Blogs Aim: Hit Head

Today, our local newspaper picked up a lengthy LA Times editorial, “Americans Seek Enertaining News”. David Shaw meanders through familiar territory—at least to those of his generation and profession. People, he says, who want unbiased reporting (a growing minority he believes) choose Fox because it is comfortable, it isn’t challenging. He quotes Todd Gitlin, “Most people want no-problem news, goes-down-easy news, Yahoo! Headlines, news that evokes feelings, even if those feelings are feelings of fear.” (Well I remember the SDS’s ability to aim at the head in our heady youths.) Today, I find the raw emotions no less the object of, say, 60 Minutes than O’Reilley. While repeatdly equating Fox with the Comedy Channel appears cute to the believers, I doubt it converts many pagans.

As someone who spends far too much time channel surfing, I, too, would prefer less about (really, nothing about) Lacy Peterson, Michael Jackson, and whatever other ginned up crime story Fox chooses to consider “breaking news.” But, it is not so much to those that Shaw directs his fury. He conflates sensationalism with bias; this he does a bit more subtly than his conflation of the Fox News with the Daily Show.

An aside: Is it just me, or does it seem unseemly to “pile on” to Fox, the only channel that leans to the right? Doesn’t such unanimity appear suspicious – that Goldberg may be right? The New York Times (which for some reason known only to the Times has been thrown in our fly-over country yard for the last couple of weeks) has a lengthy article in its Sunday magazine on the new documentary “unveiling” the truth behind Fox’s coverage – it is right wing. I suspect the same people who found Moore’s movie “instructive” will find this one “eduational.” (The Times notes the expose was partially paid for by, though the appropriate weight to such a nugget might be a matter of opinon.) Okay, many of the commentators on Fox are irritating and God knows they have a position, but is Britt Hume less honest than, say, Judy Woodruff? (This is a matter of opinion, of course. I would argue that it is Shaw and not I who would consider such judgements fact. Further, I would like to observe that Hume’s allusions seem to arise from a lifetime of actually thinking about and remembering the news he reports. His head does seem involved – I’m less sure of the heads of some of the Big 3 newsreaders.)

The faux populism of our editorialist charms. He argues “the growing wealth in some segments of our society also may militate against an interest in the larger world–especially among the college student and recent college graduates who traditionally were the most likely young people to be regular news consumers.” He quotes Robert Calvert, a political scientist at DePauw, at length. A militant libertarian might suspect Calvert confuses cause with effect; Rand is probably no less true than his observation: “The wealthier a society is, the more self-consciously individualistic it is and the less an individual feels obligated to consider things outside oneself and one’s immediate interests.” (The smugness of an academic trumps that of a robber baron any time.)

The editorial (and I can hardly do justice to its length and staggering turns of mind) worries about the next generation, which has not acquired the habit of readership. This is an old taunt – I often use it on my children – the next generation is just not up to snuff. Calvert observes “The last thing kids want out of a college education today is to learn how to be a better citizen. All they’re concerned with is career preparation.” Indeed, he concludes: “‘You wind up with people working for, and maybe at the top of, major industries who have no interest in institutions or in our cultural and moral environment, and that’s a real national problem . . . That’s how you wind up with Enron.’”

But, if you have remained with him (and me), readers of this blog may enjoy his further observation. He uses William Safire (a choice he hopes will lessen our sense that this is, well, should we say a bit biased) to observe that newspaper columnists “are not always predictable and do occasionally give readers opinions that depart from their normal ideological positions.” Okay, he segues, assuming even a conservative in print is better than “most blogs and many other Web sites, not to mention talk radio and some cable offerings, so the options for reinforcement and validation are greater today than ever before, much as the solipsistic appetite for reinforcement and validation is greater than ever before.” (By talk radio, do you think he means Terry Gross and Morning Edition? Well, they are better than the local Hightower/BBC/Pacifica station, which my children listen to “for the music.” I hope to God it isn’t for the level of thinking.)

Because of the openness, it seems only appropriate to think in terms of the “blogosphere” rather than an individual blog. Still, since we are here, let’s look at us. This blog has a point of view. But it has a variety of interests. And it has a depth. Look at the posts just below. They are aesthetically pleasing (G ewirtz’s wonderful photos) and the thoughtful. I am grateful (as are several commentators) to Sylvain Galineau for the specificity and work of his “Artificial Intelligence”. Michael Hiteshew’s “Nuclear Power Resurgent” examines atomic energy with energy and wit. Again, we can learn. And T.M. Lutas analyzes “In Case of Terrorist Attack: Electoral College”. Both Lutas and Galineau “carry through” – continuing their thinking into second postings. Blogs combine specificity with a mode reflecting the mind in action– engaged, curious, responsive. These writers also argue forcefully in their comments – while they may use irony, they also give their opponents generous space. We link the hell out of our posts. Proof is important. And it is the blog’s civility that shows it values the head rather than the heart.

My understanding (let alone expertise) in such fields is nonexistent and some of my opinions others on this site find wrong-headed. But they have been gracious and welcoming. They believe in the marketplace of ideas. They are true to those beliefs.

