The immediacy and ubiquity of news and information has created a glut of information and vortex of knowledge that is swallowing nuance. Suddenly, misinformation is on equal footing with information that has been hypothesized and vetted through research. Often this misinformation is presented in bite-sized morsels and offered in bright, shiny packages that are easy to buy, swallow and discard. All of this has left the public, busy with everyday life, to discern between fact and fiction, and journalists crossing their fingers that John and Jane Q. Public take the right (or perhaps left) exit on the information highway. And it has left journalists to wonder if they are the antidote to extremist attitudes or part of the problem. If the game today is the acquisition of eyeballs by presenting simplistic and radical viewpoints that grab people’s attention, it creates a crisis of confidence in the newsroom as to what the goal of reporting in the information age really is.
From the public’s perspective, the most immediate danger is the availability of information that coincides with our preconceived notions and formulaic patterns of thought. Whatever political proclivities one possesses can be easily accessed through all forms of media from print to broadcast and everywhere in between. It has never been easier to join the herd. Political moderates are being marginalized with the left and right wings alternately vying for attention by reaching further toward polar extremes of the spectrum. If liberalism is what you seek, Olbermann is your man. Conservatism? I give you Glenn Beck. It’s Murdoch versus Sulzberger, Charles Koch versus George Soros. Have extreme viewpoint, will travel.
Of course the great divide in American politics has always been there; it simply lays dormant during healthy economic periods. The difference today is in our level of engagement with the news and our ability to more easily access information that feeds our personal ideologies. This effectively mutes any sensible middle-ground arguments that may have otherwise surfaced in times of crisis—solutions that could provide a stint of fresh ideas to break the arterial hardening of our collective thought processes and provide oxygen through the body politic and into the brain, where it is needed the most. Instead we are left with pundits who shout at the rain and howl at the moon to grab our attention, which is easily quantified by ratings, page views and Facebook fans.
But media outlets haven’t cornered the market on extreme viewpoints. This week WNYC-FM aired a report about the growing popularity of faith-based search engines that return search results based upon religious guidelines. One example given is the Christian search engine SeekFind.org. The report claims, “If you search ‘gay marriage,’ you would get results that argue against gay marriage. And if you type in ‘Democratic Party,’ your first search result is a site on Marxism.” The report goes on to talk about Jewish and Muslim search engines that also tailor results to their respective faiths and the growing popularity of niche technology that allows people to remain in their ideological and religious bubbles.
The election results from Tuesday’s primary are a window into the American psyche that should not only alarm every incumbent politician, but every moderate-thinking American. People are in a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater kind of mood at the moment, which is being fueled by partisan rancor in the media. A word of caution: When success in the media is measured by friends, fans and page views, and talk show hosts become leaders of movements, the race to the bottom is on a fast and slippery track. Our industry may be under financial attack and duress from all sides, including within, but the printed word of true journalists will remain the closest tie to the truth.
Which brings about my personal crisis of confidence. While I helm an alternative weekly that is part of the grand tradition of quality journalism, I also author this column: a bully pulpit with the tendency to engender either anger or support. And while I take it very seriously and am grateful for the platform, it sometimes feels as though my outrage is part of the disservice being done in the media today. Nevertheless, we have a job to do. That job consists of obsessive observation, analysis and argument. And argue we shall because reasoned arguments tend to hang in the air, to be listened to long after the crowd has dispersed and the yelling has all but gone.