Joe Country lives in rural America, gets his news from Fox and commentary from Rush Limbaugh on the radio on his way to work. He attends church more than once a week and often discusses issues important to him with a group of church friends every Sunday after services. During the day, he follows the blogs on nationalreview.com. His neighbors and coworkers are nearly all Caucasian, heterosexual Christians.
Jim City lives in downtown America. He gets his news from CNN and the New York Times, but gets most of his political information from Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” and Al Franken on Air America. He couldn’t tell you the last time he attended religious services and is considering Buddhism as a faith option. He works at a multimedia design firm that has offices in New York, London and Paris, which often leads to extensive travel. He checks in on the Wonkette.com blog at work and for entertainment ventures to the local independent movie house with friends that include his gay coworker and his life partner.
While Joe Country and Jim City are obviously fictional stereotypes, they represent types of people in America that can very easily go through life without ever encountering viewpoints of the other. The media segmentation resulting from the expansion of cable and the ideological takeover of radio has led to Americans like Joe Country and Jim City living further apart than ever before, seemingly in different worlds, although they potentially live in the same state.
Joe and Jim do, however, live in completely separate media universes, which is increasingly leading to how people define themselves. They arrived there through their selections among the ever-growing media options with programming tailored to their background and values. This, as much as any other phenomenon, led to the divisiveness in America so apparent during the presidential election. One viewpoint has very little opportunity to interact with the other in today’s segmented society.
This segmentation leads to much of the political polarization in the United States that is apparent even at GW. Jim City simply cannot understand how Joe Country cannot see things his way. Jim followed the news and listened to pointed commentary that reinforced his views that President Bush was taking the country in wrong direction, but what he doesn’t realize is that Joe didn’t see the same news reports and listen to the same commentary. Joe heard news solely presented through the prism that is the conservative media establishment, which undoubtedly portrayed the war in Iraq and issues such as gay marriage under a different light. Who is right and who is wrong is irrelevant. The real issue is how media segmentation has led to actual separation among large populations of America. Educated Americans no longer gather in the same arenas to discuss America’s problems – a phenomenon dangerous to this country’s long history of effective political discourse.
Previously, most citizens got their news from the same sources. The networks dominated television news and the Internet was still a figment of imagination. Now that people are choosing sources that they are in ideological alignment with, people are vary rarely exposed to alternative perspectives. It is important to understand that Jim City and Joe Country are not just choosing different media outlets; they are also using the media with which they choose to identity themselves. This, in turn, leads to their choice of friends and whom they interact with. Jim and Joe’s self-selected segmentation is tearing at the very fabric of cooperation that built this nation.
As a country, we need to develop a new arena where Joe and Jim are attracted to hear the perspectives of each other. As Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” pointed out when he visited the Jack Morton Auditorium last month, “Crossfire” and equivalent “debate” shows saturated with partisan banter are not cutting it.
-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is The Hatchet’s managing editor.