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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Americans having a hard time finding common ground these days

Leonard Pitts used to be one of my favorite columnists. When he lectured to a full auditorium at Whitworth University well over a decade ago, he touched on many common themes in American life. But after November 2016, Pitts took a sharp turn to the left and it’s been hard to read his columns without eye-rolling.

Then on Monday, he wrote exactly what I’ve been thinking: “We no longer share a narrative. We no longer have a common thread.” He points out how we need more than the easy unity inspired when under direct threat, then continues. “What Americans have lost … is the willingness and ability to share a common national identity.”

Pitts is right about the rally-around-the-flag effect of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. But without a common enemy, we have turned on each other.

That doesn’t mean we should never disagree. As Shawn Vestal wrote in a 2018 column for Independence Day, “Civility is important, but sometimes dissent is more so. People will draw this line in different places, of course, but I doubt that anyone alive would disagree that there is such a line.”

Stop the presses. Madsen is in agreement with Pitts and Vestal.

But not entirely. The full Pitts quote without the ellipsis was “What Americans have lost – to be painfully accurate, what Republicans have trashed in pursuit of power – is the willingness and ability to share a common national identity.”

Pitts blames the loss of common narrative on the loss of trust in mainstream news organizations by Republicans, clearly skeptical of all sources in the recent YouGov.com poll on trust in media. Republicans’ trust in Fox News is barely over 50%, down slightly since 2020; no other news source ranks better than 41%. Democrats as a group are more trusting overall. They even increased their trust in Fox News by the same percentage it dropped among Republicans.

“In God We Trust” may be the official motto of the United States of America, but the conservative motto when it comes to news is “trust but verify.”

Pitts may be pining for our shared childhood experience of Walter Cronkite setting the narrative on the nightly news. We’re way beyond Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” program telling us what we need to know. We see it now – or think we see it now – on videos posted to social media in real-time from all over the world.

CNN, NBC and the Washington Post could have avoided settling multimillion dollar lawsuits for defamation if they’d only remembered the old saying among journalists: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Instead, they bit on a single video framed on Twitter painting a white boy from Kentucky as a racist. It fit their narrative. It turned out instead to be a high school student put in an uncomfortable position by a man old enough to know better.

The gap between what anyone with a smartphone can find out and what’s reported on mainstream news was evident this morning listening to NPR. Two stories on the Brooklyn subway attack. Be on the lookout for the suspect, and not once did they mention his race. Quoting the live-streamed police briefing describing him as a “dark-skinned man” or the AP story referring to him as Black and posting Black Nationalist videos seems to have been deemed racist instead of relevant to narrowing down the search. The suspect was later apprehended.

Now instead of producers at three television networks and a handful of newspaper editors curating our news for us, thousands of sources are available to everyone to do their own fact-checking. Meanwhile, news streams are filtered by an army of algorithms feeding us what we want to hear or what the invisible programmers behind the curtains think we should hear.

Skepticism is a rational response. It’s not paranoia to wonder if Big News has an agenda.

So who do we trust? Pitts laments how “Americans no longer proceed from common baseline assumptions, are no longer driven by the same national aspirations, no longer understand the meaning and mission of their country in the same way.”

There is a solution, and it’s not found by following the “America is irredeemably racist” adopted as the mainstream narrative. The founding fathers, imperfect as they were, set high aspirations for the new country. It’s time to return to the motto of 1776’s e pluribus unum: Out of many, one. Teach all the history, recognizing flaws but more importantly celebrating progress and emphasizing opportunity instead of victimhood. Embrace the necessity of civil dissent on vital and fundamental issues instead of forcing a single narrative, progressive or conservative.

And sing a song of hope. Recognize the value of little gestures as common threads, like standing for the flag and singing an impossibly pitched national anthem with old-fashioned words. It may be tattered, but it’s our Star-Spangled Banner. Does it still wave?

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at at rulingpen@gmail.com

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