Tammy Wilson 2.JPG

If there’s one thing writers like to do, it’s talk.  All those hours of solitude leave us hungry for live dialog.

That was evident at a recent writers’ conference in Virginia. I had breakfast with two strangers — a man writer from Philadelphia, a woman from Roanoke, Virginia. Of course the topic came around to — what else -- politics.

I expressed was how unpleasant — maybe dangerous — it can be to broach the subject of politics and all of its subtopics — gun control, abortion, reparations, the Electoral College, #MeToo, the Green New Deal, a tweeting President -- with people we don’t know.

The guy from Philly was a Vietnam veteran who rails against President Trump for lying about his military service. Even so, avoiding the military draft was a fairly popular activity in the late ’60s and early ‘70s. The reality is that military service is no longer a litmus test for the presidency. If it were, we would have elected President Kerry and President McCain. Our last president to see combat was George H. W. Bush, who left the White House 26 years ago.

We three agreed that the war in Afghanistan and wherever else we’ve deployed troops, has been all but forgotten except for active military and their families.

So when did the big divide begin?

The woman from Roanoke blamed USA Today birthed in 1982. USA Today’s tailored editions, color graphics and fast-paced outlook were a boon to skimmers who wanted headlines and maybe a sentence or two summary. Larger stories meant more “in-depth” coverage, say, a few paragraphs and a color graph.

I wasn’t totally sure where the Roanoke lady was going with this, except that USA Today built its success on the fact that people want to read less and be entertained more.

I presented my two media whipping boys: cable TV and the internet. Cable blossomed after the Cable Act of 1984, coupled with the abolition of the “fairness doctrine.” News outlets were no longer required to offer equal time to opposing viewpoints in a manner deemed honest, equitable and balanced by the FCC. The explosion of cable outlets offered outlets for various viewpoints, but it also meant that ultimately consumers could each create their own realities, listening only to opinions they liked or agreed with. Until cable and the internet came along, most of us got our news from one of the three broadcast networks: CBS, ABC and NBC.

Eventually, news outlets began to employ entertainers masquerading as journalists. Let’s face it, if folks rely on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show or Rush Limbaugh as their sole news source, the political divide gets more dicey.

I told the other two writers that I studied journalism in the days of Woodward & Bernstein. When I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, young people embraced the profession. Budding reporters were taught to be fair to both sides. Our J-school instructors expected us to check sources, which required some actual legwork in the days before the web. Accuracy was taken seriously.

Whether any reporter can be truly impartial is another matter, but back then editorials were reserved for the editorial page or the general manager’s editorial messages. A quaint idea, I know.

But there are other factors that have helped compartmentalize us as Americans. One is air conditioning. Artificially cooled homes helped eliminate the front porch, which all but eliminated the informal chance to discuss the day’s news with the neighbors in that semi-private summer space. Today we barely know who our neighbors are, so it’s easy to ignore their opinions. And it’s much easier to be disrespectful.

Which brings me to bullying. Adults like to assign that behavior to schoolyards, but there are plenty of adult bullies to shame us into accepting their views. Bring up a controversial topic on social media and you’ll see what I mean.

I wish I’d mentioned air conditioning and bullying to those writers, but breakfast was over and it was time to go. In hindsight, we hadn’t solved anything, but for a half hour, three strangers came together to discuss sensitive topics without yelling at one another, which is saying something these days.                         

Tammy Wilson is a writer from Newton. She co-edited Idol Talk: Women Writers on the Teenage Infatuations That Changed Their Lives , in 2018. Message her at tamra@tamrawilson.com  

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