When the news is politicized, democracy has a problem. And we older Americans wistfully remember how we trusted Walter Cronkite when he summed up the evening news by saying, "That's the way it is."
This morning, with their reporting on the story of the Central American caravan, MSNBC and Fox demonstrated why they have become a problem two weeks before the mid-term elections. Let's take a look at MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and Fox's morning news program, "Fox and Friends".
"Morning Joe's" team flatly accused President Trump of lying and fear mongering with his claim that Middle Easterners have infiltrated the caravan as it proceeds through Mexico toward the U.S. border. "That sounds frightening," said host Joe Scarborough. Co-host Mika Brzezinski said Trump "admitted he had no proof" that this was so. She introduced a clip of Trump acknowledging, "There's no proof of anything." Then came video of Vice President Pence appearing to grasp at straws as he insisted, "It inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people." MSNBC ignored Department of Homeland Security statements that lend a measure of credence to the claims. For insight into this issue, see "Migrant Caravans" on the Center for Immigration Studies' website.
Scarborough ridiculed the Trump administration's fearful framing, claiming that it was a blatant effort to deceive the American people. "The caravan that Trump's lying about, that doesn't really affect them," he said. "It's symbolic. It's like that April caravan where Trump and Fox News said thousands and thousands of people. It ended up like eleven people and like, you know, a hound dog made it to the border and tried to get across illegally.
The story Scarborough was eager to talk about, and the story that led the program, was about the last-ditch effort of Republican candidates across the country to assure voters that they intend to require health insurance companies to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions. Democrats have climbed in the polls as they have hammered the GOP for their record of opposing that crucial requirement.
At the very same time "Morning Joe" was pursuing its boost-the-Democrats agenda, Fox and Friends was doing its bit for the Republicans. The show began with video of the teeming mass of caravan humanity, coupled with this ominous voice-over: "At this hour thousands upon thousands of illegal immigrants are now marching toward our southern border, and new reports that yet another caravan is now forming."
Said co-host Brian Kilmeade, "Wherever I go there's a buzz about the mid-terms or some issue. For a couple weeks it was all about Kavanaugh. Now it's all about the caravan." Kilmeade went on to repeat unsubstantiated reports that the caravan is being funded by anti-U.S. interests in Venezuela in an effort "to create chaos here in America leading up to the election." This would backfire, he said, explaining, "The average American says, as much as we feel for these people, we cannot be a social welfare program for every country in the world."
Kilmeade was certainly right in his assertion about the widespread public anxiety about the caravan, which MSNBC prefers to belittle. And Scarborough was certainly right in his assertion that the Republicans are distorting their record in an effort to calm public anxiety about health care. But both have become chieftains in what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the "tribal moral society" of political partisans who bind themselves around a version of truth that is so narrowly focused that it blinds them to the more complex realities we need to understand if we are to keep our democracy from collapsing in a nervous breakdown.