Monday, March 11, 2013

Partisan media

Jana Birchum/Austin Chronicle
Rachel Maddow was in Austin yesterday mostly talking about her book Drift, which explains how the U.S. military has become so divorced from the rest of society that most of us no longer feel the consequences of wars. I wouldn't say this topic quite captured the spirit of the techie crowd here, most of whom would probably have been curious to hear more about Rachel Maddow's views on the use of social media, or on the future of cable news vs. radio vs. the web, but this was also mainly an audience of fans, so they were happy to listen to a history lesson.

Maddow is a true policy wonk. In addition to a summary of her book's thesis, she offered some interesting political analysis, especially about the current state of the Republican Party, and whether it will be able to reconcile its internal conflicts and emerge as a strong alternative to the Democrats. That was all ok with me, since I'm more of a policy wonk than a techie myself. I was interested to hear that Maddow wishes that more Republicans would come on her show, and that she would like to see Republicans make more cogent arguments than most of the ones we are used to hearing, since I agree with her that improving the quality of political debate is likely to lead to better policy decisions.

And speaking of partisan media, of which most people consider Rachel Maddow and MSNBC to be an example, I attended another panel today of journalists and political science professors who argued that partisan media is probably not as bad a thing as we have been led to believe. For one reason, the people who are fans of the most partisan outlets comprise a fairly small share of the public. Most Americans, surprisingly enough given that we are portrayed as bitterly divided politically, are not as far apart as conventional wisdom suggests. Most agree, for example, on moderate positions on issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage, to immigration.

Moreover, it may not be that partisan news sources cause people to become more narrow-minded, as much as it is that people who watch openly partisan sources probably gravitate toward those sources because they confirm what those people already believe. The morals here are that we all ought to expose ourselves to a spectrum of opinions; and that journalists should probably worry more about being accurate than about being partisan. Complete objectivity in news reporting is probably not possible, but if reporters are aware of their own biases, and check the stories that confirm their biases as carefully as they check the stories that run counter to their biases, we'll be all right.


  1. "I'm more of a policy wonk"

    That is what I have been saying for years :)

    Glad to hear you are out of the closet!

    1. What I said is that I'm more of a wonk than a techie.

    2. Nonsense. You are as wonky as they come.

  2. I don't follow her or any of the ridiculous newsmedia outlets, but chances are that if she's like all the other Democrats and Republicans, it doesn't matter how cogent the opposing argument is.

    What I've discovered in my relatively short time blogging is that you cna present the most logically sound argument, complete with statistical data that backs up just about everything you say, and people will still drop by just to tell you "you're wrong," and hardly ever explain why they think you're wrong.

    They'll even go so far as to say that "history" and "the facts" are against me, but they hardly ever present any examples. And if they do present an historical example, it's usually way out of context or blatantly ignoring key factors. If it's a statistical example, it's usually a study done by some group that has a clear policy goal in mind.

    But I'm the crazy one, because I look at the raw statistical data. I'm the narrow-minded fool because I consider all the factors that surround a particular event/period in history.

    You're right, Joe. These partisan newsmedia outlets have made people less open-minded, so much so that they will blatantly ignore bold-faced facts in order to maintain their worldview. People would rather be comfortably wrong and uncomfortably right.


    1. Psychological research tells us that even when people are using the rational part of their brain, they are mostly using it to justify the conclusions they have already reached. So when you present data that seems to be at odds with somebody's position or feeling about an issue, all that does is force them to work a little harder to try to refute what you or saying, or to somehow block it out. Opening people's minds to new ideas is very difficult.

  3. Jack, you are part of the solution. Major props to you.