The idea was totally ridiculous and wrong. But I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to watch it—only a little bit, just to see what it was like.
I was thinking about it all day. I couldn’t focus on work, family or anything else. At the dinner table, I was staring into blank space. My wife was worried: “Are you okay? You’re not being yourself. Are you sick?”
“I should just do it,” I was encouraging myself, “I’m a grown-ass man.”
But every time I thought of it, I felt guilty.
“I can’t go on like this,” I thought. “If I just do it, things will go back to normal.” Before I knew it, I was in my living room, my heart pounding. “What if my wife walks in?” My palms were sweaty as I made sure she was in the kitchen. “What about the neighbors?” I closed the curtains, and began fumbling with the remote. I turned on the TV. “What if the kids hear?!” I turned down the volume.
For the very first time, I was watching Fox News.
As I watched, I could feel my friends, neighbors, and co-workers staring with deadly disapproval. No one could see what I was doing (I’d made sure of that), but I could somehow still feel their eyes all around me.
I’ve lived in Berkeley, California long enough that I’ve internalized the values of the liberal tribe around me: electric cars are a status symbol; Obama 2008 bumper stickers are badges of honor; neighborhood coffee shops ask for almond, soy, and oat milk before regular milk, and people frown if you water your grass.
One of the conditions for membership in a tribe is that you think, feel, and act in line with the tribe’s values—in other words, you internalize its ideology. My tribe expected my liberal mind to think that watching Fox News was equivalent to conspiring with an evil empire. If I had seen one of my neighbors watching Fox, I would have thought, “They’re being brainwashed by the right-wing media.”
My perception of Fox News was based on my exposure to liberal media—short clips taken out of context to make conservatives look ridiculous. For me, the godfather of mocking and villainizing conservatives was Jon Stewart. People who grew up with The Daily Show imagined conservatives to be irrational bigots. The show mastered the craft of using humor to allure their viewers into dropping their guard and agreeing with their anti-conservative narrative without evaluating whether that narrative was really true.
Given my previous exposure to Fox News via short clips from the Daily Show, I expected Fox to be completely out of touch with reality and spreading conspiracy theories.
But when I watched Fox, not clips ripped out of context for shock value, I was rather underwhelmed. At one point I thought, “Wait a minute, this is just another news channel.” Yes, instead of liberal, they were conservative, but they weren’t the villains that I had come to believe.
Just like any tribe, my liberal tribe was concerned with keeping its members in line. It had reinforced in me the tribal belief that conservative America was the enemy. The reason is that fear is the main motivation to join and stay with the tribe.
A tribe thrives on fear. For millennia, humans survived and reproduced by joining a tribe. Political ideologies of the past show us that the media uses fear as a powerful tool to get our attention and spread their ideology. Fear taps into our instinct for tribe membership. It motivates us to cling to a group for protection from a common threat.
Warren Buffett shares a story about his experience with ideology. When Buffett was young, he realized that ideology was dangerous. Buffett’s father was a heavy right-wing ideologue and he hung around other right-wing ideologues. The young Buffett picked up the habit, but soon realized that ideology stood in the way of thinking on his own. He found that by hanging around with people whose ideas were more or less the same, his ability to think on his own became limited. Since then, Buffett decided to run as far away as he could from ideology.
I had a similar realization watching Fox News. Once I began to realize my own ideology, it was clear that my liberal mind was making the conservatives my enemies. In addition, high-dosage fear was affecting my peace of mind. It had me feeling and acting as if my way of life was under constant threat. But what I was afraid of was not a real threat. It was a phantom fear. Conservatives were not conspiring to destroy my life or the lives of fellow liberals. The fear I inherited from my tribe was something designed to keep my thoughts, feelings, and actions in line with its ideology.
My wife eventually joined me in watching Fox’s election coverage. After some resistance (like my own), she agreed that the coverage from Fox News was fair, and actually better than CNN and other liberal media outlets.
Here is a study that showcases bias in the media. To my surprise, it concluded that the liberal media was more biased than the conservative media. But whatever the degree of difference in bias between the two sides of the media, it’s pretty clear that both sides of the media want to keep their tribe happy, so they depict conservatives as bigots or liberals as fools. And advertising incentives ensure they keep doing so.
I am not here to tell you that Fox News is better than liberal media. The point is that Fox is just another echo chamber, not a villain. Each side of the political party uses their platform to make the other tribe look like a villain.
Once I realized this, I realized that I wanted out of the echo chamber–not just the liberal echo chamber I’d been in, but any echo chamber. I was done with tribalism.
The days I spent watching the coverage from both sides of the media nudged me to declare: I want to think on my own. I want freedom from tribal allegiance. I want to be a free thinker.