Which flavor columnist do you choose?


A sociology professor appearing on a radio show the other day lamented that people get destructively distorted views of the world by insulating themselves in our newly fragmented culture and eschewing group interaction.

Indeed, we do not have many general group meeting places anymore. We tend to assemble instead in chosen niches, selecting our lives like flavors of ice cream. If you like only rocky road, then you need only to expose yourself to rocky road.

And that, the sociologist warned, can exacerbate the fragmentation and lead to political, cultural and societal dysfunction, thus imperiling the very health of our democracy.

Just because it sounds overwrought and overstated does not mean necessarily that it is.

The professor was referring to persons sitting around all day deep in their sofas watching on television or listening via radio only to the "news" and commentary they preemptively embrace on the unilateral and arbitrary presumption of truth and accuracy.

He was referring to doing so absent informed, objective and fair-minded consideration of other accounts and other points of view.

He was referring to the widespread modern insulation from in-person socialization with actual other human beings who, by communicating spontaneously outside the scripted theatrics of show-biz news and commentary, might provide amplification or perspective on whatever Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck was saying.

Or ... well, I cannot think of a liberal cable talking head right now. Oh, OK, there's that Maddow woman on that network no one watches.

Some people will think I should invoke at this point National Public Radio as a counterpoint that fragments and insulates liberals. But my observation is that NPR, by emphasizing non-screaming, well-modulated balance and thoughtfulness and depth, only seems liberal to people who are conditioned not to understand that which is thoughtful or deep or not screamed.

Actually, I was on the radio with this sociology professor -- yes, it was NPR -- and I used the opportunity of his insightful lament to suggest that people give a retro-thought to an antique. That would be a newspaper.

I suggested that this quaint print product could bring a kind of group meeting into one's home every day, providing a mostly objective presentation of news on the front page and an array of thoughtful, niche-transcending commentary on the editorial and op-ed pages.

Imagine, then, my surprise and disappointment to see that one of our most storied and influential newspapers -- The Washington Post -- had, alas, modernized its Web site and started labeling its columnists online in categories called "left-leaning" and "right-leaning."

That way, you see, you can avoid bothering to read even a syllable of what you can safely assume you will disagree with -- though not on the account of the columnist's actual well-considered text, but on account of the columnist's arbitrary categorization.

That way, you see, you can educate yourself on public policy only by your self-prescribed predilection.

That way, you see, commentary can serve only to pump agreeable adrenaline in the reader, not to encourage a pregnant pause for thinking, much less to persuade.

My favorite columnist at the Post is, or used to be, Ruth Marcus.

Those columns of hers that I remember reading and so enjoying -- such as the one about how we could have both activist government and spending reduction, invoking "deficit panda" as a metaphor preferable to "deficit hawk" -- well, I wouldn't know where to look for them anymore.

All the news that's fit to print, or so we used to say. Now it's all the opinion that we can fit into the niche.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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