As our country trudges through the uncertain terrain of a pandemic, it is increasingly disheartening to see our continued national epidemic of media-fueled tribalism. This condition, through the appearance and ultimate manifestation of parallel universes, was not always present in our country.

I had the experience of being involved with talk radio during the late seventies and throughout the eighties. This was a period of time in which seeds were planted for what would later blossom into today’s plague-like discord.

While an account executive at Philadelphia’s WWDB, I witnessed a balance of opinion on the same station, a condition unheard of in present-day markets. That station had a diverse mix of conservative, liberal and moderate talk hosts — and that wasn’t considered abnormal.

It was refreshing to see that exemplary sample of pure democracy, in a medium that previously had a largely liberal slant. In 1980 –for example –the liberals Frank Ford and Jerry Williams were joined in the daily schedule by the conservatives Dominic Quinn and Bob Grant, and moderate Irv Homer.

Unlike Ford, who was a long-standing local icon, Williams had returned to the market from Boston. There he had been a controversial proponent of forced busing. Dominic Quinn, one of Philadelphia’s conservatives, reached prior acclaim on WCAU radio. Bob Grant, on the other hand, combined intellectual depth with enough on-air insults that he came to Philadelphia after earning a one-year ban from the top New York market.

The moderate of the lineup, Homer was a former Philadelphia bar owner whose street-wise approach managed to connect with everyday people.  He would run the scope from one political extreme to the other.

The contrasting viewpoints coexisted, and the energized audience was exposed to a variety of thought and philosophies. No switch of the dial was needed.

The contrasting viewpoints coexisted, and the energized audience was exposed to a variety of thought and philosophies. No switch of the dial was needed.

Later in the decade, as the owner/operator of an advertising agency, I bought ad time on talk stations in various markets, for a client whose product was targeted to the more right-leaning demographics. During the same time, I was involved in affiliate relations with talk radio syndication companies.

Those years witnessed an emerging personality who was plucked from the mid-sized market of Sacramento, California and placed in the nascent talk giant that was New York’s WABC. Rush Limbaugh was about to establish himself as a conservative force in the nation’s biggest market, and to pave the road for national prominence.

He was also on the precipice of saving countless AM stations from oblivion — and creating a movement of his own that would greatly shape the politics of today.

I was an early ad supporter of his program — a refreshing counter-punch to the progressive views of so many other radio shows at that time. It provided a forum for conservative thought mixed with some caustic humor that many considered “politically incorrect,” a term that was dawning on the national consciousness at that time. 

But in the nineties, as he rightly opposed many positions espoused by President Clinton, Limbaugh also mutated into a new form of media specimen, becoming sophomoric and repetitious — to the point of total demonizing of the chief executive. It became a mob pile-on, as his sizeable and growing legion of loyal followers echoed the name Clinton as if it were its own disease.

Limbaugh’s success begat the popularity of many other conservative talk hosts — both known to audiences and new to the fray. They mostly seemed to follow a formula that proved successful for the-then revered Limbaugh: A no-holds barred approach that ridiculed opposing viewpoints and created ideological pinatas.

As Rush disciples such as Sean Hannity, Hugh Hewitt and Michael Medved gained in popularity, a new information vehicle was about to arrive. The advent of all-news cable TV stations would now bring opinion hosts to the visual fore as well, but not in a way that showed much diversity of opinion. Thus began the fuller polarization of media talk hosts.

As a result, while we look for reliability during the crisis of our current pandemic, Americans must dial-hop in order to expose ourselves to a cross-section of opinion. It is exhausting, and presents — for those who do change channels, to seek out other viewpoints — conflicting worldviews, between Fox and MSNBC

Americans must dial-hop in order to expose ourselves to a cross-section of opinion. It is exhausting, and presents conflicting worldviews, between Fox and MSNBC

That yields a sense of alienation, an “us vs. them” mentality that dismisses conflicting viewpoints out of hand. Even during the present battle against the stealth force that is the coronavirus, the fuller unity we need as a nation is hampered by this great divide.

On top of the conflicting posturing on cable TV news, the combustible growth of social media has taken the morsels provided by the traditional broadcast media and created an ongoing rumor-mongering presence that caters to peoples’ worst instincts.

In his book “Them,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska writes: 

“Many of our television hosts are modern-day carnival barkers. We can get the dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin all at once. It’s an adult video game.

‘But instead of expertly separating us from our wallets, they’re separating us from things more valuable: our time, our sense of perspective, and our judgment. And they’re separating us from each other.”

As we continue to fight what is our modern-day plague, it is increasingly important to work together against that common enemy of media polarization and animus of the “other side.” We cannot let the forces of the media rip us apart and threaten our standing as the world’s great power.

The words that Lincoln spoke to the Illinois state legislature in 1858 are still true today: a house divided against itself cannot stand. 

Perhaps, as a country, it is time to take stock of our collective epidemic of tribalism. In doing so, we will surely be able to better manage our way through a pandemic, one that is truly existential in nature.

Jeff Hurvitz is a freelance writer, Philadelphia native and resident of Abington Township. He has a background in radio, advertising and public relations. Presently, he continues his 20-year career as a specialist in long term care insurance.

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