The Media Spiral & How It Got Us Here

Picture an elementary-level drawing of a tornado. Anyone with a pen could accurately begin with wide loops or squiggles at the top, decreasing in size until it reaches a slim base. If you’ve ever witnessed tornado footage, or perhaps the way the toilet flushes, you can understand a spiral continuously winds until it reaches a coney tip. In this respect, we often use the word “spiral” as a descriptor– our teenage son is spiraling out of control; the company is on a downward spiral– that indicates rapid deterioration of some sort that results in a singular poor outcome.

Some may say, after watching coverage of the events in Charlottesville, that our nation is spiraling out of control. Occurrences of violence, hatred and civil unrest seem to replicate that corkscrew model of winding chaos. The protests in Charlottesville have weighed on me like a piggy back ride. The images and stories coming from Virginia are no longer inconveniences I have to scroll through online, or polite political conversations I can abnegate. This feels so much more malignant.

I, and so many others, ask why to what we already know the answer to. Ideology that has been muffled and repressed for our comfort is now seeping through the foundation. Hatred of America’s progression bubbled behind closed doors and now we are witnessing its explosive overflow. It’s ugly, it’s unbearable and it’s supremacist.

The Charlottesville protests are shocking and sensational because we comfortably thought this would not happen again. America in 2017 has come so far, has it not? Racial tensions rekindled fervor in recent years, with events of police brutality in the black community. But outside of that dialogue and media coverage, the people in our neighborhoods were kind to us; we went about our days in a safety net of ingenuous trust in our peers. Sure, the 2016 presidential election got ugly, but our grade school understanding of right and wrong should keep us from regressing as a society. Civil rights, diversity, equality for all — who would possibly challenge these American principles?

Eight months into 2017, the who stepped forward with tiki torches. They carried Nazi and Confederate flags and KKK representation. These white individuals were sputtering and seething; chanting racial slurs, anti-semitic slurs, homophobic slurs. Identifiers like Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and the Alt-Right have been in circulation since the event. Call them what you will, but seriously… just… what the fuck? Principles that I understood from youth as bigoted, unspeakable evil were being celebrated by these proud protestors. I had difficulty wrapping my mind around it. That was, until I considered our spiral, and it all wasn’t so far fetched anymore.

I had the pleasure of taking a Media Effects course this past semester, in which we investigated the question: do media affect people? This class warmed my little media-loving heart with weekly studies of different mediums and their connection to human behavior. Our lecture on news media stood out as particularly relevant. The discussion was centered around partisanship and how bias in media formulates. My professor then presented the class with the spiral model, a visual representation of extremism. And suddenly it all made sense.

The Obama administration did not please everyone. Progressing into the 2010’s, America crested a turning point in social change– one that was distinctly liberal. And many people were angry. Thinking back on Obama’s presidency, I can identify the progression of his politics into the mainstream. From 2008-2016, America was introduced to new ideas– and laws– about sexual orientation, women’s rights, health care, race, social programs and transgenderism. While major media networks upheld Obama’s progressivism as positive,  many white middle-Americans became frustrated.

White citizens who worked middle-class jobs– people who benefitted under, say, the Reagan administration– would come home at the end of their work days, turn on the evening news and instantly get annoyed. How could there possibly be oppression in America? I work with my hands all day! These individuals would see a glittering standard attached to Obama’s reputation, and they were getting fed up.

That’s essentially why Trump gained the fervent supporters he did. White people, burned by the shift of Obama’s presidency, were desperate to find a candidate that represented them. They were done with the niceties, the political-correctness, the constant squawking of groups like Black Lives Matter. What about us? These people wanted their American dream country back.

Here’s where Fox News comes in. With this planted seed of political unrest, self-identifying Republicans turned to media like Fox News; media that reported in tandem with what they were thinking. Backing up a little, Fox has always been the right-angle news outlet; the response to left-angle news like CNN or MSNBC.

But creeping out of the Obama presidency, Fox saw an opportunity to flourish. Because their audience was fed up, angry, a little over the top, Fox News decided to give them programming that was just that. At long last, viewers were exposed to anchors who were explosive and passionate in their same disagreement with President Obama. And thus begins the spiral. That anger was picked up by the swift wind of partisan news into the vortex. Concrete political views became reiterated by viewership and viewership fueled even more concrete political views.

