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The News Media’s Platonic Cave

We sit enraptured while they show us shadows on the wall. But that's no excuse for tuning out entirely.
Cable news

You don’t have to read the news. But you should.

The latter is easier said than done though. Following the news has gotten increasingly complicated, depressing, and confusing over the past decade. It’s become difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. (How important are the Oscars in the scheme of things? Do I have to follow the latest news on Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels? Is it important to know Jeff Bezos’ net worth?)

It’s difficult to determine the best methods for absorbing and analyzing news as well: we wonder whether reading the newspaper, listening to podcasts, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook feeds, catching up with Hugh Hewitt, or watching Wolf Blitzer will give us the most interesting, diverse, balanced, and thoughtful range of information.

We wonder whether we are getting the whole picture. (Perhaps if we watch both Fox and MSNBC, we’ll find the truth somewhere in the middle?) We wonder what journalists and what outlets are most dedicated to giving us news without the spin. And as we survey news feeds increasingly filled with vitriol, bias, and bombast, at least some of us are tempted to tune out everything altogether—all the anger, confusion, and scandal.

Distrust of and frustration with the media is nothing new. According to Gallup, we trusted newspapers most in 1979 when 51 percent of Americans said they had a “great deal” of confidence in them. But according to FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone, the numbers have gone downhill since then—and in 2016, only 20 percent of Americans said they trusted newspapers.

First, it’s important to note that the burden for fixing this problem falls largely on the media itself: news outlets and their staffs should strive to write in thoughtful ways that transcend stereotype and cynicism. Those of us who write opinion news have an even greater responsibility in this battle. The more we vilify “the other side” or use absolutist, black-and-white terms, the more likely we are to obliterate opportunities for civil discourse and bipartisan agreement.

But readers are also responsible for how and whether they absorb this news. We must all figure out the balance between tuning out and being too tuned in.

Fostering an empathetic and civil public process requires the soft-hearted and sensitive to remain part of the conversation, to push through the vitriol and bombast with words of gentleness and persuasion. Sadly, these are exactly the sort of people most likely to be turned off by our current news cycle, and the most likely to tune it all out.

The problem is that shutting out the shouting match entirely, while it may help with peace of mind, can also have political, cultural, and social implications. It’s most important that we are invested in local news and philanthropic efforts—but what if we turn away from regional and national news altogether? Those who live in more comfortable and privileged corners of America are, in a sense, off the hook: they no longer have to read about the plight of the unemployed or the nation’s staggering (and growing) opioid crisis. They can turn a blind eye to our nation’s foster care emergency. And they can pretend that churches and associations throughout America are doing just fine, because theirs is.

Tuning out—unless it’s coupled with a very intentional effort to plug in physically and locally—can have detrimental implications.

While several thoughtful and smart people have argued in the past that the news does greater harm than good in society (Richard Weaver being perhaps one of the most prominent of those voices), I do not think we can ignore the benefits it could and should bring to our populace—especially in a world in which, like it or not, folks just aren’t reading heady philosophical or political books as much as they used to. Our introduction to the vital ideas and issues that will shape our nation and make us better citizens are most likely to come through the news. In just the past few months, columns by Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan, news articles at Vox and the New Republic, podcasts by Christianity Today and Strong Towns, have offered me thoughtful, considerate, and opinion-shifting ideas and facts. Sometimes tuning in can make us better.

But of course, staying tuned in to the wrong outlets can also have a nasty effect on our political discourse and states of mind. As one journalist told me, many of our news outlets are more focused on “narratives” than they are on stories these days. Talking heads make sure we know “the bad guys are still just as bad and the good guys still just as good,” and we emerge from an hour of news coverage more enraged than when we turned on the television.

Because of this pattern of titillation and fragmentation, Weaver compared modern news media to the Platonic cave: “the multitude sits with eyes fixed upon the wall where shadows rise and fall. The wall of shadows is the world of the ephemeral and trivial.” While the philosopher seeks to draw multitudes out of the cave and into the real world, “the function of the modern journalist is to keep the focus of the multitude upon the wall.” In this cave, Weaver wrote, the media propagates a “sick­ly metaphysical dream. The ultimate source of evaluation ceases to be the dream of beauty and truth and becomes that of psychopathia, of fragmentation, of dishar­mony and nonbeing.”

These are strong words—words that journalists should take to heart and news consumers should consider carefully. But they should not prevent us from seeking to understand the sharp and poignant issues shaping our world and nation. While some of the best authorities on our modern struggle will be found in books, there is also excellent journalism out there worth reading. The trick is finding it, amidst the 24/7 news cycle and growth of tabloid journalism.

Journalists and readers alike should ask themselves whether the pieces they write and/or read are asking the right questions, proffering a long-term view (not just a quick hot take), and sharing the opinions of smart and thoughtful people. Stories should offer a realistic and clear understanding of both sides of a debate—even if an op-ed is prejudiced towards one viewpoint, it should still strive to offer a fair picture of the opposing view. And all of us could probably do a better job of steering clear of any new medium—radio, print, television, or social media—that devolves into a shouting match or bombastic rhetoric.

News needn’t keep us trapped in the cave. But staying away from news shouldn’t mean holing up in a literal cave, away from any media influence. There’s a balance we can strive to achieve. It’s true that finding nuggets of real gold amidst the trash heap of modern news media will take some work. But I believe, in the long run, that we can be all the better for it.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.



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