The Market for Reason

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Here is an interesting and dare I say important article about the media's role in the Sherrod scandal by John Harris and Jim VandeHei at Politico. Race was a factor in what happened, self-evidently: in this case, specifically, sensitivity to the charge of racism. (See Jonathan Chait on the White House's terror of being accused of favoring blacks over whites.) Polarization was part of it too-- but, say Harris and VandeHei, multiplied by a new force.

What is different these days is the emergence of an industry -- a political-media complex -- for which ideological conflict is central to the business model.

In other words, anger sells.

Politico's leaders declare an interest:

At POLITICO, we have an unusual vantage point on this new reality. We are both an enabler (in the eyes of some critics) of the deterioration of political discourse, and a target of it (as we try to defend our values as neutral journalists amid constant criticism from activists who think we fail at neutrality or are disdainful of the goal in the first place).

There is some truth on both counts. Like all news sites, we are aware that conflict clicks. More traffic comes from an item on Sarah Palin's "refudiation" faux pas than from our hundreds of stories on the complexities of health care reform or Wall Street regulation. We were slow to write about the initial charge of racism against Sherrod -- but quick as anyone else to write about the political fallout. Over the past 36 hours, articles on Breitbart, Sherrod and Tucker Carlson (whose conservative Daily Caller broke the story about journalists taking partisan sides on JournoList) have shared space atop our site with more "substantive" stories on the failed climate bill and the charges against Charlie Rangel.

(Note the scare quotes round "substantive". These days an apology is owed if you make that claim.)

They are right. But does it matter, and if so what is to be done? Of course it matters. Optimists would argue that all the web-based screaming and hysterics are a vent for anger that might otherwise take more frightening forms. Also, they would say, there is nothing wrong with a passionate argument. How else do we filter good ideas from bad? Some scholars I can think of -- yes, scholars -- would say: As long as people are not literally smashing in each other's skulls, what's the problem? Not that some skulls don't deserve to be smashed, now they come to think of it.

I hope this "vent for rage"/"contest of ideas" theory is correct. but I see little sign of our ideas or policies improving. Rather the opposite. It is more a case of "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." And it all looks self-reinforcing. The open-minded switch off -- only softies pause for reflection -- and the anger quotient moves up.

As I say, the breakdown of civility on the internet is greeted by enthusiasts as progress: finally, authenticity is getting the upper hand. I wonder, does this logic apply to ordinary social interaction? (In Britain, you could ask somebody subject to an ASBO.) A wider breakdown of civility -- the friendly courtesy which, to this foreigner at least, is a characteristic of ordinary US society -- would be no small matter. Suppose this vicious media gyre increases rage and drives out moderation and civility in real life, not just in the media. Suppose it mobilizes fury instead of moderating it. Those are not such implausible fears. What happens in a democracy once the middle ground for compromise is entirely vacated?

As for what to do, the answer is that nothing can be done.

Now the Web dominates the debate, as a feeder for aggregators and cable. Traffic to ideological sites is exploding. The Huffington Post -- the most influential site on the left -- has seen its traffic nearly double over the past year and is now bigger than The Washington Post.

Right-wing sites are rising, too. No longer is Drudge the only influential conservative site. Breitbart, a disciple of Drudge, has built a string of fairly popular sites including one carrying his own name, as well as BigGovernment.com and BigJournalism.com. These sites are often bitterly partisan -- and highly effective at forcing obscure stories into the MSM bloodstream.

There is only a small market for moderation and reason. Tucker Carlson seems to be learning this with his site, the Daily Caller. He launched with dreams of offering readers conservative news without harsh tones. But his site didn't take off until he started pounding the drums on immigration, Keith Olbermann and liberal journalists. Now it's the toast of the right wing.

Even venerable straight-news organizations such as The Washington Post are getting lured down the partisan road, recruiting bloggers with explicit ideological agendas and giving them top billing online.

"A small market for moderation and reason." Something to think about. Perhaps people will get tired of being angry and certain all the time. Perhaps moderation and skepticism will make a comeback. But history shows that bad things can happen before rage maxes out. We will find out where all this leads.

Keep a bag packed.

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