In Patriotic Grace author Peggy Noonan observed that the proliferation of news media has divided us. The growth in sources of information has not made us better informed, and certainly has not made us wiser. Low priced pocket computers bring the accumulated knowledge of mankind on command to nearly everyone and provides a global microphone to anyone; both use it poorly.
In the 70’s we all watched the same news shows on the three television networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) and we all read one of a handful of similar news magazines (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report). We had the same information and while our opinions varied, they lacked the hostility that dominates the tone today. The daily local papers that unified the local communities are rapidly disappearing.
CNN introduced 24-hour news and cable greatly expanded the number of networks. Competition for viewers affected the marketing strategies of networks. The internet, blogs, and social media expanded the market in multiples.
We no longer share common narratives. In a saturated market we sort our offerings based on confirmation, not information. Conservatives watch Fox News and liberals watch MSNBC. Both sides think they own the truth, and demonize the others as ignorant, immoral, or pathological. The obsession with facts and lies obscures understanding and greater truths. Denying the validity of an opposing view relieves the burden of reason and persuasion.
Fox is not competing with MSNBC for viewers who want to be informed; it is competing with right leaning blogs, magazines and news sources for eyeballs and time. The same is true for left leaning sources.
Social media is rife with memes aiming to incite while claiming to inform. A piece of the truth can be more misleading than all of a lie, and facts can be carefully arranged to misrepresent the truth. In the face of irrefutable facts, we can still reach the wrong conclusion.
We lost understanding as we moved from information to confirmation, and we have lost civility as we moved from confirmation to outrage.
I have indulged in this descent. I am quick to post the unravelling of Jussie Smollet’s fraud, to place it in the context of an epidemic of hate crime frauds, and to analyze it as a distorted view of our society that neatly fits the narratives of people I strongly disagree with.
I shared a disproportionate number of posts on the blatant anti-Semitism of Ilhan Omar, and the moral vacuum the Democrats occupy when they cannot hold her accountable without diluting her anti-Semitism with every other hatred and refusing to hold her personally accountable for her words.
Outrage, however, will not change anyone’s mind. Democrats rationalize their transgressions away just as Republicans reframe or minimize the words and actions of Trump. She is just a minority and not representative of the party. Jussie Smollet was just an outlier (he wasn’t). Like Republicans they engage in ‘what aboutism’, never apologizing without pointing out worse transgressions on the other side.
To paraphrase George Bush, we judge ourselves by our best intentions and the opposition by their worst examples.
Outrage has replaced confirmation and information as the objective of modern journalism and social media. It is exhausting. It drowns out ideas, nuances and understanding.
How then does one separate reaction to egregious behavior such as Smollet and Omar from outrage? It is probably a question of scale. If you are perpetually outraged it is becoming a choice and not just a reaction. If you minimize such behaviors on your side and never miss one on the other side outrage is just a loud form of bias.