On Friday I found this piece in the Times: It’s Not Just Political Districts. Our News Is Gerrymandered, Too. I felt challenged by it and wanted to think through a response. There seems to be two different issues. One is not seeing the full picture. The other is that much of the news these days is delivered in a shrill manner. Certitude has replaced reasoning based on evidence. Listeners/viewers/readers start to imitate the pundits they follow. Have I fallen into the trap on both counts, at least as far as thinking about our national politics?
I tend to read a lot of opinion pieces, much less straight news. I want analysis more than I want facts. I produce my own analysis, quite frequently. It is what I do, who I am. I need fodder for that. The analysis of others provides a point of departure. So let's note that while the Washington Post in the linked piece is characterized as overly liberal (by Antonin Scalia), they do have George Will, Michael Gerson, Charles Krauthammer, and other conservative columnists. Likewise, the Times has Ross Douthat and David Brooks, though Brooks is on book leave now.
Way back when I used to read the Sunday Times in paper form for hours - before, during, and after brunch, usually at the pancake house. I'd give the daily paper a decent read as well (not counting the crossword puzzle, but I'm harking back to when Maleska did that since at the time I did that too). I would dutifully read William Safire, not liking his regular columns, sometimes liking his On Language pieces, but reading through to the conclusion in any event. I had more patience then or was more willing to surrender my own thoughts to those of the writer.
It is different now. I am unsure of the causes. I read the paper online at my computer. That is one factor. I am less in awe of the pundits now, viewing them more as peers than as superior life forms. With my own regular blogging, I compare my writing to theirs. They obviously are exposed to a lot of information that I don't have. But on the analysis front, I can hold my own. Indeed, it often seems that polemic substitutes for analysis. (To be fair, this is also true with liberal pundits, Tom Friedman in particular.) It is why about a year ago I announced I was Taking a Sabbatical from David Brooks. Who needs the aggravation? And then it is the news itself, that it seems so depressing or idiotic. We appear hell bent on shooting ourselves in the foot. In desperate times, that can be a rational act. When it is the shooting ourselves in the foot which is the cause of the desperation, however, there is no apparent rationality. In the presence of madness, analysis is not helpful. It is replaced by a macabre fascination with the latest on the Debt Ceiling standoff. It's like watching Rollerball.
I have been tuning out more. I used to be a regular with the NewsHour. Now I hardly watch it. During the last election season, when they would have a Tea Party spokesman on the show, they would let that person give a canned response that didn't address the questions the interviewer asked. I stopped being able to listen to it. And between the aftermath of of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the gridlock between Israel and the Palestinians, and the chaos and horror in Syria, ignorance may not be bliss but being informed is definitely demoralizing. So the sense I used to have of needing to understand things in a balanced way has been gradually eroding.
I have come to greatly respect the writing and analysis of Thomas Edsall. He is the one commentator I know who is interested in depth of analysis by soliciting multiple perspectives on issues, submerging his own voice perhaps in an attempt to let others speak their views. He sets a very high bar, one I'm afraid I can't get over myself. I do want to note that he writes only one (rather lengthy) column a week. Perhaps there is a lesson in that. If there is a need for more thoughtfulness in opinion writing, and to distance it more from the twenty four hour news cycle, maybe other columnists should also be asked to write less frequently.
There is then the question whether I need to go outside the umbrella of the Washington Post and the New York Times and see what conservative pundits write when on their own turf. Immediately after reading It's Not Just Political Districts...., the guilt feelings start to escalate so I do some Google searches on names I am familiar with. From this I learned that William Kristol was fired from the Times (at the time I assumed he had simply had enough of writing for a non-conservative audience), with the cause not his extreme views but that he didn't do his homework in writing his columns. I next searched for Yuval Levin, but was disappointed to discover that his most recent pieces for National Affairs dates back to 2011. So I went to the National Affairs main page and found a piece Conservative Health-Care Reform: A Reality Check. I start to read it. Very soon, it begins to discuss market based reforms. I stop right there. The health-care market is characterized by market failure. Robert Frank has a nice column from last summer that explains why. I can't read through stuff that seems fundamentally flawed at the outset. Then I do a search on Rich Lowry. His posts seem like a hatchet job. If he were simply a columnist for the National Review (I learned he is a columnist for Politico) then this would be fair game. Paul Krugman's posts are often hatchet jobs. But Krugman is not the editor of the New York Times. Lowry is the editor of National Review. When the editor does hatchet jobs, what can you expect from the rest of the periodical?
So I stopped. The guilt feelings had subsided. I came to the realization that yes, I may be narrowing my perspective and becoming less thoughtful about national politics. But preserving my personal equilibrium is more important. If sanity is ever restored to our national discourse, I will resume where I left off.