U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Another Source Of Anti-Intellectualism In The U.S. Today?

In a recent Washington Post article by Michael Gerson I read this interesting assertion:

Because of the ideological polarization of cable television news, talk radio and the Internet, Americans can now get their information from entirely partisan sources. They can live, if they choose to, in an ideological world of their own creation, viewing anyone outside that world as an idiot or criminal, and finding many who will cheer their intemperance.

While Gerson goes on to myopically (or anachronistically) assert that this was “perfected” by political liberals over the past four years (i.e. forgetting that the same claim was made by liberals about talk radio in 1994), I want to think more broadly about his general point.

Do we now, more than ever, only listen to sources with which we are “comfortable”? Do we create, rather than follow, ideological worlds of our own creation? I mean, aren’t those worlds out there for consumption? If so, we’re not creating them as much as simply plugging in and tuning out. So do we blame the consumer or the producer?

And is this any worse than times past? In reading Jason Stacy’s recent book, Walt Whitman’s Multitudes, I learned that historians of journalism cite “the proud partisanship of newspapers before the Civil War” as poisoning debate in politics during that era (p. 47). Are we in a similar climate? Maybe worse?

On a hopeful note, Stacy goes on to recount the situation resulted in a growing “journalistic objectivity” following the war. That movement, which involved something called the “inverted pyramid” style of reporting, shifted narrative construction to the reader. In sum, changes in journalism occurring as a result of the Civil War shifted subjectivity to the reader from story-writing, partisan journalists who had previously relayed more subjective analysis in “reporting” the news (p. 47). [Aside: This is only a mildly shameless plug for Jason since the pages resonated with me and I’ve known him since our days together in Loyola University Chicago’s History Department.]

Perhaps we need another journalistic shift—a producer change—to help draw media consumers out of their ideological bubbles? The result would be a more intellectual and democratic common culture.

Returning to what instigated this post, and putting political applications aside, my sense is that Gerson is right. This is a problem. But we neither can’t nor shouldn’t stop folks from using their iPods and reading blogs. Let’s hope that future campaigns, if possible, will be fed by less ideological sources. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Some time ago, I attended a lecture given by Cass Sunstein about this very issue–that of the increasing possibility of fitting one’s news/interlocutors to one’s pre-existing beliefs.

    is this a genuinely new problem, or would we find a version of it in ancient rome (say…emperors only listening to craven advisors who tell them what they want to hear)? how would you even decide? are there scholars who try to establish some kind of measure of comparative ‘political passion and bigotry’ ?

  2. I do find it fascinating that we are trying to deal with this very question a few posts below, with Sowell’s reaction to Kristoff. I have a hard time with a lot of conservative jargon because it seems so poorly thought through and argued. Yet, I also always wonder if my immediate reaction to what they say is a fundamental disagreement with their justification or their argumentation. In other words, do I not care for what conservatives like Sowell say because their arguments are faulty or because I think they are morally wrong? (or, hopefully, both?)

    I ask this, because I think I fail to rigorously analyze liberals’ claims, which more closely accord with my beliefs, than I do with conservatives. (Palin and Africa anyone?)

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