Confirming Biases: Your Thoughts

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader responds to an earlier one, Ken Sebastian of Clarkson, Michigan, who blamed the nation’s political dysfunction on my profession:

With the advent of 24/7 reporting and commentary and the public’s nearly insatiable appetite, there is indeed a surfeit of opinion lacking balance or even facts. It’s up to readers to wade through what’s available to find that which provides sufficient reasoned articulation of the issues. That means individuals overcoming their own biases: a formidable task. We simply cannot blame the media for pandering to our own appetite for biased or un-nuanced news. Those appetites are ours! Or, if we have difficulty finding balanced sources, we need to read opposing opinions and take them into account in our own thinking.

I agree with the reader, without letting my industry off the hook.

The media is just another 20th century institution struggling to adapt to vast economic, technological, and social change, and with that struggle comes a blurring of mission. Too many journalists have traded their truth-to-power objectivity for a partisan’s red or blue jersey. Others cede control to the institutions they should be curbing. Still others slavishly chase clicks and ratings for their corporate bosses.

And yet, as today’s reader suggests, the public has never had more access to more information, and in the United States, people have the power to turn that information against the powerful. At some point, we get the government we deserve.

I suspect this is a shaking-out period—the interregnum between an era in which information was gathered, packaged, and distributed by a relative handful of gatekeepers and that time in the future, when new generations of people will build new institutions that help 300 million-plus gatekeepers sort, analyze, and act upon a common set of facts.

Call me vaguely optimistic. Put today’s reader in that category; here he objects to my “circling the drain” metaphor, and not just because it’s a cliché:

As for the nation circling drain, that may be a conclusion un-tempered by historical perspective. As a nation we are in so much better shape now than in many previous eras. We just need to counterbalance the negatives so ardently voiced by Chicken Littles with objective assessments that are, in my opinion, far more positive that what I commonly hear. Yes, we have problems but ones that can be addressed and resolved …

[W]e are in no worse or more vitriolic a position than we were when Federalists were battling Republicans, when abolitionists were battling pro-slavery forces, when laissez-faire proponents were dismayed by economic progressives, or many other times of great philosophical an political divides. We all need to realize that impassioned zealotry (redundant?) is the lifeblood of democracy. As Churchill is said to have proclaimed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they've tried everything else.”

Another reader, addressing the same column, “Circling the Drain With Trump,” argues that I was too hard on the celebrity billionaire:

As a father of a 13-year-old boy, I’m trying to teach him about practical versus hopeful. As a liberal Democrat I am amazed how bad the press has treated Trump. He is a successful business man, a good husband and father. He needs to soften up his approach if he is going to be elected but there isn’t anything wrong with him.

Noting my obsession with millennials, the reader says his son is part of the next greatest generation:

I think you are wrong about millenials. I think our future rests in the hands of Gen Z. These millennials are nothing like the silent generation; they more resemble the hippy Baby Boomers. Fascinated by your take on that, I plan on reading your book about your kids. Lately I’ve been doing some research on Gen Z within politics hence why your statement caught my eye.

I need to learn more about the generation behind the millennials, and will start by forwarding this link to a sounding board on young voters, which includes Michelle Diggles at Third Way, John Della Volpe, pollster at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, and Nicco Mele, author of “The End of Big.” Will post their thoughts here. Please email me yours.