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Read (and Watch and Listen) Broadly

Travis writes: In the wake of Walter Cronkite’s death, many commentators have bemoaned the decline of broadcast journalism from “news” to “infotainment.” Since Cronkite signed off in 1981, advances in information technology have dramatically increased transparency, and “facts” – in terms of raw data, statistics, primary documents, and firsthand accounts – are broadly available to those with the time, resources, and willingness to look for them.

But counter to the democratization of information is a rise in punditry – louder and increasingly partisan voices more interested in confirming biases than encouraging listeners to think critically. With increasingly targeted news outlets, consumers of media can insulate themselves from hearing anything that challenges their own outlook. Progressives don’t watch MSNBC to get news; they watch MSNBC to feel like their worldview is “normal.” Conservatives don’t watch FOX News because it is “fair and balanced;” they watch FOX News precisely because it is tilted towards their sympathies.

If you want straight news, you have two choices. 1) Focus on centrist media. The Economist is a readable center-right publication. I think NPR and PBS are solidly centrist, others would consider them center-left. 2) Expose yourself to both sides.

If you subscribe to The Weekly Standard and The National Review, sneak into a library and read The American Prospect and The Nation as well. If you listen to Pacifica, tune in to conservative talk radio from time to time. In academics and business, the same advice applies. When I pick up a book by Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, or Robert Frank, there is a pretty good chance that I will agree with most of what is inside. Reading the work of conservative scholars, such as Thomas Sowell’s Economic Facts and Fallacies, raises my blood pressure but also widens my perspective.

In his July editorial, Don Meadows detailed the benefits of reading trade publications from overseas, a variation on my theme. If you only know what is going on in your country or your particular market niche, you are missing the bigger picture.

Here’s my challenge to Jim, read the New York Times regular op-ed columnists every day for a week. Report back on your experience. Were you informed or simply infuriated? In exchange, I will read the Wall Street Journal’s columnists and post my thoughts in the comments section below.

Jim’s response: From 31 July until 06 August, I dutifully read the New York Times op-ed columnists — 16 separate columns. You asked if I were informed or simply infuriated. I don’t think my response falls in either camp.

First, I came away from this exercise feeling pretty good about my own grammar and column structure expertise. These writers, as a whole, do not structure their columns in a way that I found impressive. They often “chase rabbits,” leaving their main theme to put in a dig about something else itching their psyche. I do that, too, but with unspoken guilt expressed towards Mr. Kenney, the English teacher that taught me how to write (of course, I have no way of knowing if they feel guilty or not).

Speaking of chasing rabbits, Mr. Kenney went to Haight-Ashbury (the famous district in San Francisco) in the summer of 1968 and proceeded to fry his brilliant brain on drugs --- not a good outcome, and probably the genesis of my strong antidrug stance today.
 
Informed? No. I don’t think I learned anything new here. It was verified for me that the major news outlets in this country have an extremely provincial perspective. They think about 5 square miles in Manhattan is an accurate reflection of the world. The only writer making any personal reference outside Manhattan was Nicholas Kristof.

Think about it—Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, Time magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others are all headquartered in a very tiny area on the island of Manhattan. I like to go to Manhattan and do so several times a year; but folks, let’s get out and get some perspective on the world. Where you live is not the center of the Universe. You view opinions from elsewhere with the same heretical judgment the Catholic Church inflicted on Galileo when he suggested the Earth revolved around the Sun.

One reason to go to Manhattan is the food and entertainment. I like both there, and the museums as well. However, I am as likely to stop at a converted school bus along the highway somewhere in the deep South to eat a barbeque sandwich, eat a pastie out of a roadside shack in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or go to a tractor pull or hot rod show in the Midwest.

These writers leave me with the impression they would not be caught dead in such places. I wonder if any of them have been to the Towing and Recovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee? I have — twice.

Infuriated? No, I would say it is more like pity I feel towards these writers. I see them as naïve, timid, and cautious individuals who force everything into and judge everything within the context of their little city world.

By the way, the first time I went to Manhattan, I was extremely disappointed and horrified at how geographically small it is. Cape Girardeau, Missouri, or Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, are bigger places than Manhattan.

Misinformed? Maybe. On the last day, Gail Collins had a column with this statement as she glowingly praised Barak Obama’s first six months: “…and at home nobody in the White House appears to be plotting to undermine our civil rights on a daily basis.” Now I read this column the morning of 06 August 2009 and it says it was published on 05 August 2009. The timing is crucial, for on the afternoon of 05 August 2009, the Obama White House announced their equivalent to Joseph Goebbels, a Czar named Linda Douglass who is urging all Americans to send “fishy” emails to flag@whitehouse.gov (see http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/Facts-Are-Stubborn-Things/). Reminds me of President Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918. One can only hope Collins wrote her column before this occurred; otherwise, she deserves an extra dose of pity.


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