No Editors? Oh Noes!

by Brien Jackson

I don’t know what it is about Nicholas Kristof these days, but it seems he can’t write a column without a rudimentary logical fallacy or a laughable “look at me” premise these days. His latest is nothing more than a rehashing of the old “we tell you what’s important” meme:

When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

In other words, left to our own devices, we’ll seek out information on issues that are important to us, which in the aggregate will define the political issues of the day. This is bad because it upsets the delicate balance of traditional media by which people like Nicholas Kristof decide what issues are important, and spend their time trying to convince us that we ought to care about the President getting a blow job Very Serious Issues. Pardon me while I guffaw heartily.

What’s rather odd is that Kristol then goes on to take this conclusion to yet again misrepresent pieces of evidence to support his argument in abjectly silly ways.

The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.

Almost half of Americans now live in counties that vote in landslides either for Democrats or for Republicans, he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, in similarly competitive national elections, only about one-third lived in landslide counties.

On a more general note, this is probably the single most annoying characteristic of Kristof’s writing. He simply takes a coupld of observations that are true indepently and casually puts them together in a way that supports his argument, but is manifestly absurd at the same time. To wit, yes, America, and American political parties are more homogenized now then they were in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and there’s actually a pretty widely accepted theory for why this is; the 1960’s and 1970’s were a uniquely odd period in American history. Crudely speaking, the multitude of cultural issues, most notably civil rights and Vietnam, that dominated this era largely demolished the old New Deal era political coalitions. The Civil Rights Act, for example, was passed with mostly liberal-progressive Democrats and Northeastern, socially moderate/liberal Republicans supporting it and traditional Southern Democrats and right-wing Goldwater Republicans opposing it. And while this might be nirvana for David Broder, most political observers would agree that you can’t really sustain political coalitions with such stark disagreements on major issues, and we didn’t. The next 20-30 years were largely marked by the reshuffling of our political coalitions which, broadly, saw the Southern Dixiecrats move to the Republican Party and the old Northeastern Republicans join the Democratic coalition. The results were, in fact, much more homogenous opinions within the parties, but that’s sort of what you would expect a political coalition to look like. Kristof’s mistake is to assume, out of hand, that these shifts in partisan identification indicate an actual ideological hardening. And, of course, not being familiar with a very common interpretation of this in the political science field.

If only he had a highly paid professional editor to keep him from making such a basic mistake.