Observing the culture war in modern America and dreaming of a way out

A divided country that has politicized public issues through partisan news outlets and self-reported behaviors

Photo by Utsav Srestha on Unsplash

As we all know, America is combatting systemic racism on top of the COVID-19 pandemic — or a ‘pandemic within a pandemic’. Looking in from the outside (from Canada), it’s been relieving to witness real change happening out of all the madness. The police departments are being reduced in funding, officers responsible for the deaths of innocent Black citizens are being punished accordingly, new bills are being passed (and rejected), major corporations are making internal shifts to do their part, and meaningful discussions are reaching the privileged. I’m more optimistic than ever that America is on its way to help build Black equity within the next decade.

Despite all the positive change, the partisan gap in the country feels larger than ever due to conflicting ideologies that are influenced by polarized media consumption.

“History is written by the victors”

In other words, the source material telling the narrative of the “losers” is often lacking in quantity and quality compared to the “winners”. This phrase, which has been told throughout history, reflects the purpose of this writing. The public perception of social issues are politicized, and some means to address this lies in how the news is being told, who it is being told by, and what kind of media diet we are choosing to intake. I want to focus on how partisan media has distorted the narrative of the two phenomenons.

Part I: The Modern Caste System

A few weeks ago, I came across a phone call on LBC from a US attorney who is directly involved with prosecuting police brutality. In the call, US attorney, Theresa Caballero, explains her experience fighting for the Oppressed and how she came to learn that police brutality is a systemic problem. Her story focuses on the politicized relationship between prosecuting authorities and the police, as well as the conscious and unconscious bias behind local journalism. I hope to amplify her message through this piece.

Attorney's "jaw-dropping" account of how US police get away with brutality
This attorney who specializes in prosecuting police brutality called James O'Brien to reveal how the system is set up…www.lbc.co.uk

It all begins with the question: How could the police operate with impunity? Theresa responds by explaining how the cops maneuver the system with immunity. If a police officer commits murder, there are many cases in which these officers aren’t charged for anything. The District Attorney, who is the chief prosecutor for a local government area, doesn’t indite these officers in order to maintain their relationship with the police union. District Attorneys in the U.S. are commonly appointed by the chief executive of the jurisdiction or elected by the local voters, thus charging the officers would mean that they are putting the entire police union at opposition. In other words, if there are 1,000 officers in the area and they all have family, relatives, and friends who vote, the authorities now have 1,000 officers plus their local community voting against them. Therefore, the prosecuting authorities are afraid of putting their political career in jeopardy; it’s a dirty, systemic chess game…

We have not ended racial caste system in America; we have merely redesigned it.

— Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

The cops are immune to the racial caste system because the game has been politicized. The union as a whole, have the voting power to influence the prosecuting authority’s career. In contrast, those who live in lower-income communities are often neglected and systemically oppressed since governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social control (learn more here). In short, the Governments decide the degree of punishment, and these decisions are often unrelated to actual crime patterns. It’s a way of maintaining social order, or the caste, at the local level across the country.

Once people who have been incarcerated are released, they are often denied the right to vote, excluded from juries, and degraded to a racially segregated and subordinated existence. With the sugarcoated system of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy. They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits — much as African Americans were once forced into segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow)

One in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue, and in some cities more than half of all young adult black men are currently under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole.

— Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

Mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial injustice or civil rights issue. They blame the Oppressed for the rise in crime rates while maintaining the demographic of those who are incarcerated (So fucked).

I really appreciated this monopoly analogy by Kimberley Jones, where she summed up the economic legacy of Africa Americans.

For 400 rounds of playing Monopoly, let’s say I didn’t allow you to have any money, I didn’t allow you to have anything on the board, I didn’t allow for you to have anything. And then, we play another 50 rounds of Monopoly, and everything that you gained and earned while you were playing those rounds of Monopoly was taken from you. That was Tulsa. That was Rosewood. Those were places where we built Black economic wealth.

Part II: The Root of All Evil

So what does all this have to do with local journalism? Well, as Theresa mentioned in the call, it all comes down to how these stories are being told at the local level. And although the Black community has it the worse, it’s also a very common phenomenon among the poor.

Let’s break it down: law and order officials, or local governors, are elected in America. Those who aspire to move up the ladder maintain their reputation through their relationship with the public (and the police union). This reputation is also manipulated by the local media, which is monitored by the local oligarchy. And of course, they make sure their people stay in power by turning a blind eye on the real issues and by helping reporters write stories that are convenient to their people (this reminds me of the film Spotlight). These stories distort the public perception and understanding of their local police, their government, and their world views overall. All this to keep the social strata in place — this is the caste system in modern America.

With this acknowledgment, Theresa argues that this could be addressed if each state had an effective, nonpartisan press. She urges for the birth of a vigilante media outlet. I suppose Internet vigilantism is one, as platforms like Twitter, Medium, or Reddit have become the source of truth.