And, if the writers are not themselves coming from different perspectives and different points of view, the commentators provide “reality checks.” It is the L A Times that is more likely to get by with making a story out of whole cloth. I’m sloppy – okay. But when I make mistakes a commentator picks up on it: it is Augusta not Atlanta, they say – and they are right. We acknowledge our mistakes – quickly, honestly, and most of the time with humility and respect. We don’t simply change the wording with no acknowledgement of our earlier mistake (as the BBC recently did)–pass on by, nothing to see here. Nor do we wait days or weeks to make corrections. Of course, we make mistakes. We are human – and humans not being paid, rattling out our syntheses between moments at our “real” jobs. And we (at least I) do rattle on.

Bloggers vary in temperament, but many project civility. Some of the quite popular ones do it with a kind of “judicial temperament” that comes naturally to lawyers. Lileks give us the proportionality of his private life – yes, there are places for the head, for the heart, and there is a perspective that comes from worrying both about your daughter’s fall that day and the world in which she will be an adult. The personal need not necessarily lead to solipsism.

After implying that Fox is only the Comedy Channel taken seriously, that the next generation doesn’t read newspapers because it is selfish and pampered, that blogs are little more than mindless cheerleaders, his final observations are designed, I suspect, to demonstrate his own disinterested stand (a regular Matthew Arnold he is).

He argues that he likes “the unexpected. I don’t like the predictable and the obvious. I’d rather have my beliefs challenged than validated. How else does one learn?” Hanging around the L A Times newsroom, I gather, he often has this experience, one unique to print journalism. He tells us that Fox news, the lack of engagement of college students, the simplicity of blogs, all this leads to – Michael Moore. He complains that he learns little from the movie since it is so “expected,” it allows him to “nod and cheer” rather than question. However, the movie enlightens those nonreaders he has been excoriating, even though it is propaganda: “Sure, it’s propaganda on my side of the ideological battlefield. That’s why it appeals to so many who, like me, think George W. Bush has been an appallingly bad president.” As he observes, it “doesn’t pretend to be a documentary either” – although that is the category under which it has won prizes. And, yet, it is these ignorant viewers, the youth who haven’t developed the habit of newspaper reading, who say “I didn’t know that” to “matters” that were, he contends, ”long since covered by the mainstream news media.”

So, we see his argument – “mainstream news media” covers the material well that Moore has used in what is not a documentary but a polemic. But, if these viewers had been doing what they should have been doing – closely reading the L A Times – they would already know what Moore tells them. Would they know what Moore doesn’t tell them, we might ask? But that is irrelevant to his point. Nor does he feel compelled to make a point that can, I suspect, be made: they would have learned it with more caveats, modifiers. I doubt very much that the L A Times is Michael Moore in print. It remains a major newspaper; biased, it still has more diverse points of view, a stronger sense of proportioality than Moore allows into his polemic. But, all in all, this particular editorial does raise doubts about taking that “news” as a major, certainly as our only, source.

At the back of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is “Donald E. Browne’s List of Human Universals.” One of these is “overestimating objectivity of thought.” Yes, whatever truth Browne may or may not have found, I think we can accept this is human nature. But Chicagoboyz founders (as did those of many other blogs) recognized this tendency—so they welcomed comments, continue to argue with one another. And they add their voices to the great blogosphere–that open market of ideas–where we are pricked, questioned, held to a fairly high standard of argument, and, yes, entertained. That Shaw does not see this says more about him than blogs.

4 thoughts on “Blogs Aim: Hit Head”

  1. I think Shaw’s main point is well taken (if a bit obvious): generally speaking, people like to be around things they like. In the opinion marketplace that means that right-leaning viewers will prefer Fox News, whereas left-leaning ones will prefer CNN (who watches MSNBC anyway?). And this blog, like any other blog, also confirms that we like to hang out with people of similar ilk. That does not mean we don’t also appreciate spirited debate. But at the end of the day there is something comforting and entirely natural about wanting to be around people who don’t constantly disagree with you. Just think how exhausting that would be!

  2. It is a question of degree, BTDT. The LA Times is NOT a conversation. This blog is. Sylvain and I have disagreed vehemently, for example. And we tolerate comments which disagree, though I quickly delete ones which are insulting or otherwise do not advance the conversation, in my opinion. Still, this blog and many others (Samizdata comes to mind) are often in large part forums for discussion to a degree which most media never can be.

    As to “…wanting to be around people who don’t constantly disagree with you. Just think how exhausting that would be!” I married a liberal democrat. It keeps me on my toes.

  3. Since the piece is signed by someone, it is not an editorial, it’s a column (indeed, it is identified as such in the URL). Editorials express the institutional views of the newspaper, columns are the individual views of the writer. The edit page is not a conversation, at least it is not supposed to be; but at most papers, even the LATimes, the op-ed pages offer widely varying views.

  4. The key is that it’s such a pleasure to disagree with Lex.

    As opposed to some of the dolts who only show up here to play the condescending game because they either cannot handle dissenting opinion or simply want an online rhetorical bar brawl to strut their stuff around. There is also those who can dish it out like there is no tomorrow and can’t take anything in return.

    We prefer old-fashioned boxing. It’s OK if it hurts but there are some rules.

    As to the first comment, I will disagree. I like people who disagree with me, to a large extent. And just like in the online realm, it’s all in the way they disagree. Reuven Brenner once pointed out that nothing is learned through agreement. If you follow a productive protocol, it’s extremely healthy for all the parties involved. Nothing better than a friend you can have good debates with.

    And for some strange reason, I am having an easier time finding such individuals outside cities, but that’s a topic for another day.

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