We Need An American Commons
The 20th century brought tremendously homogenizing forces to bear upon American society. The World Wars and the Great Depression certainly marked the lives of all Americans. These shared experiences were great unifying forces for sure. In addition to these historical events, radio and television created a daily, shared experience. Printed materials, such as newspapers, had already begun to create this “common vision” in a limited way during the 19th century. However, radio and television brought real time reporting of big events from all over the nation to be experienced by all simultaneously. Additionally, the state of these technologies meant that live reporting of events was difficult to fake in believable ways; Ronald Reagan’s phantom baseball games notwithstanding.
Television brought the ultimate unifying vision of current events at a time when video could not be easily manipulated in the 20th century. Television was quite empowering to the people, because when you saw a live broadcast of events, you could be reasonably sure that what was on the TV screen was happening on the scene — at least to a certain extent. Obviously, the choices of cameramen and editors of what to show, did color that vision. Nonetheless, technology was not in a state that it could create a virtual reality.
Journalism and journalists approached levels of objectivity that we may never see again, because the images truly were the story and the reporters just narrated. Also, the news was still seen as a public service function required for the network to retain their FCC licensing. News was a necessary cost of doing the business of creating content to put eyeballs on the TV set that could be sold to advertisers. An FCC license once required a broadcaster to engage in socially aware reporting to justify the broadcaster’s retention of it.
At about the time that these homogenizing forces reached their zenith and brought about a true empowerment of the people, our society faced huge challenges. The firestorm of protest in the sixties roared out of control, and the national nightmare of the JFK, MLK and RFK assassinations seeded doubts among the populace about whether their government was serving them or the interests of the moneyed and powerful.
The civil rights movement grew through television’s reporting on the reality of inequality for blacks in the South. This “common witnessing”, shared by all Americans, of what was occurring in the country and in our society, helped to move forward the civil rights movement. The unblinking eyes of the camera humanized the victims to groups that might never have been interested enough in their plight otherwise.
Today, we are faced with an ever-fragmenting vision of the country. Through personalization and marketing niches that allow us to hear and see only what we like, we have lost our common vision. Because people are now able to filter their media down to narrow streams of only what they like or want to see and hear. In their echo chambers, they become unaware of the “truths” that other Americans are living. “Truth” has become a point of view in America and is no longer a shared and universal truth.
People able to listen only to points of view they agree with reinforce narrow visions of “truth” that prevent the society-wide empathy that we desperately need. A more truthful portrayal of what it is to be an American today could help breed among us the equilibrium, egalitarianism, and tolerance that can resurrect an American Commons. All people can be in touch with this commons. When the idea of a commons disappears, we lose a lot as a society, like a shared infrastructure that we might all enjoy and maintain. These common shared things tie us together, but we must embrace them.
Americans are separating into social networks occupied only by those that agree. These echo chambers are destroying the common social fabric that is essential to bind a nation together. Tolerance is required in a pluralistic vision of society. Can we define an American Commons where government of the people, by the people, and for the people nurtures political discourse?
Elevating the individual over the state requires all to be equal under the law. Protecting the individual requires empathy for each other that is weakened in today’s fragmented society. An inability for Americans to picture themselves in another citizen’s shoes encourages the continuing growth of segregated, walled communities and gated corporate campuses. FCC licensing should encourage and reward efforts by media outlets to help recreate this “media commons” without it we are a house divided.