Slanted Soapboxes of Media

By - Oct 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Paul McLeary

Healthy Debate or Disheartening Trend?

For years, and some might say decades, conservatives had been up in arms about what they perceived as the media establishment’s liberal bias — and not completely without cause. But a funny thing happened in the early 1990s to change all that. Rush Limbaugh broke into the American consciousness through the snooze and clutter of AM talk radio, and with his ascension, station managers discovered an untapped reservoir of rage bubbling up in the country that needed to be marketed to.

They quickly moved to flood the airwaves with fire-breathing right-wing evangelists. Pouncing on the bandwagon, FOX quickly moved in to cash in on the lack of a truly conservative presence in television news, much to the chagrin of the left.

With this, the world of televised political punditry moved beyond what can now be seen as the gentler time of MacNeil/Lehrer and The Capital Gang, and jumped into the bare-knuckle street fight techniques practiced by attack dogs like Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and their ilk. In a much-publicized failure, lefty Phil Donahue threw his hat into the ring earlier this year to try and inject some left-wing thought into television punditry, but met with what at best can be described as a collective yawn, at worst a debacle of major proportions.

More recently, liberals in general have started to wake up to their supposed lack of radio and prime time television spots, and this past year we saw wealthy Chicago couple Sheldon and Anita Drobny announce their plans to invest $10 million in a liberal radio network, and Al Gore try to raise funds for a liberal news channel.

Forums for partisan sniping — oh my.

With this, the American media effectively took one giant step through the looking glass. No longer considered objective purveyors of the truth, newspapers, radio programs, magazines, websites and blogs have become outlets for highly partisan sniping that purport to offer a claim to objective truth by bashing the other side’s every proposal as being something just short of complete insanity. Liberals and conservatives alike feed this machine with equal doses of venom, although both sides rather arrogantly hold themselves above the fray.

American media seem to have entered a state of perpetual backlash, with the right railing against the “liberal media” and the left taking up arms against the media gains the far right has made. On the face of things, this looks to be great news for the concept of a truly deliberative democracy, where all parties have a voice in the great debates of the age. Unfortunately, while both sides are getting their airtime, more often than not they’re simply preaching to the choir. Take a trip to conservative blog and you’ll find that the message board trolls don’t trust the AP, Reuters and UPI newswires because of their “liberal” slant. Likewise, there are a whole host of liberal blogs like “What Liberal Media” author Eric Alterman’s “Altercation” blog on MSNBC that come sharply from the left.

The question is, aren’t these outlets simply sounding boards for the converted to read stories slanted toward what their readers already want to hear?

University of Chicago law Professor Cass Sunstein makes this point in his excellent 2001 book, in which he treats the rise of highly partisan Internet sites and cable channels as a disheartening trend away from the healthy debate a functioning democracy needs to sustain itself. If we all plug in to our own television shows, radio programs, Internet sites and magazines that just regurgitate our own preferred view of the world back to us, do we really learn anything about the world as it actually is? Democracy, Sunstein holds, relies in large part on shared experiences that can be filtered through personal political beliefs.

While he isn’t saying that the old three-channel, one or two local newspaper world was better than our current access to myriad news outlets, I think he makes a point that is too often lost in the highly volatile and partisan world we live in. Namely, where does debate, and debate’s ultimate goal, mutual understanding, begin when competing worldviews refuse to even look at each other? In many ways, it’s an unanswerable question. Democracy is a contact sport, and most people just don’t have the time in a busy day to explore all the options open to them. Looked at in this way, tuning into FOX News or reading The Nation on a regular basis makes sense. Looked at in another way, however, the great media bounty offered to the American public is being squandered through under-utilization.

Muzzle the attack dogs.

This trend toward ghettoization of the airwaves has permeated our entire media. In one corner you have Ann Coulter, the highly charged cable talkshow guest and blond-haired darling of the right. In the other corner you have comedian Al Franken trading barbs with Coulter in their respective books and in talk show appearances. Coulter defends Joe McCarthy and routinely labels liberals as traitors, while Franken calls Rush Limbaugh an idiot. Believe me, I find Coulter to be a shrill, divisive and often factually challenged siren of the right, but in the end, are their books much more than pulp diversions? While their arguments are culturally divisive and appear to be immensely interesting right now, it’s likely that in the ensuing decades that their cultural contributions will be relegated to the backroom curiosities of a bygone political era.

As for the rest of our media, they stand at a crucial point in their history. Our country is divided against itself, and corporate media outlets are squeezing every dollar they can out of the highly charged back and forth this division has created. While things are unlikely to get better anytime soon, one can only hope that the current vogue of partisan attack dogs barking at each other from behind soundproofed walls will wear thin with the public at some point, and the concepts of responsible reporting, and a commitment to the truth, will reassert themselves.

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