Recent reports about a preference for reading news and
opinion pieces from sources we agree with has raised alarms, including
brief and informative posting by Joshua-Michéle Ross on
this Radar blog site. Surveys highlight an undeniable trend: as weblogs
continue to post alternatives to the mainstream media and people’s
viewing habits are shaped more and more by invitations from friends
(“gotta check out this video!”), we are cocooning ourselves in worlds
of information that reinforce our existing prejudices. Our personal
choice to exercise the prior restraint of free speech in news reading
has been dubbed the “Daily Me.”
I’ll plead guilty right away. Sometimes I happen upon a thoughtful
article by a conservative commentator that rips away the progressive
lenses through which I read up on the issues and (perhaps) jump to
conclusions. At such times I think–gee, I should get more of this
diet. But usually I let Eric Alterman read and summarize the
right-wing press for me.
So I agree we have a problem, but I don’t lament the end of the
“shared cultural literacy” or “common point of reference” that we’ve
lost. I wonder what the commentators who utter such complaints want us
to return to. Are they nostalgic for the years during which Americans
got all their news from three TV networks, when papers and magazines
across the country slavishly took their cues from Time Magazine and
the New York Times (as Noam Chomsky would demonstrate) concerning what
news was fit to print?
The government and other established forces managed to cover up
enormous crimes in those years, such as the transfer of Nazi leaders
to South American by the Office of Strategic Services and its
successor, the CIA, to carry out torture and repression. This
particular outrage was well-known on the left but completely blacked
out in the mainstream press, until John Kerry lifted the veil a bit in
the 1980s with his hearings on the drug-contra connection.
(And even progressives trailed along with the fiction during the
George W. Bush years that his staff introduced torture into American
policy. It’s time for a revival of Costa Gavras’s 1973 film State
I find much to like in the current environment, where investigations
and proposals on the left, right, and everywhere in between are easy
to find. But putting on blinders does create a breeding ground for
irresponsible reporting and junk science, which are reaching epidemic
proportions. That’s why we need to hoist ourselves out of our
Bias is nothing new. Religious and political establishments have been
burning books (and their authors) ever since written language was
invented. Most of our knowledge about alternative movements (such as
heterodox Christian sects) comes from scholars’ historical analysis of
the vituperative screeds written by the orthodox.
Critics of the current situation don’t realize how much we have moved
from the orthodox to the orthogonal. We live in different worlds and
even speak different languages. The tower of axioms, historical
citations, and interpretations built up on each side–the
narrative, as social scientists like to call it–has become
so powerful that we can’t productively read another side’s
viewpoints because we interpret the language and events through
our existing prisms.
In the US, for instance, thinkers on right and left hail the country’s
founders, but what we take from their writings and behavior is
completely different. Madison, Paine, Jefferson, and others provide
plenty of grist for both the current left wing and current right wing.
So just following the writings of people with whom you disagree, while
a good start, is not enough. To really listen requires a new attitude.
I’m hopeful that this will come about. It’s not because we’ll all put
on humble sackcloth and love our enemies as ourselves. It’s because
we’ll be forced to listen as our opponents exert their power.
In the woefully divided Senate, Republicans have held up laws,
administrative staffing, and judicial posts by a variety of
tactics. The filibuster is not the most effective tool, although it is
the best-known; usually obstructionists rely on novel exploitations of
committee rules. This exercise of power to stop government from
functioning when they lack the votes to get what they want is a way of
forcing their views on the table.
At any particular point one can attribute a particular Congressman’s
action to a lobbyist’s donation, partisan angling, or political
deal-making, but a prolonged and widespread campaign of such tactics
must reflect a point of view that has some following in the country.
Whereas Congressmen can sabotage a majority agenda through procedural
subtleties, less powerful people do it by blocking a door, throwing a
stone, or even strapping on a suicide belt.
The lead actors can’t necessarily be dissuaded from obstructing
doorways or judicial appointments. But we have to understand them and
the people whose causes they claim to represent in order to find a way
out of the jam. All sides of an issue use media to recruit to their
cause, so they must at some point reveal their logic and subject it to
debate. Everyone is vulnerable to soft power at the source.
But as I pointed out, it’s not enough to hammer on the facts from your
point of view, because the entire way you view the language and the
context is anathema to your opponents. To change their minds or
undercut support among their base, you have to mentally enter their
I’ve suggested one technical system that might help.
The necessities of power, then, rather than the weak urges of good
will, eventually will get us to listen to each other. And having all
the materials at our fingertips will help. Too much news is good news.