trend toward all-out politics. Claims are asserted, allies sought and foes harangued almost anywhere. For some zealots, just convincing the public isn’t enough. They try instead to suppress their political foes or the supporters of their opponents.
This trend seems driven by an increase in popular political engagement and identity, but I think it is also encouraged by the diminished role of the media political arena.
During the period, the perception has grown that much of the media favors one party or the other, or one part of the political spectrum. Now several prominent national media outlets have found it more lucrative to play to single sides of the partisan divide, rewarding their selected audience segments with confirmations of their views.
These perceptions and practices undermine the traditional media’s role as an accepted and principal venue for civic affairs to be considered and decided. Political participants can’t be confident they’ll be fairly treated.
The breadth of media outlets and online sources offers a full spectrum of political advocacy and still affords a degree of fairness to American politics. The political system as a whole is open to all voices and provides credible presentations of all views. But the shift toward perceived or openly partisan media risks losing two important things.
More than 40 percent of U.S. adults say they are political independents, who presumably would prefer that their sources of news and opinion don’t favor particular parties or ideologies. Independents are best served by media outlets that remain independent, too.
To the extent that the political discussion moves to the internet and other direct methods, it is no longer moderated by experienced professionals to help ensure its authenticity, credibility and civility. That has been a factor in the rise of political animosity and the use of false and misleading information.
There are plenty of signs that Americans are tiring of the degraded state of politics. Maybe they’ll turn at some point from the excesses of total politics, the same way people everywhere rejected unlimited warfare after two world wars with technology-enhanced destruction.
The media, including newspapers, can demonstrate the more civilized alternative by still or again providing robust, moderated and fair venues for political matters to be engaged and decided. For such venues to be widely accepted as preferred and credible places for politics, journalism itself must be one of those segments of society largely free from politics.
Kevin Post is editoral page editor of The Press.