“The world is talking about coronavirus,” read a public service announcement from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). “But it’s hard to know what to listen to.”
That states the case pretty plainly, I believe. But why is it so hard to know who to listen to in this time when it would seem so important to be acting from a base of consensus understanding? Sadly, I think it’s rather simple and can be traced to a decision made 33 years ago.
What was known as the fairness doctrine was a policy introduced by the Federal Communications Commission(FCC) in 1949 when television was in its infancy. It was a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses to not only present controversial issues of public importance to the public, but to do so in a way that was—in the FCC’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced. But in 1987 the FCC eliminated the fairness doctrine and then removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register in 2011.
The elimination of the fairness doctrine began an inexorable separation of news outlets into partisan camps while turning the public airwaves into revenue generating profit centers rather than balanced loss-leader information hubs. This evolution of TV news was further accelerated by the subsequent expansion of choice and competition in the form of cable news outlets.
But even as the news was being commercialized and politicized, on a parallel track we saw the continuing loss of respect for and confidence in our major social institutions.
First to remove the scales from our eyes was government due to Vietnam and Watergate. More recently the church came into question via TV hucksterism and the Catholic priest scandals, and then higher education lost faith with its ever-expanding costs and increasingly dogmatic rigidity.
This erosion in our institutions coupled with the lack of a balanced media landscape left the nation with no consensus arbiter of truth.
Today, everyone believes in their own experts. Thus is climate change simultaneously seen as the greatest threat to mankind and an overblown anti-business left-wing hoax. So, too, is the coronavirus either a pandemic so severe that it must be treated with even economically draconian measures, or just a blown-up flu that threatens “a tsunami of economic destruction”. And what and who you believe depends completely on which side of the idealogical spectrum you stand.
It all reminds me of team sports. Down on the field or court are two teams exchanging energy under the rules that constitute their sport. On one side of this exchange, people are watching with high spirits and applauding enthusiasm. On the other side, another group watches the same exchange with a pessimistic sour-faced outlook.
Well, which is it, an exchange worth applauding or one worth feeling poorly about? Or, does it all depend on the bias with which you entered the stadium or arena?
That’s where we stand as a nation and as a global population, partisan skeptics, with each side armed with statistics and experts to bolster its viewpoint.
That’s what makes a pathogen like the coronavirus so dangerous. It carries no bias, only a relentless quest to survive and thrive with oppositional humans as their hosts.
Hopefully, for each sides sake, the voices of reason will prevail, whichever sidelines they happen to be prowling.