Press-Republican

December 9, 2012

Multiple options in media varies political views

Stewart A. Denenberg, Technology and Society
Press-Republican

— I enjoyed Colin Read’s Nov. 4 Press-Republican column where he points out that technology has contributed to a vanishing centrist view in politics. 

In the past, when newspapers were the main delivery medium for news, editors had to be careful not to skew the facts too far to the right or the left as the readers were sure to contain citizens of both persuasions. As a result, the news was nudged toward the middle of the political road if, for no other reason, it would outrage fewer readers and was certainly the best choice in terms of the bottom line.

Now most everyone has the Internet and cable TV, both of which can provide the type and slant of news most any individual desires. In addition to cooking, pet and golf channels, Fox caters to the right, and MSNBC is left of center. This tends to polarize the politics of our nation and could certainly be a significant cause of our gridlocked government that, like the weather, everyone complains about, but no one seems to be able to change.

However, that said, I must respectfully (there’s a word you don’t hear very often anymore) disagree with my colleague. Newspapers, even in their heyday, were divided into right, left and center politically in their editorials and even their choice of headlines. I recall back in the ‘60s, a headline from the Manchester Union Leader stating: “UN Mercenaries Invade Congo.” Of course, this was the opinion of the owner (Loeb) of the publication, but the people who regularly purchased this paper were also the choir he was preaching to. This seems very similar to what Fox and MSNBC are doing when they broadcast the opinions of Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. Actually, Fox and MSNBC are being more intellectually honest and transparent with us as they do not claim that Hannity and Maddow are newscasters but are merely commentators. And as commentators, they can vent their biases to their bases rather freely. The issue is, however, when you sit down for a meal, do you want your soup with one flavor overpowering all of the others or would you rather they all work to complement each other?

It’s debatable whether the “good old days” when the Fourth Estate (i.e. newspapers) picked which news was worth reporting was better than the cornucopia of TV channels and Internet (includes newspapers) sites that are currently available. If I have to choose between the elite few publishers who decide what news is and the delicious diversity of offerings on the Internet, on the whole, I have to go with the choice that maximizes my choice. I think it’s better to have too much choice than not enough even though there are times when too much choice seems overwhelming — like shopping in a super-duper market for cereals. In fact, some think that this overabundance of choice contributes to the sense of ennui and irony of our age.

Unfortunately, having an abundance of choices does not necessarily mean we will use them wisely. Sites that analyze Twitter feeds clearly show that visitors to conservative and liberal websites do not overlap very much at all; if you are a conservative, you visit mostly conservative websites, and liberals visit liberal websites. One would hope that a plethora of information would inform the populace and promote toleration of other’s viewpoints but, sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Instead of tolerance, we get arrogance and righteousness that leads to insularity and polarization. And although it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “A friend is one who has the same enemies as you have,” we must ask ourselves: Are we all in this together, or are we not? Sulking in our enclaves is not only counterproductive, it is just plain childish.

Maybe we can find some ironic solace in the message from Kahlil Gibran: “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.” If we could just follow his example but learn instead to be grateful to those teachers, I’m sure the world would be better for it.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at denenbsa@gmail.com.