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The disappearing balance


Call it the "Amazon Effect."

I'm seeing considerable evidence among individual Americans of a polarization of opinion and a narrowing of the knowledge base.

One causality is computerized marketing. Instead of relying on objective reporting from professional news media, people can remain confined to their cattle chutes.

Select a book from Amazon.com and it offers you other books under the heading of "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought …" Click on a book by conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin and your helpful algorithm suggests books by conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, over-the-top television personality Glenn Beck, conservative author-pollster-commentator Dick Morris, bomb-throwing columnist Ann Coulter, former vice presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Sarah Palin and George W. Bush's chief adviser, Karl Rove. Type in the name of any liberal writer and you get the obverse of the coin.

Even music seller iTunes has the Genius sidebar. Select a song in your collection and it tempts your credit card. If you like Diana Krall, why, you'll love Eliane Elias, the Ray Brown Trio, Diane Shuur and Jane Monheit. An obscure Celtic band from San Diego stumps the machine.

People are too easily tempted to stay within a comfortable, narrow space, unexposed to different tastes or contrary arguments and viewpoints. I offer the jury as Exhibit 1 an Associated Press story published Thursday. While the headline noted President Barack Obama's approval rating has slipped to 49 percent, down toward the bottom was the tattletale paragraph: 87 percent of Democrats approved of his job performance, 88 percent of Republicans disapproved, and independents were split. That's about as polarized as it gets.

The opening speaker at this past week's convention of the American Society of News Editors -- formerly Newspaper Editors -- is one of the gurus of computer-age marketing, Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive officer of the ubiquitous Google.

Schmidt was making a passing reference to this remember-me-and-show-me-what-I-like technology when he mentioned something I'd not heard before. It should've been obvious. For every synonym there is an antonym. It makes no difference to the machine.

The Google guy noted that, when people have been given an option of "show me an opposing view," two-thirds would not look at it.

Though many in journalism view Schmidt's aggregating software as a thief of their intellectual property, he professes quite convincingly to be a champion of the profession, saying he reads the printed versions of three newspapers a day. "I am convinced," he said, "high-quality journalism will triumph. It is the only way to run a democracy."

The question is merely how to pay for it.

But it is hard to be heard in the cacophony of the information bazaar. According to Schmidt, from the dawn of human history to 2003 about 5 exabytes (a billion gigabytes) of information was created. He said we now generate that amount every two days. Google makes money sorting it all.

Schmidt also said, of the so-called news reporting in all those bytes, fully 80 percent of stories contain no original content. Of the remaining 20 percent, half come from newspapers.

How do we separate the wheat from the chaff, Google dude?

As for that Amazon Effect, at least I'm not blindered mentally, like the global warming alarmists who think the temperature in their own lifetime is the normal, the correct, the ideal.

Objective news reporting -- or at least the goal of objectivity -- is only a century old. Before that, the press was unabashedly partisan. The change was borne not of altruism. It was the child of the penny press.

The newspaper business model changed from being dependent on government printing contracts and political party handouts to one of being supported by advertisers, whose customers paid the same for a pair of shoes no matter which party they embraced. So why alienate half of your potential customers with partisanship? The newspaper that delivered the highest readership fetched the highest advertising dollar.

With the recession and Internet interlopers stealing reporters' copy for repurposing, regurgitating and rehashing, the newspaper business model may be due for a few changes, again.

When I asked Schmidt at the end of the program about this Amazon Effect, all he could do was shrug and concede that it is hard to change people's minds if they take no heed, but at least one-third of people are still receptive.

That computer marketing algorithm may not be the sole cause of polarization, but it is an enabler.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.

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