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The New Media Echo Chamber

We gravitate to websites that reinforce our own opinions. Does that make us more extreme?

by
Josh Strawn

Bio

October 27, 2008 - 12:19 am
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If you’re a Republican, chances are nine out of ten I can tell you what you believe. You believe McCain knows Iraq and Iran better than Obama; you believe McCain’s DC drop-in was sincere and/or clever; and you believe Sarah Palin is sharp, energizing, and pithy. You believe Barack Obama is arrogant, is wet behind the ears, has no talent but for speech delivery, and possesses no sense of the existential dangers we face.

You believe the MSM is practically campaigning for a Marxist who doesn’t believe the surge worked when it obviously has, and that it is unfairly hounding a great woman of promise and principle. America, being a center-right nation, won’t fail to elect Obama because he is black; they won’t elect him because he is a threat to stability in uncertain times. You read Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Hugh Hewitt with delight and have fashioned a dartboard out of Keith Olbermann’s picture.

That was easy enough, though it’s just as easy with Democrats.

If you’re a Democrat, you believe that anybody who could possibly vote for John McCain is either a moron or a near-fascist. You believe that Sarah Palin is a threat not only to women who want reproductive rights, but to sleeping children and cute baby moose everywhere. You believe that Obama is a brilliant man, anti-war, and above the lowliness of Chicago or national electioneering. He should be elected both because he transcends race and because he’s half black. He understands the world as it is. You think that he could only lose because of deep-seated racism in America.

You believe the MSM is fundamentally committed to maintaining the corporate elite’s status quo and setting the parameters of argument. You believe the perceived liberal bias aids this by setting novel ideas that challenge the status quo beyond the pale of acceptable conversation (you have a friend who actually took the time to read Manufacturing Consent that told you so). You read E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan (gay and pro-Obama balances out the conservative part), Bob Herbert and swoon, and made your Bill O’Reilly dartboard so long ago, it’s gotten lost somewhere underneath your collection of magazines bearing Obama’s stately portrait.

It’s all way too easy. It shouldn’t be.

The media majority

There are now about a billion books and articles one can read about how new media is destroying objectivity and critical thinking, but once you’ve done so, you can go to your computer, open up your favorite websites, and, to the exclusion of all those you routinely exclude, read all your favorite commentators. Those people have jobs and a name for one basic reason: they are suited to the new media environment.

Ideologues and fervent party-liners make Real Clear Politics roundups a must-read every single day. Real Clear Politics provides the vital service of allowing us to see the best cross-section of what the national opinion-makers are saying. It isn’t their fault that the opinion-makers are who they are or operate the way they do.

The great advantage of a site like RCP is that you can see articles from The Nation and Mother Jones alongside those from National Review and the Weekly Standard. But it’s easy to sift through. An Obama supporter, opening RCP on Monday, September 29, can spot the headlines “Obama Holds His Own on Foreign Policy” and “The Era of Obama Begins” and go directly to those. Excluding “How McCain Wins” and “McCain Controlled Agenda in First Debate” is simple.

Whose fault is this? Is it the reader’s, for being selective in the way he or she builds a warm cocoon of affirming, non-threatening opinions? Or is it the fault of the opinion-makers for being so predictably and blindly partisan? This is a harder question to answer. Spending just one week reading every single article on RCP will yield the ability for any modestly intelligent person to do precisely what was done at the beginning of this piece: name the party lines, one by one, and the names of the people that extol them.

On the other hand, one need only perform the trusty “evidence against interest” test on any of the prominent talking heads in the information business to discover that almost no one ever passes. What are the chances that Norman Podhoretz at Commentary will be offering any honest appraisal of the strengths of Barack Obama and his campaign? About the same as the chances that Justin Raimondo of Anti-war.com will be telling us what he thinks the Bush administration has done well during the last eight years. But that’s not their job, one might argue. Fair enough, but then whose job is it?

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