It is an indication of the state of journalism in this country, and perhaps others (I wouldn’t know, unfortunately), that just about everyone ends up preaching to the choir.
This is by no means the fault of individual journalists; it’s a function of how the system works. Except for the op-ed pages of a couple of newspapers — and even they are slanted somewhat by editorial bias — the liberals end up publishing in liberal venues, the conservatives in their own publications, and never doth the twain seem to meet.
This is engenders the polarized nature of debate that we have nowadays. It used to be that newspapers and networks were reasonably balanced, because they had to report all the news. The people, restricted as they were to a minimal number of sources, demanded it. As it is now, there are so many venues sucking on the information teat (not to mention mindless programming of other kinds) that the competition is fierce. The name of the game is to get there first and, given the speed of news propagation these days, it is complicated by competition for viewers, listeners and the few remaining readers. Thus the logical (as in money-making) course of action is to keep things brief, superficial, and slant them in the direction of whatever audience the medium is trying to attract. That’s really a shame, because it allows the public to remain largely ignorant of the other side’s point of view, which in turn stifles useful debate.
By “useful” debate, I don’t mean publication of an article that takes a particular stand, followed by commentary either congratulatory or derogatory by people who feel strongly one way or the other. What I refer to is carefully-reasoned pieces that are balanced in their consideration of both sides of an argument, read and discussed by people who are able to consider all aspects of the questions to some degree.
That is not what we have now. If I listen exclusively to Rush Limbaugh and the Fox Network, I will have a completely unbalanced view of reality. The same is true of Air America and Randi Rhodes. Since I am likely to choose to listen to the points of view with which I feel comfortable, and since those commentators are likely to be repeating and re-repeating ideas with which I mostly agree, I will end up with a frighteningly biased and fixed point of view.
The same is true if I choose the shamans as my informants. It may feel really good to hear that those “others” are wrong, and that a deity is on my side, but what use, really, is that information when it comes to cleaning up the messes that exist in today’s world? (Unless, of course, we think a god is going to do it all for us…but what if we’re wrong? We’ll have to live in the mess with the rest of humanity then. Seems like hedging the bet would be a good idea.)
What modern Americans seem to fail to understand — certainly it is true of the current President — is that debate, discussion and diplomacy involve talking to the other side and trying to reach a consensus so that both may move forward. Diplomacy is not a my-way-or-the-highway attitude that refuses to talk unless the other side has already agreed to your demands. Diplomacy recognizes that there will always be disagreement, that no two powers — of whatever size — will ever be completely aligned in their vision, and it goes on from there to work out a deal that doesn’t hurt either party’s ambitions too badly, so that both sides can, in the current vernacular, “git ‘er done.”
Only people who are tragically ignorant of the realities of the world think they can have their way all the time, and only really stupid, drunk or mentally ill people think that they can exist without considering other people’s points of view. That’s why the current situation in journalism is so tragic. It not only preserves the current polarization of information flow, it preserves as well the ability of the population to remain ignorant of the ideas of others, listening only to those with whom they agree.
Politicians have known for centuries that such attitudes are unproductive. Anyone who thinks that legislation is simply pushed through by the “ruling” party without all sorts of debate and compromise is woefully uninformed about the way this country runs. True, when a president is willing to use the powers of the executive exclusively in pursuit of one party’s objectives, things can seem to function that way, but back-room compromise has always been — and will always be — the way the work gets done.
The more we all know about the other side’s point of view, the better-equipped we are to help run society. To the extent that we choose to remain polarized, we have also chosen to remain ignorant. I put it to you that there are a great many people, on both sides of the political fence, who have chosen to do just that, and that, my friends, is why we sometimes wonder where we’re going, and what we’re doing in this hand basket.
It’s not “their” fault, and it’s not “our” fault. It’s the fault of everyone who still thinks in terms of “them” and “us.” That was appropriate for hunter-gatherers, but it is not a healthy attitude in an age of potential nuclear annihilation or, for that matter, of suicide bombers.
Let’s get our heads out of The Nation, or The New Republic, the Bible and the Q’uran, and look at what’s really happening in the world. The “other side” — whoever they may be — can tell us things about the real world that we don’t already know. We’d be well-advised to listen. The more divided we are in terms of information, the easier it is for special interests, at whatever end of the political spectrum, to co-opt us and do things their way.