Monday, June 26, 2017

Wrong About Everything

Matthew Continetti at The Washington Free Beacon has some sage advice for consumers of news in our hyper-politicized, hyper-partisan media culture.

He writes:
Events are turning me into a radical skeptic. I no longer believe what I read, unless what I am reading is an empirically verifiable account of the past. I no longer have confidence in polls, because it has become impossible to separate the signal from the noise. What I have heard from the media and political class over the last several years has been so spectacularly proven wrong by events, again and again, that I sometimes wonder why I continue to read two newspapers a day before spending time following journalists on Twitter. Habit, I guess. A sense of professional obligation, I suppose. Maybe boredom.

The fact is that almost the entirety of what one reads in the paper or on the web is speculation. The writer isn't telling you what happened, he is offering an interpretation of what happened, or offering a projection of the future. The best scenario is that these theories are novel, compelling, informed, and based on reporting and research. But that is rarely the case. More often the interpretations of current events, and prophesies of future ones, are merely the products of groupthink, or dogma, or emotions, or wish-casting, memos to friends written by 27-year-olds who, in the words of Ben Rhodes, "literally know nothing." There was a time when newspapers printed astrology columns. They no longer need to. The pseudoscience is on the front page.
There's much more of interest in Continetti's column at the link and I encourage you to read it. For my part, I think he's right, even though I suppose what he says could apply to Viewpoint as much as any other blog. The difference is, I think, that this blog is clearly a platform for opinions, not news, and I don't pretend it's anything else.

In any case, I don't think we should give up on trying to be informed by our media, but we do need to be very critical readers, viewers and listeners. This is especially the case if we get our information from cable news shows and talk radio. Not every show on either of these venues is overly biased, but both are populated with programming and personalities who are committed advocates of a particular ideology. Even when I think the people I'm listening to are correct in what they're saying I'm often dismayed by the manner in which they say it.

For just one example, hosts on both left and right on television and radio will make criticisms of their opponents (i.e. Trump or Obama) which could just as well apply to their preferred heroes (i.e. Trump or Obama) whom they wouldn't dream of criticizing. This is not only tendentious, it seriously diminishes their credibility, not to mention that it makes it extremely hard to refrain from turning them off in disgust.

On occasion hosts on one of these venues will have someone of a contrary viewpoint on their program, but they'll frequently step all over their guest, interrupting and talking over the guest, to prevent him or her from being heard. Chris Matthews at MSNBC and Sean Hannity at Fox are particularly egregious examples of the type.

It's probably a good rule of thumb whenever we read or hear some personality make a criticism of someone to ask oneself what evidence they're offering to buttress the criticism, and does the criticism they're making apply with equal force to their own political champions. If the answers to those questions are "not much" and "yes." then tune them out. They're not informing you, they're propagandizing you.

Continetti closes his piece with a quote from the late Michael Crichton: "Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts. We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It's not sensible to listen to it."

Sadly, for much of the media - and not just cable and talk radio, either - this is good advice.