Polarized News, For Better and Worse

Newsweek’s cover shocker feels like desperate cry from a dying icon. The magazine long ago discredited itself as a common national source for news, taking leftist opinion-reporting to unprecedented extremes. This brief reversal will be too little, too late for conservatives, merely confirming that Newsweek has lost its bearings. General interest news magazines are so much a thing of the past that serial partisanship is what passes for neutrality now.

What does it all mean? Are we better off now that partisanship is everywhere and increasingly out in the open? Or is the looming disappearance of the non-partisan journalistic ideal a tragic loss? The answer is a little of both.

There was a time when journalists made a point of describing arguments and eliciting quotes from both sides of the aisle. Increasingly, that practice is dying. When big media was forced to carry Newt Gingrich’s speech live after his victory in the South Carolina primary, for example, there came a flood of articles the next day knocking his claim that President Obama is guided by the radicalism of Saul Alinsky. You couldn’t tell the difference between the news stories and the opinion articles. (I dissect this case in Spreading the Wealth.) Increasingly, if you want a clear description of the beliefs of conservatives and liberals on a given issue, you won’t be able to find it in the “mainstream” press.

At one level, this is a serious loss. The classic vision of liberal democracy set forth by John Stuart Mill says that good government depends upon striking the right balance between the legitimate claims of both conservatives and liberals. Each side holds necessary truths, Mill believed, and pressure from the arguments of each winnows and hones the arguments of the other.

Increasingly, we risk losing that challenge and that balance. The signs of intractable polarization are everywhere. David French has sketched out the worst-case scenario from a conservative point of view: the force-feeding of liberal ideas to conservatives from a one-sided culture, with growing liberal hatred against conservatives as the outcome.

There are signs of a more positive side to our polarized politics, however. I’m thinking of the growing popularity of RealClearPolitics, and of sites like Memeorandum. RealClearPolitics makes a specialty out of pairing left and right takes on the same issue. If you’re willing to click both sides, it makes for riveting reading. Surely this is the key to the site’s popularity. Memorandum gives instant access to left/right takes on the same news stories as they appear. It’s the perfect realtime gateway to the state of our national debate.

Arguably, it’s better to read two informed and frankly partisan takes on the same issue or story at RealClearPolitics or Memeorandum than to pick through the sort of brief and breezy versions of the same debates that used to be offered up on traditional general-interest news magazines. The downside is that readers of the old news magazines couldn’t avoid taking in something from both sides of the argument, while folks today have got to click to get the debate. Yet many people do seek out debate, and surely this is why RealClearPolitics flourishes.

With the mainstream press overwhelming liberal and more openly partisan by the day, we are still in trouble. Yet a desperate media is shrinking, while aggregation sites with real diversity grow in popularity. The glass is both half-full and half-empty. With the 2012 election cementing the media’s reputation for bias, more changes are surely in store.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz graduated from Haverford College and holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University. He did his field work in India and taught at Harvard and the University ...

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