In one of his pre-monastic journals, Thomas Merton described the experience of walking through the New York City streets on a June evening when the same event "was on all the radios, and came out of all the windows: the same voice at the same time coming from in front of you and behind you and from both sides..." The effect on Merton was profound: "The city having this one voice made the buildings become liquid and unsubstantial, that most solid thing was this voice that flowed constantly through all the stone buildings at once." [Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation, The Journals of Thomas Merton Volume One 1939-1941, June 1, 1939, Harper Collins, 1995, p. 13]
Merton's surreal experience may seem somewhat over the top. I can remember spending many a summer evening outside and hearing the radios and TVs from all the neighborhood's open windows, but my imagination never quite took me as far as Merton's did. But recalling Merton's strong experience powerfully reminded me of that time - just decades ago - when there were a lot of things we all heard (and listened to) together. It wasn't that long ago, for example, that many of us regularly watched the evening news. In the pre-cable world, there was a limited number of channels. Most households had only one TV; so everyone - adults and children, old and young - all watched the same shows and so shared in a common cross-generational culture that can no longer exist in this age of niche programming.
But back to the news! From the early 60s certainly through the 80s, the three networks' half-hour evening news programs were commonly and widely watched. (Thus, at Princeton's Graduate College in the 1970s and again in seminary in the 1980s, students regularly watched the news together. I'm sure my experience of, for example, the Watergate saga, would have been very different indeed had I experienced it all alone). Whatever stylistic and personality differences distinguished the three networks, the basic coverage was usually more or less the same. It reflected - and helped perpetuate - a common understanding of the facts about the larger world, about what mattered, and why. It gave people common references they could talk about and discuss and debate. As such it was, I suppose, somewhat limited - as we are constantly being reminded by those who praise contemporary media culture for having radically opened up the process and democratized it. That may well be true. In fact, I am sure it is. But at what price?
Just as today parents and teens don't watch the same programs anymore and more broadly share less and less of a common culture, i.e., a common experience and understanding of the world and a shared basis for communication, so it is with the news, as each cable channel and internet media outlet caters to its particular niche market. These niche markets are increasingly ideologically identified audiences of like-minded people, who choose to hear the news they agree with and are less and less exposed not just to opinions but even to any facts that don't support their beliefs.
For Merton that June evening, that one common sound seemed like the most solid thing in the city. Likewise, the shared cultural experience of common acts and a common frame of reference for forming opinions and being able to discuss and debate was something solid - something sadly long-since lost and almost unimaginable today.