Jun 242009
 

It was posted almost ten days ago, but I just came across an interesting article by Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times.

In it, Ebert examines the bully-style tactics of Bill O’Reilly and how he, and other “news” figures like him are changing the way people not only receive their information, but the information itself.

I am not interested in discussing O’Reilly’s politics here. That would open a hornet’s nest. I am more concerned about the danger he and others like him represent to a civil and peaceful society. He sets a harmful example of acceptable public behavior. He has been an influence on the most worrying trend in the field of news: The polarization of opinion, the elevation of emotional temperature, the predictability of two of the leading cable news channels. A majority of cable news viewers now get their news slanted one way or the other by angry men. O’Reilly is not the worst offender. That would be Glenn Beck. Keith Olbermann is gaining ground. Rachel Maddow provides an admirable example for the boys of firm, passionate outrage, and is more effective for nogt shouting.

Ebert goes on to decry the way radio and television have changed — which struck me as a comment on “the good ol’ days” that I have no sympathy for — but his analysis of O’Reilly, and others like him, is spot on. The bottom line, in Ebert’s mind, is that the polarization in the media has to stop. I would have to agree.

  • Colin Corneau

    I think any rational person finds the ‘shouting head’ style of information programming repellent. Not to mention the fact that it’s clearly dangerous for a civilized, well-informed and enlightened democracy.

    Not sure why you have no sympathy for the “good old days” since they at least represented a more civilized and decent style of conversation. (and that was the context it was mentioned in). Not everyone over the age of 25 is to be distrusted, yanno…just the shouters. 8^)

  • http://www.absurdintellectual.com/ Amy Breen

    I wouldn’t say in every case it represents a “more civilized and decent style of conversation.” I’m sure there were shouters in the past as well.

    What I mean, I guess, is that I dislike it when people of a certain generation think this generation has nothing going for it, and assumes that the past was better. It’s not better, or necessarily worse, just different.

  • Matt Goerzen

    I guess it simply comes down to point of view. If we take perhaps a different example, such as architecture, I would venture to say that the two Borg-style Crane Steel structures going up on Pacific Avenue would not represent the height of Western culture, taste, and aesthetic appeal. Many buildings going up in the city these days are similarly devoid of imagination.

    Yet they are very efficient, functional, cheaper, and entirely different from the styles of architecture that have come in the past.

    If I say that the city’s architecture of 70 to 100 years earlier was more creative and more beautiful — essentially “better” — than today’s construction methods, am I equating myself with the Second World War generation? I don’t think so. It’s just my preference.

    Yeah, there will always be those who wear rose-coloured glassed when they look into the past. But I’d warn against assuming older generations are wrong, just because they’re old.

    As for whether there were shouters in the past, I would say of course there were. But they didn’t hold anchor positions on CBS, ABC or CBC or NBC. Anchors (I can’t call them news people) like those on Fox are a whole new animal.

  • http://www.absurdintellectual.com/ Grant Hamilton

    Polarization of the news, although it is recent, is not new — I’m thinking of the old days of yellow journalism around 1900, for example. It had a similar style of demonizing one’s opponent through shouting and shameless self-promotion, and a similar effect of driving up ratings (or circulation) and a similar unhealthiness in society.

    This seemed to go away for a time post-WW2, in what they call the “Golden Age” of journalism.

    Now it’s back, but on TV and the internet. Why? I wonder if it’s because of the increasing fragmentation of the media universe. Why were there some outrageous newspapers in the days of yellow journalism? Because there were so damn many of them — you had to be loud, obnoxious and polarizing to get noticed. Cue the O’Reillys of the world, who are competing with hundreds of TV stations (there used to be just three networks) and countless online sources. Every kid knows that bad behaviour is the easiest way to get attention.

    It’s just too bad that some kids never seem to grow up.

  • Colin Corneau

    Interesting take, Grant.

    I think the main difference now is, while the landscape certainly is fragmented and multi-faceted, the idiot screamers have a far greater reach than they ever did before – due to technology and a closer alliance with a political party than even back in the ‘yellow journalism’ days of yore.

    FOX News is essentially the mouthpiece propaganda arm of the US Republican party. (Calling Michelle Obama “Barack’s baby mama” was a particularly odious example of this by way of proof).

    This greater reach is what makes these people much more dangerous than at any point in the past, IMO. A world where the majority of voters are both dumb and angry is a nightmare scenario.

  • http://www.absurdintellectual.com/ Grant Hamilton

    Sure, they have greater reach and more people hear them than ever before, but do more people listen to them? I don’t know, but I think it would be arguable — perhaps they have greater reach but much less influence.

    Think of it this way — in the 1940s, literally the only source of news for most people would have been their daily newspaper. Maybe they listened to the radio, but for reporting and information, nothing could touch the newspaper. If you were interested in alternative points of view, you had to hope that you lived in an area with multiple newspapers or that your newspaper wanted to carry a broad range of opinions.

