Last Thursday, Charles Blow, visual columnist for The New York Times, gave a moving lecture at Goldwin Smith Hall. Watching a clip of him speaking about Trayvon Martin’s clothing choices on The Sun’s website for a third time, I still get goose bumps.
“What you wear says nothing about your guilt or innocence. What you wear does not invite people to shoot you,” Blow declared in elegantly blunt terms, speaking about unnecessary ink spilled over whether or not Trayvon Martin had ever sported grills. And it’s true — try as we might to analyze the implications of fashion choices, justice must always trump petty speculation.
Despite my admiration, as Blow went on to mourn the death of news journalism and the proliferation of the highly editorialized blogosphere, I could not help but disagree with some of his arguments. Blow blamed some of our country’s hyperpolarization on the increasing popularity of opinion journalism in all forms: columns, editorials, punditry, the blogosphere, the twittersphere and beyond. Blow claimed that the market for non-biased news journalism was dwindling because people would rather have their opinions confirmed than read the facts of a story, splitting the left and right more than ever.
Though it’s difficult to accurately determine what complex social processes influence how people form their political opinions, what exactly is this beacon of unbiased media of which Blow spoke? Well, it consists of stations like CNN, in-the-field reporters and their newsroom counterparts and statisticians. These journalists roll out fact after fact without attempting to imbue the reader with any interpretation. And Blow’s New York Times has some of the best — this campaign season Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and Ashley Parker’s coverage of the Romney campaign have thoroughly impressed me.
The news media is responsible for portraying both sides of a story. No matter which bill hits the floor of Congress or which video leaks onto YouTube, journalistic integrity requires that one side’s opinion is not given preferential treatment over the others. Fair enough — though the portrayal of any side can often reek of inauthenticity, the journalist’s responsibility is to attempt to give equal non-judgmental time to both sides.
Noble as these goals seem on the surface, what role does this type of information really play? In reference to the importance of cold hard data, literary theory has for generations dealt with the inadequacy of abstracted statistics. Cleanth Brooks, a member of the highly formalist school of New Criticism, spoke eloquently on this principle, “There is no end to the accumulation of facts. Moreover, mere accumulation of facts — a point our own generation is only beginning to realize — are meaningless.”
Statistics out of context are meant to distract and confound. Republicans frequently quote the national debt and claim that it amounts to around $50,000 per person, implying that every newborn child somehow enters the world already owing money. This proposition is ludicrous — the debt is a national responsibility, not an individual one, and right now the government is practically being paid to borrow money with interest rates below that of inflation. Reading statistics could cause the reader to go into numeric shock; their inclusion is based on the assumption that they will catch the audience’s attention, though without heartfelt analysis that puts the data to use, they are utterly meaningless.
Furthermore, the notion of balance as some sort of nod to the gods of fairness is even more debilitating than raw data. In an attempt to avoid bias, news outlets give equal time and weight to any two sides of a story. During the debt debate the news media actually did the Tea Party a service by including it in the debate, despite the fact that its idea to allow national default was completely idiotic. Stanley Fish, another literary theorist, once wrote that “‘Fair’ is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.” Balance is its own type of bias really, since it forces us to speak about the likes of Michelle Bachmann as if they’re on the same intellectual plane as their more thoughtful colleagues.
Now I don’t write all of this to devalue the work that reporters do. News journalists do the muckraking necessary to have opinions. As Blow astutely pointed out, we only have gaffes because someone worked his or her butt off following a candidate around, waiting for him or her to slip up. But opinion pieces are news; they are informative and, moreover, they present their bias on the surface rather than behind a veneer. If the audience knows the bias is there, he or she can easily disregard it like water on top of yogurt.
Blow was right that we are more polarized than ever. Reading the news only to confirm one’s own opinions is a serious issue — ideologues hunt for reasons only after their minds are made up, rather than wait to hear different points of view. Hyperpolarization will continue to tear our government apart until people learn to put down their selective filters — until liberals watch Fox with an open-mind or conservatives turn on MSNBC without cringing.
The solution is not necessarily to look solely to news for some sort of unbiased story that, in my mind, is a fallacy. What a conscientious reader must do is read skeptically and from multiple sources. Liberals must read Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, David Brooks, and occasionally tune in to Bill O’Reilly. Conservatives need to read Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, and even watch Bill Moyers and Chris Matthews. Still though, nobody should listen to Glenn Beck. There’s a difference between an open mind and an empty one.