In light of the upcoming presidential election, Jon Meacham addressed an audience behind Addlestone Library on Oct. 30. He presented a renewed perspective to the issue of media bias in relation to how politics and human nature shape the news. Meacham is a presidential historian, former editor of Newsweek, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and contributing editor at Time. According to Meacham, his depth of knowledge in history and politics has allowed him to judge human nature based on historical division.
Meacham noted that political division has always existed in American history. This year’s presidential election is a reflection of that history. “Division is inherent in the American system,” Meacham said. “We’re here in a pretty divided moment… the polls are close.”
While Meacham noted that American division is ultimately irresolvable, he said the country has come together in times of crisis. For example, he mentioned the New Deal and the reforms that occurred during the recession in the 1970s. However, without a sense of looming disaster, the country has never accomplished real reform or compromise.
Meacham reminded the audience of the heated rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Tension runs through the country’s history since the beginning of its birth. While one person sees a solution as positive reform, another views it as a destructive extreme.
In addition to political tension, Meacham said the news media add more to the conflict. While he said it is impossible to be completely unbiased, he said it is the duty of the American citizen to maintain a critical eye when reading the news. Because of economic issues, the media have to cater to an audience to maintain readership or viewership. “The easier way is to find your base and serve it,” Meacham said. “What drives the news media is conflict and novelty.”
According to Meacham, the United States has returned to a period of opinion media because of the economic stake. He said presidents like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush “didn’t have to deal with this.” However, at the beginning of American history, the media were highly opinionated.
With the emergence of the digital world, Meacham said the issue of opinionated media will only get worse. Because much of the content on the Internet is not fact-checked by editors, it’s enabled faulty information to go unnoticed. In addition, it’s made it increasingly difficult for readers to determine opinion media from news media.
While this may be the case, Meacham said it is up to the consumer to channel his or her knowledge and understand who is reporting. “It’s impossible to be totally unbiased,” Meacham said. “These are human institutions. It’s important to remember that.”