Television networks like The Blaze gained traction with the same strategy of appeal. In this recent election cycle, conservative media was marketed vehemently as the truth– what they don’t want us to say. These media started offering viewers hall passes for their volatile feelings; suddenly Tomi Lahren was reading their minds about Colin Kaepernick’s controversial protests and Sean Hannity was hitting the nail on the head about illegal immigration. Facebook and Twitter shares rack up, and people from all corners of the USA came forward with the same ill will toward liberal culture. Little by little, frustration morphed into hatred. Further and further the extremist media impressed upon its viewers that the millennial snowflakes were ruining the country, the protesting blacks were thugs and action needed to be taken.

And suddenly, Nazi ideology didn’t seem so out of reach. Seemingly normal Americans found voices in white nationalist groups. Many became convinced siding with the KKK was a logical and ethical stance against what they understood to be the American liberal regime. That’s why many faces seen in Charlottesville were young white males with clean haircuts and business casual attire. Standing alongside the individuals in white hoods, people that work where we work, live where we live, stood proudly to represent the ethnic “cleansing” of America.

In my Media Effects course, we learned that news media, no matter how factual in nature, has no choice but to be entertaining. Televised content will forever have entertainment value, and as much as we neglect the idea, news networks have ratings to improve. I’m sure anyone with family members over the age of 50 has sat through an evening of the O’Reily Factor at least once– if you pay attention to the basic visuals of the network, it’s almost childlike in color scheme and animation. Red and blue scream at you in ways that remind me of a video game. What should be very basic broadcasting has become visually and contextually sensational. These type of media transcend reliable news; they glisten with entertainment value that attaches to viewers’ minds. They begin to crave it.

It would be naive and irresponsible of me to only offer this one, media-based conclusion to events in Charlottesville. Obviously, these protests involve multifaceted arguments about the history of slavery, racial oppression and the freedom of speech. I couldn’t possibly unpack all of it in one post. But my intentions are to articulate the path I have noticed to this insanity. Run-of-the-mill individuals of sound cognitive abilities have participated and sympathized with established hate-groups. I can’t help but see the recruitment process as a series of clicks and likes. Extremist media is addictive because it is so affirmative. Easily accessible news networks inspire fear and passion. Before you know it, solace and community can be found in white supremacist groups. What was once unthinkable becomes rational. Groups they once wanted to correct or challenge needed to be silenced. For good.

Again, this is one lens to view the Charlottesville situation through. In the beginning of the Media Effects course, the class was challenged with the question: do media effect people? And after carefully studying theories and experiments in the media effects field, we were able to answer confidently: yes– but to an extent. The human brain is too complex to be drastically altered by just one component of a person’s life. While certain media may inspire some, bigotry is a deep-rooted issue that involves much more than a few hours of television.

The argument what about the other side? will always remain. Partisanship does not end with conservatism, definitely. Mainstream media is typically slanted left and devout liberal media outlets have become popular in efforts to combat extremist right ideology. I can only look to the events of Charlottesville to find what sets them apart. Does your partisanship urge you to hold handmade signs that encourage love, or does your partisanship wave banners of hatred? Does your extremism ram a vehicle into a crowd of people and reap 32-year-old Heather Heyer of her life? Or does it stand for what she stood for?

These recent events have us all in a spiral, I feel. I, for one, never pictured such scorching evil coming so close to my friends and family in such a volume. Some time in my life, I heard the expression “fear is a liar”, and I put the quote in my pocket and carried it with me ever since. These events frighten me– they sadden me and make me want to pull my hair out. But most of all, they make me want to put good back into the world. And that’s all I could ever encourage anyone else to do at this time.

Closing the topic of news media, my professor offered an anecdote to partisanship; a way to dodge the development of extremism. Humans are often fickle and set in their ways, but that does not mean we are incapable of change. Delving into one program or article  a week that is ideologically inconsistent with your views can at the very least expose you the other side of things. Consciously avoiding extremism provides your political anchor with clarity. Indulging in an opinion other than your own could be the difference between hateful ignorance and a step closer to unity.

And I think that’s what too many people need at the moment.