The Great Divide

“Trump is like the catalyst of an earthquake that just divided two continents of thought. Once the Earth divides like that, there’s no going back. This is a marked time in our history where people had to jump from one side to the other. And depending on what side you choose, that is going to be the trajectory for the rest of your life,” she said.

A North Carolina woman is quoted as saying that in an NPR article, “‘You are no longer my mother:’ How the election is dividing American families.” She does not believe the rift that has erupted between her and her mother will be healed regardless of the election results.

She was not the only one in in the article to express an opinion like that. A 77-year-old woman who separated from her husband in 2016 because he voted for Trump expressed the same opinion.

“I think the legacy of Trump is going to take a long time to recover from,” she is quoted as saying. She is also estranged from two of her grandchildren and other relatives as a result of the Trump presidency.

A professor of psychology and neural science at New York University said the “political sectarianism” has become moral, which will have permanent ramifications.

“Because Trump has been one of the most polarizing figures in American history around core values and issues, people are unwilling to compromise and that is not something you can make go away,” he is quoted as saying.

As bad as this sounds, I was relieved to stumble across this article this morning. For years and years I’ve been railing against the polarization which has been dividing our nation. I believe very strongly that as a nation we can only stand if we are united, if bipartisan committees at both the state and federal level bring the strengths of both parties to the table and hammer out real solutions to our problems.

I’ve railed against every group that I’ve seen furthering that divide. Although I’m Catholic, I’ve railed against anti-abortionists for their either-or thinking. When Jesus was challenged by the religious leaders of his time to make an either-or decision, he found a life-giving third option. Don’t believe me? Prayerfully read in John’s gospel the story of the woman caught in adultery. I have said over and over that we cannot prevent abortions with either-or thinking; we must find a life-giving third way. And I’ve been slammed as a result of my position.

I have railed against politicians who are furthering that great divide, which lately has been the Republican Party. In Congress, we see them propose a bill and when it fails to garner support from Democrats point their partisan fingers at their colleagues when they should be looking at themselves in the mirror and experiencing deep shame. If they had the common decency to sit down with their colleagues to hammer out solutions together, bills would pass and the finger-pointing could cease.

So, feeling this way, I’ve been ashamed to discover that I’ve been cutting people from my life simply because they’re Trump supporters.

No, I should have worded that sentence differently. The chasm has not developed because they are Trump supporters but because we don’t have a shared reality. We cannot discuss issues of great importance because we can’t agree on what is true.

My sources are mainstream media sources that are highly credible because their reporting stands up to fact-checking. I read articles from both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal because each has a different perspective. I read articles produced by the Associated Press and Reuters because they do not attempt to lead readers with loaded language and because their writing is almost always sourced. Obviously, I also check NPR which leans slightly to the left, but ranks very high when it comes to credibility.

The Trump supporters from whom I’ve become estranged believe — ACTUALLY BELIEVE — the alt-right sources they prefer present factually accurate information — EVEN WHEN THE STORIES DON’T STAND UP TO FACT CHECKING. Like Trump, they believe the truth is fake news. THE TRUTH.

I’m yelling. I’m sorry.

For the most part, I’ve maintained relationships with Trump supporters who are near and dear to me by avoiding political discussions. I know that for the most part, they aren’t so much Trump supporters as Republican and he is their candidate. I can respect that, though as a moderate who has voted for both Republicans and Democrats over the years, I have to honestly say I don’t fully understand that perspective. Shouldn’t you look at more than the candidate’s party? Shouldn’t you look at their political record? Shouldn’t you look at their values to see whether they align with your own?

But, I digress.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to maintain all of the relationships that have been important to me over the years. A longtime friend, who like me has straddled the fence for years, became emotionally involved with a Trump supporter and she is now as fanatical about Trump as he is. Even though I am an award-winning journalist, she believes he knows more about media credibility than I do. I want to shake her and scream at her and hope that his influence somehow rattles lose and rolls away. However, I know that women in love do not betray their paramours for common sense. Ask the friends and family members of any abuse victim; they will confirm that statement.

So, I just avoid having contact with her — which also means reducing the amount of contact I have with her brother, who has been very dear to me in recent years. Putting him in the middle isn’t fair, and truth be told, I suspect he would pick her if forced to choose. So, I walk away because that’s easier than being rejected.

Doing so is difficult. Losing my beloved friend is also difficult. Reading about families across the country experiencing the same kinds of trauma is painful. As a woman of faith, I must have faith in the Lord; I must believe his hand is leading me. As a woman of faith, I must have hope and I must somehow promote peace. I have to believe God keeps bringing to mind a passage from the Prophet Isaiah for a reason.

Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
” (43:18-19, NIV)

I have to believe the ever-creative, healing power of God can do a new thing, can help us bridge the great divide which separates from one another. I have to believe that we can forget the partisanship which is destroying the foundation of our great nation.I have to believe God will lead us through the wilderness that surrounds us today.

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Media Bias & Reader Bias Reflect Our Humanity

A month or so ago, I was sitting in the local coffee house, chatting with a guy I had met while putting together a story. He shared with me a quotation — which I don’t remember — that he felt was an insult to my profession. He didn’t share it to insult me, but because it reflected a bit of his worldview.

I surprised him. I agreed with the accuracy of the observation, and then I shared with him a story. During the last gubernatorial election, both my colleague at the newspaper and I exercised significant influence over what local readers learned about the candidates.

When Candidate A came to town to speak at an event, I covered it, noting key points and trying hard to accurately reflect what the candidate said without using language which reflected bias. My colleague, I had noticed, often used the word “claimed” when reporting on a candidate whose political positions weren’t consistent with his own. However, candidates he supported always “said” or “stated.” I didn’t want to be guilty of that crime.

When Candidate B came to town to speak at an event, my colleague was assigned to cover the event. He managed to do so without even mentioning the candidate. He did not snap a picture. He did not talk to the candidate. If the candidate spoke, he did not make note of it. It was as though Candidate B had never been there.

That set the tone for the rest of the election coverage. Candidate A had been pleased with my coverage and subsequently notified me when a campaign event was to take place. I never wrote another story, though I did — sometimes — show up to take a picture. More importantly, my colleague did not cover these events either. I argued — successfully — that it wasn’t fair to cover one candidate’s events and not cover the other candidate’s events, that to do so reflected bias.

When Candidate B came back to town, I covered the event, arguing that my colleague had already shown bias in his coverage and would undoubtedly do so a second time. I managed to write a story about Candidate B’s second visit that was recognized with an award by the Associated Press.

Every time a reporter tackles a story, the reporter brings to the story his or her own humanity, his or her own experiences and worldview, his or her own — yes, I will use the word — bias. That bias — that humanity — is reflected in the stories the reporter chooses. (Some are assigned, but most editors have more to do than drum up stories for their reporters.) It is reflected in the details a reporter includes and in the details a reporter excludes. Bias — humanity — is shown in word choice, in the structure of the story, in the way research is conducted.

I recently wrote on a controversial topic. I started by reading coverage on the topic by major newspapers and the Associated Press. Then I spoke with someone who had been advised not to speak with the press. Fortunately, I have an established relationship with this individual, who has a great deal at stake, and was able to have an informative, off-the-record conversation.

At that point, I talked with the editor and we outlined the issues we felt needed to be addressed due to the local impact. I contacted a couple key players, both of whom felt they had been burned by the press. I was able to convince one to provide written answers to questions. With the other, I was luckier because I have previously dealt with them in what they felt to be a fair manner. I was granted a personal interview.

After the interview, I started thinking about what I had learned. I could circle back and rehash the same stuff that others had already gnawed over with thoroughness — or I could find another angle. I made my arguments for both approaches with the editor and we decided together to go with a different angle.

If, as my sources alleged, they had been misrepresented by one of the major newspapers, I had nothing to gain by going head-to-head with that reporter. They are big; we are small. Big wins, hands down in the U.S. of A. The basic premise is they have more resources to do investigative work, and therefore are infallible. By approaching it from a different angle, I could explore some of the same issues without — to use a colloquialism — getting in a pissing match. I contacted one of the people who is responsible for mitigating the local risk and allowed his informed opinion to help me weigh the rest of what I had learned.

I was satisfied when I had finished. Questions still remain, and will for sometime yet, but I know I did the best I could at this point. I educated myself about the issue, but I did not go into my interviews with any agenda apart from getting the facts. I recognized that my sources were going to spin the information — that’s human nature — so I asked the same question from several different angles until I felt I understood the heart of the matter. Then, I did what I could to mitigate my bias by checking with my editor as I worked, and I closely edited my work, keeping it overnight to look at it a final time before filing it.

Here is the flip side of media bias: readers have biases, too. They come to stories with their own humanity, their own experiences and worldview, their own preconceptions. And so, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — media bias is actually reader bias. The reader says, “This does not agree with what I think, with what I have heard, with what I believe, and therefore the reporter is biased.”

Sadly, that has led lots of folks to seek out self-reinforcing “news” sources so they don’t have to consider ideas with which they disagree. This, in turn, has increasingly polarized our world and led to either-or thinking, which saddens me. We need one another, because we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. If we pull together instead of against each other, we will be able to build on all of our strengths and mitigate all of our weaknesses.

I think recognizing our personal biases is the place to start.