Precarious Pragmatism

By Nikhil Rao

In most countries, media outlets are incredibly biased in terms of ideology, beliefs and even the tone of news reporting. Leftist news hubs tend to disdainfully view private enterprise and calls for competition while their counterparts aim to disabuse people of the notion that governments are fair, just and productive. There are reasons for as well as arguments against this schismatic system.

“Red and Blue Nation?: Characteristics And Causes of America’s Polarized Politics” edited by Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady describes the disturbing degree of political polarization in the United States and attributes many causes to them, from the vagaries of gerrymandering to other reasons that foster political brinkmanship. The current media culture can be held at least partly responsible for this. However, as the book shows, I will admit that increases in polarization are somewhat periodic in nature.

News channels and newspapers that cater to one particular wing of the political spectrum, namely MSNBC, Fox News and The New York Times, allow political geeks to stay within their comfort zones. They often view the ‘other side’ with haughty derision and fail to grasp the logic behind other arguments, even when the counterarguments are fairly logical in nature. Moreover, these organizations equip those who are loyal of every ideology with standard retaliation to others’ statements; followers know that they can rely on their favorite news outlet to bolster their arguments that defend their belief system.

The advent of technology is exacerbating this phenomenon. The internet-savvy follow the posts of a certain few on services such as Twitter and Tumblr, closeting individuals within their own ideologies. Such isolation by definition precludes their exposure to the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ This poses a serious problem to the intellectual development within politics of individuals. However, it is important to note that there are some mitigating factors.

Ask yourself: what fun are newspapers without an inherent bias? With other transmission methods, newspapers are not doing as well as they used to (albeit not as bad as some say). A spectrum of bias and unreserved targeting of politicians whose views are antithetical to those of the newspaper does bring in revenue, one must admit. It is more interesting for readers to subscribe to a newspaper that espouses tenets close to their own and it logically follows that it must aid the newspapers’ bottom lines to take advantage of the fissile nature of their audience.

What would Britain’s The Daily Telegraph or America’s Wall Street Journal be without their sometimes slight, sometimes transparent conservative leanings? What are their de facto rivals, The Guardian and The New York Times without their leftist tendencies? Such pandering to one’s base seems acceptable and maybe even beneficial, especially when juxtaposed with the cantankerous blustering of Fox News. A case in point: the occasionally whining Bill O’ Reilly, host of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” once called world renowned scientist, Richard Dawkins, a ‘fascist,’ for holding views that differed from his own. That was a foible, if not a massive non sequitur, to say the least.

Admittedly, while both arguments are convincing, logic dictates that as long as stoking the flames of partisanship is not the sine qua non, or essential component of the media, it is beneficial. However, when outlets do attempt to drive people apart by catering to partisanship, it creates a chasm that incentivizes the ownership of certain positions by a particular party or ideology and hence disallows party adherents from adopting a multitude of positions and eventually, metaphorically speaking, violently throws pragmatism and moderation out the window. What a shame.

Nikhil Rao can be reached at [email protected]