    Now, it is much easier for everyone to get the Fox News broadcast — either on TV or online — just as it’s much easier for anyone to read the newspaper of their choosing or even to watch English-language Al-Jazeera.

    Most people will, for better or worse, seek out news that confirms their already preconceived biases. But, in looking for that, they’re constantly exposed to multiple sources of news and multiple points of view. Sure, maybe O’Reilly has a huge audience. But they’re not listening exclusively to him anymore.

    Re: your last paragraph — I see where you’re going, and I understand and agree, but my nightmare scenario is not dumb, angry voters, but dumb, angry revolutionary mobs.

  • MPot

    Nifty post and niftier discussion.

    “I think any rational person finds the ’shouting head’ style of information programming repellent. Not to mention the fact that it’s clearly dangerous for a civilized, well-informed and enlightened democracy.”

    The problem is that people aren’t rational, which one learns when one’s work presupposes their rationality. ;)

    “Not sure why you have no sympathy for the “good old days” since they at least represented a more civilized and decent style of conversation. (and that was the context it was mentioned in). Not everyone over the age of 25 is to be distrusted, yanno…just the shouters. 8^)”

    Hear hear! Yet . . . I spent many months reading newspaper articles, editorials and letters from the 1900s to 1930s and, let me tell you, civilized conversation was naught to be found. The insults were more euphemistic in the best papers, but they were still there.

    “What I mean, I guess, is that I dislike it when people of a certain generation think this generation has nothing going for it, and assumes that the past was better. It’s not better, or necessarily worse, just different.”

    I agree with Amy perhaps more than Colin here. If we took seriously each egneration’s denigration of the generations that followed it (and if we were amenable to generation theory in the first place), we’d have to conclude that at some point in the not-too-historically-distant past human beings were omniscient, omnibenevolent, ultracivilized demigods whom none of us may equal.

    That doesn’t mean we assume older generations are wrong just because they’re old. It means we conclude they’re wrong because the attitude in question implies a logical and empirical absurdity. Much better!

    “Why were there some outrageous newspapers in the days of yellow journalism? Because there were so damn many of them — you had to be loud, obnoxious and polarizing to get noticed. Cue the O’Reillys of the world, who are competing with hundreds of TV stations (there used to be just three networks) and countless online sources. Every kid knows that bad behaviour is the easiest way to get attention.”

    and

    “I think the main difference now is, while the landscape certainly is fragmented and multi-faceted, the idiot screamers have a far greater reach than they ever did before – due to technology and a closer alliance with a political party than even back in the ‘yellow journalism’ days of yore.”

    Excellent points!

    “This greater reach is what makes these people much more dangerous than at any point in the past, IMO. A world where the majority of voters are both dumb and angry is a nightmare scenario.”

    Intriguing. I think voters have always been fairly dumb (democracy requires it, and since Lippmann that’s been recognized and exploited pretty effectively), but perhaps it’s the addition of anger that makes the situation especially dangerous. You’re on to something, IMHO.

    “my nightmare scenario is not dumb, angry voters, but dumb, angry revolutionary mobs.”

    Perhaps that’s what the angry voters could become?

    “Sure, they have greater reach and more people hear them than ever before, but do more people listen to them? I don’t know, but I think it would be arguable — perhaps they have greater reach but much less influence.”

    I agree with the claim, but perhaps it doesn’t matter whether any one LAB (loud angry bastard) is accepted as Mr. Authority if the chorus of them is all screaming the same basic messages. They certainly seem to be.

    As Chomsky has been demonstrating for years, the differences between the political parties and their affiliated media are less significant than their similarities. That seems to be especially true now — whereas I’d thought the internet would add more perspectives to the mix, it seems to have increased the polarization. Now every follower uses his voice to echo his master, and the masters fall into the same basic categories. The effect seems to be an amplification of narrow, polarized points of view.

    (Yes, I’m aware all of my gendered sentences are male. :) )

  • Colin Corneau

    One interesting thing is happening in media lately — the more channels that proliferate, the more people adhere to their preconceived points-of-view.

    One of the scariest ideas about people hand-picking their news online is that they’ll only choose what already interests them. And you can only slurp your own bathwater for so long before it gets unhealthy.

    And that’s just another reason why the Bill O’Lie-ly’s and Glenn Becks of the world are so dangerous. Sure, the cultural and demographic pendulum is swinging away from the narrow, angry far-right mindset (for now) — but considering California, of all places, just voted down gay rights in Prop. 8 I’d say rational thought isn’t out of the woods just yet.

    People like those two constantly need an Enemy. They always have to be demonizing someone, and that alone — regardless of their influence — is what’s so alarming. Fascism starts with such thinking.
    And the only antidote to that type of thinking is stop people from barricading themselves into their narrow confines – to remind them that civilized discourse is what really makes democracy work…not slaying an endless parade of imagined enemies.

  • Colin Corneau

    I knew I had this quote somewhere…finally found it:

    “Just because your voice carries halfway around the world doesn’t make you any wiser than when it carried only to the end of the bar.”
    – Edward R. Murrow