In regards to media in America, I first looked into the demographic of newsroom employees. Who’s actually responsible for writing the stories? From 2012 to 2016, more than 77% of newsroom employees — reporters, editors, photographers/videographers in newspaper, broadcasting, and internet publication — are non-Hispanic whites (Pew Research Center, 2018). The majority of people who are given the opportunity to receive higher education or attain the platform to reach a large audience, historically come from a privileged background with close to no exposure to life in underprivileged communities. This seems to be a problem in Canada as well

These voices that these publications chose to provide a platform to doesn’t reflect the perspectives and interests of the minorities, especially the Black and Hispanic community. These reporters navigate society with no concept of how the other half goes on with their lives, thus their audience is poisoned by these conscious and unconscious biases.

With that being said, I want to believe that people are innately Good and that if people are properly informed of what is happening in these marginalized communities, many would do what is right. I truly do believe that. Although this is a systemic problem deeply ingrained in American history and culture, my view is that there’s a real opportunity to influence a shift in mentality through honest journalism. In light of all the chaos, we’re living in a time in history where people in America could influence radical change within the next decade (and it’s happening as we speak).

Part III: The Politicized Pandemic

Going back to the American press, the power of media outlets could be seen in how the public has reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic. The media plays a critical role in informing the public, and Americans’ polarized news consumption habits have influenced the decline in compliance with recommendations by health experts to prevent the spread of the virus.

Fast Company recently shared an article that explains how the type of media you digest could be partially responsible for your actions during the pandemic.

People whose media diet is of the conservative bent are less likely to wear a mask or practice social distancing, compared to individuals who prefer media outlets thought to be more liberal. (Fast Company, 2020)

This partisan gap displays how this global health issue has become an extension of an ongoing culture war that is controlled by the American press (consciously or not).

Gallup, June 2020

A global pandemic has become a political issue. It’s not about preventing deaths, it’s not about public health, but it’s about individualism, government militarization, and the public’s inability to acknowledge and conform to real circumstances. I mean, we got people in Florida claiming that wearing masks have killed people… I get it, nobody wants to be wrong. And trust me, I’m not the one to dismiss conspiracies right off the bat, but this is just ridiculous. Seeing this makes me wonder how one country could rebuild the fragmented trust and faith between its citizens and leaders. Perhaps take a moment to look beyond the borders and learn from other cultures?

While the coronavirus has prompted more Americans to pay attention to news, it has not done anything to improve the image of the news media in Americans’ eyes. (Gallup, 2020)

How we understand and react to public issues like the pandemic or police brutality are “part of an ongoing culture war in which serious nuanced public health debates are reduced to talking points that fit into distinct political identities” (Gallup, 2020). We’re exposed to different narratives of the same event based on what we choose to intake. Naturally, these stories have a big influence on our opinions, beliefs, and behaviors. It’s important to have a certain level of skepticism when consuming anything online. I hope America could gradually reduce this division in the post-pandemic world, the same way social media inspired action to address systemic racism. The two phenomenons have revealed how vulnerable one nation could be, and have helped recognize the fundamental flaws in American news media.

Sidebar

I just want to add this in to inform people that the way some U.S. hospitals have dealt with COVID-19 deaths involved economical strategies. In early May, Elon Musk talked about how hospitals rule deaths from patients with COVID-19-like symptoms as death from COVID-19 when they hadn’t been properly diagnosed. Do you know how many “COVID-like symptoms” there are? Hospitals are a business too so they had to find a way to not go bankrupt as they were losing doctors while gaining patients. The stimulus bill that was intended to support hospitals that are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients actually incentivized hospitals to record more COVID-19 deaths to receive more funding. I could draw parallels to the job security of hospital workers and the prosecuting authorities — our fundamental motives are shackled by our own careers in the disguise of practicality. As Elon said, “it’s a tough moral quandary.”

In a way, the fear of losing our careers has great control over an individual’s voice and attitude. This is nothing new, but it’s unfortunate to see the impact this has on critical moments like recording data for a novel virus or judging whether officers should be punished for killing the innocent. Yes, it’s racial, but it’s also a web of various factors that are attached to society such as politics, economics, difference in ideologies, and leveraging the public’s ignorance through the curation of biased narratives.

References

The race-related things that have changed since protests began around George Floyd's death
As protests around the world continue over police brutality and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, change…www.cnn.com

Attorney's "jaw-dropping" account of how US police get away with brutality
This attorney who specialises in prosecuting police brutality called James O'Brien to reveal how the system is set up…www.lbc.co.uk

The Rebirth of Caste ch1 (New Jim Crow)_Michelle Alexander.pdf
Edit descriptiondrive.google.com

Newsroom employees are less diverse than U.S. workers overall
Newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall. There are signs, though, of a…www.pewresearch.org

Newsrooms not keeping up with changing demographics, study suggests
Over the past two decades, as Canada's demographics have shifted, news organizations have failed to reflect the…theconversation.com

If you're still refusing to wear a mask, this personal habit might be the reason
What kind of media you watch and read might be part of the reason why you're not wearing a face mask, practicing social…www.fastcompany.com

Is the Media Creating Division on COVID-19 Health Practices?
by Robert Bird and Zacc Ritter Story Highlights Most Americans still practice social distancing, wear face masks The…news.gallup.com

Does News Diet Influence Views Toward the News Media?
Americans' news consumption habits are deeply polarized. Liberals tend to use a certain set of news sources…news.gallup.com

Age Versus Politics in Determining Virus-Related Attitudes
Epidemiologists have firmly established that the probabilities of getting severe symptoms and dying from the…news.gallup.com