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    Monday, November 01, 2004

    Divided America 

    To expand a little on something I mentioned earlier, the possible effect of the democratization of information on the commonweal after the election:

    Because of wall-to-wall election coverage for the last year in both the "old media" -- i.e., newspapers and TV -- and "new media" -- i.e., cable, talk radio and the blogosphere -- there has been unprecedent interest in this election, which could result in a record turnout. This is both good and bad. It is good because democracy thrives on the informed consent of the governed; the more people who participate, the healthier our republic. It is bad because it will leave the nation more bitterly divided than ever. At least half the electorate on Wednesday morning (or later, depending) will be furiously disappointed, and the first and most difficult job of the president, whoever wins, will be to knit the nation back together. This won't require something as grandiose and impossible as "healing our wounds"; but we at least have to start pursuing, more or less, the same goals.

    This coming-back-together was once much easier. Yes, this campaign has been bitter and divisive, but it's not as if there's no historical precendent; past campaigns have been equally contentious, some of them more so. But the fight was generally among members of the political elite. (Some of us have a naive belief that the country started out with a system designed to get ordinary Americans into politics for a time, then back into real life; but the truth is that we've had a political ruling class right from the beginning.) The electorate listened the verbal battles or -- more likely until recently -- read about them. They took sides, but not with such an intense passion that they couldn't move on afterwards. This has been the case even though the nation has pretty much always been divided down the middle -- it's the rare presidential winner in our history who won by 60 percent or more, the rare loser who got 40 percent or less.

    Now a greater percentage of Americans have become totally immersed in the process, and it will be harder to leave it all behind after the election. As the blogosphere becomes more important -- and it WILL -- that means we will be following our own agendas rather than just accepting the scant information let through by the gatekeepers. We are becoming increasingly suspicious of those who act as filters in the news process and, frankly, their performance in this election has not inspired confidence. Whether George Bush wins or loses this election, a continuing story will be how many in the mainstream press were perceived to have finally given up all pretension of objectivity and actively tried to get Kerry elected. This perception, unfortunately, is not too far off the mark.

    One of the functions that has been performed by the press in our past has been to act as a unifying agent, however partisan it might become at times. We had a common narrative that journalists helped tell. Whatever else we pursued, we had an "American story." I don't see the press performing that function any longer, and it's hard to see where it will come from. The blogosphere, perhaps, as it matures; there are signs that some sites are already acting as filters and gatekeepers. (Americans like to have things sorted for them; how else to explain the continued success of America online in the wild world of the Internet?) But I'm skeptical about this, too. Most of the really big bloggers are succesful in other areas -- they are journalists or lawyers or professors. There are signs already that we're drifting into an elite blogging class as well, and I think the new reality will make us suspicious of them, too.

    Perhaps a unifying force or agent will come from somewhere we don't even suspect now. I hope so. Or perhaps we are destined to remain fragmented. Considering the challenges we face in the 21st century, I pray not.

    posted by Leo Morris at # 12:10 AM


    On the left: Carol Towarnicky, chief editorial writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, from a liberal point of view.

    On the right: Leo Morris, editorial page editor of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel, from a conservative point of view.

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