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Posted by on Jan 31, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

A Possible Cause For Polarization In Newspapers

Are newspapers edging out the middle as they opt for "red-meat" ideological columnists hired for their clear cut positions, rather than giving columns to reporters who’ve put in years of reporting?

Veteran columnist Georgie Anne Geyer thinks so — and she makes a good argument for this position. Indeed, over the past 20 years columnists, op-ed pages, and television seem to have chosen conflict and controversy as the goal versus a more tranquil discussion of ideas. Why? Readership/ratings (duh). But Geyer, a veteran foreign reporter on the old Chicago Daily News (I was writing for the CDN as a "stringer" in New Delhi, India in those days)  as well as other assignments presents an intriguing argument.

She starts out:

WASHINGTON — Two cases of prominent conservative newspaper columnists being paid by government agencies for their work, emerging within a matter of weeks, may seem to attentive Americans as if they are one and the same.

Really, they are quite different. But both cases are examples of a sobering trend in opinion writing that I call the "ideologicalization" of commentary: The far left and far right have taken over much of the commentary in newspapers and on TV, and we are lacking the intelligent middle.

She then recounts the cases that came to light of columnists getting money from various parts of the Bush administration — then points out this:

Columnists — and in particular, syndicated columnists, who are bought by many papers across the country and have a special niche in journalism — are uniquely necessary. They allow readers to pit themselves, day after day and year after year, for or against the ideas of one thinker. But syndication, wonderful as it is, does not pay well; you just have to do other things.

I, for instance, have never done any work at all for "the government," but I do appear on a Voice of America show called "Issues in the News," which goes around the world and in which three journalists discuss the news of the week. We say exactly what we want and, lest anyone leap to untoward conclusions, we earn such a pittance that I would be embarrassed to note it here, for fear of the hilarious laughter that would ensue.

I think we have two issues here: the ideologicalization of commentary, a la the far right, that we have spoken of, but also the privatization of the public relations of government agencies, which reflects this administration’s intense secrecy and isolation from the mainstream press.

Fair enough, although some will argue the way those statements are framed. More:

I  consider myself a politically moderate, well-traveled, constantly reporting columnist of the old style — I came up completely through journalism and not through special-agenda politics, like so many columnists today. But many newspapers have played into the new ideologicalization and privatization, as well. At one point, the prestigious Los Angeles Times unbelievably divided its commentary page into "Left" and "Right," as though such a division could possibly explain the world.

Indeed, you note the same phenomena on programs such as CNN’s Crossfire, Fox News’ Hannity and Colmes and a host of other programs where they pit a central-casting style cliche liberal viewpoint against a central-casting cliche style conservative viewpoint. "On the other hands" oftentimes need not apply.

There have been happier times in history for those in the middle in terms of the  prevailing connotations of the word "centrist," the electoral strength of moderates — and the whole way debates are now framed in campaign primaries (candidates in both parties tend to run more towards the right or left, then move a bit towards the center in the general election).

And she ends with this:

If columnists keep coming up from the ideological ends of the spectrum, and if editors continue to cosset them because they are provocative instead of insisting upon commentators with deep journalistic backgrounds, then we’re going to keep having these problems. The real world is made up of complexities that transcend ideology, and those are almost always the realities of the middle.

Here is where I differ with her:

  1. There is indeed a new consensus on the part of many Americans that it is not a virtue to be a centrist or a moderate because that means you’re wishy washy. That’s puzzling but on the other hand I can understand it (and THAT sentence is snark, so don’t flood me with emails). BUT:
  2. It’s an error to say only those with journalist background can be columnists and think in terms other than ideological.
  3. Georgie Anne Geyer is a highly respected reporter with a solid track record. But some who have "deep journalistic backgrounds" can be those who got where they did by learning how to play the brown-nosing corporate game to advance and by doing some office-politics back surgery  on co-workers. The problem with putting a premium on deep journalistic backgrounds is that there is more to working for a newspaper or magazine than just reporting and writing. It also requires skills in advancing — and surviving — in a corporate world. (On any number of publications a new editor may come in and force the old team out to get his own crew in).

Will this trend continue? If you listen to talk radio on the left and right, and watch some of the cable news/talk shows, it often seems as if America has undergone the Jerry Springerization of news.

But there ARE outlets for those in the middle who choose to discuss issues without name calling. For instance, read The Christian Science Monitor.

So is the middle vanishing? Yes, it’s smaller than it was.

Is this contributing to polarization? Yes, because young people born into this new political culture think that’s the way it should be — because that’s what they see.

But there are news outlets and blogs that are identified as left and right that definitely have a perspective yet are thoughtful and insightful rather than emotional and in constant campaign mode.

And here’s a little secret: knee-jerk reactions are not limited to those without deep journalistic backgrounds.