The history of the 2016 United States presidential election will be written and rewritten for decades. It has been a unique exercise in choosing between two perceived evils, rationalizing hatred, and self-serving egoism on both sides. The pundits, those whose political biases pass for news, and have brought us to this point, have much to say about their choices and against the others they have portrayed as totally vile. Republican talking points abound about the evils of the Obama administration as the cause for so much negativity. While there is truth in the criticism of President Obama’s poor foreign policy actions, creating red lines that he then went on to completely ignore as just one example, He has done some good for the US.
It is true that because of the President’s actions Russia now has a significantly stronger sphere of influence in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. It is true that as a result of Obama’s inactions in the Mid-East not only has there been tension between the United States and Israel but also between the Gulf States and America. It is true that the migration of so many displaced individuals from the Middle East and the blatant rise of hidden anti-Antisemitism in Europe have caused concern, fear and much hand wringing among the American public. Financial concerns also still weigh heavily on the voting public. All of these worries, from foreign policy to the pocket book, are contributory to the mudslinging, limited option anger that has fueled this election and historians will parse them out in the future.
From a psychological perspective, however, these facts are but a tangential force driving the madness of the 2016 election. The mass media seems to have a stronger influence on the hype and heavy-handedness of this most recent election than any other factor. Significant research has shown that while exposure to television does not directly cause negative behavior, it may in fact contribute to a response style that is modeled by TV. Essentially, exposure to violent TV shows does not cause a child to be violent but may offer the option of violence to a child that is frustrated. A frustrated child will be more violent if she watches violent television. The more a child sees hostility as an option the more likely that child may add it to their tool kit. There is every reason to believe that this is finding also applies to adults, especially if frustrated adults are repeatedly exposed to certain forms of mass media that plays to that frustration.
In the last 20 or so years solid, real, objective, clear news reporting has been waylaid by politics and partisanism in the newsroom. We are exposed to slanted stories on both sides of the political spectrum and the more we choose to listen to one side over the other the greater our belief of that one and disbelief of the other. Fox News is the standard-bearer for the right wing Republican establishment while MSNBC and only slightly less so CNN the liberal Democratic agenda. There are of course individuals within each of these “news” agencies that are more balanced in their approaches but they are in the minority.
What has become even more shameful is the fact that the news media has developed more of an interest in a “story” than in facts. Only in a world driven by entertainment could a carnival barker like Donald Trump surpass 16 other candidates each with far more experience and basic manners than he has displayed. Because “The Donald” was a unique individual both in terms of his desire to run for the greatest office in America and because he is so brazen and can barely focus on a single topic for more than two to three minutes he became the story. As the story, Trump was given so much free media attention that until near the end of the race he hardly had to advertise. If someone were to tabulate the hype, time and the actual costs for time that the news sources used to describe him, we would likely find that he was promoted to the tune of several billion free dollars in media attention.
Reality TV, which is not at all real, is what the news media has promulgated. The Apprentice is what the presidential election became because of a desire by the news outlets not to get the story right but to get a story to sell that the public will buy. In this process, we lost more than our dignity and options for healthy political leadership. We have allowed ourselves to be led by borderline conspiracy theories that reinforce a type of cognitive dissonance that concretizes beliefs with limited reality.
Balance is missing; there is no middle ground because we have allowed it to happen by following the siren song of the television screen. I can’t completely fault news outlets; they are under extreme pressure to keep a following. They would respond that we, the readers, the watchers are getting what we ask for. To a very real degree that is also true. If we do not demand accuracy without political shading, if we allow ourselves not to demand more than cotton candy information; stories that make us feel what we think is tasty and not explore the complete story in all of its nuance, than we are doomed to rigid partisan battles and no option for growth. Success can only come with a balanced approach. That may not sell newspapers or get TV ratings in the current climate. But, it will get us more mature and healthy leaders.