Nicholas Kristoff has an insightful op-ed in today’s Times on the way in which the decline of newspapers and the rise of on-line news will result in readers being their own editors. He writes: “When we go online…We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about…there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices.”
The result is polarization and intolerance. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor now working for President Obama, has conducted research showing that when liberals or conservatives discuss issues such as affirmative action or climate change with like-minded people, their views quickly become more homogeneous and more extreme than before the discussion. For example, some liberals in one study initially worried that action on climate change might hurt the poor, while some conservatives were sympathetic to affirmative action. But after discussing the issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes, liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.
While I have no delusions that print newspapers are ideologically and politically neutral, it is clear that most on-line news sources, and especially blogs that report and comment on the news, are unapologetically biased in their coverage. This is precisely why people flock to them.
The decline of traditional news media will accelerate the rise of The Daily Me, and we’ll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often. The danger is that this self-selected “news” acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.
So what’s the solution? Tax breaks for liberals who watch Bill O’Reilly or conservatives who watch Keith Olbermann? No, until President Obama brings us universal health care, we can’t risk the surge in heart attacks.
So perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore. Think of it as a daily mental workout analogous to a trip to the gym; if you don’t work up a sweat, it doesn’t count.
Let’s not shy away from these intellectual workouts. Let’s not get fat in our own ideological enclaves. A civil society depends on it.