David Brooks, New York Times syndicated columnist and Friday evening fixture on a segment of the PBS Newshour, has been putting his credibility with conservatives on the line lately by keeping to a middle ground of reasonableness. If he isn’t careful, he’ll be abandoned by the radical right and called a liberal, which is an epithet of the worst order if you are a true-blue Republican.
Some local columnists are sticking to the nonpartisan point, too, despite a full-on assault by the fringe elements to shout down reasonable discourse. For one whose entire adult life has been dedicated to freedom of speech and a belief that more information is better and the center of any bridge must bear the weight, I am being tested, as are so many readers, by the never-ending punching and counterpunching.
In every media form, from bumper stickers and graffiti to high-cost, slick video productions that are deviously engineered to make drivel appear somehow sensible, the credibility of any source challenges consumers of information to be increasingly skeptical.
Skepticism is a double-edged blade; it can serve truth or lies. So who, and what, to believe? Whatever became of the likes of Walter Cronkite? Where did professionals like Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley go, to be replaced by the firebombers on Fox News?
The simple truth is that good journalism is still with us. It’s just being crowded out by poor choices, like the health bar loses to the eclair every time. The sensationalists were here all along — from Walter Winchell to Lord Haw-Haw, tossing rocks just to break the windows of the world’s view of things. Ratings were coveted by both corporate types who count money more than truths and individuals seeking attention and stardom and — again, money or power.
The field used to be gated; not just any goon with an opinion could reach a public audience. You had to earn some credentials, either through education or experience along a professional ladder, before you were given a larger megaphone.
What has happened that changes the landscapes of public information in such a negative way is that everyone has a megaphone. Anyone can post anything for any reason at any time and be guaranteed an instant audience of “followers” whose deepest attempt at critical thinking is to remember the words, “Yeah, me, too!”
Another thing that has changed is that shyness or modesty is a thing of antiquity. Shame is just something one tries to impose on another, and we pursue the dark arts of social destruction without remorse.
While some seem to be stimulated by such a low bar of civic discourse, I have to say I’m getting bored with it. More alarming is the awareness that the need for all the skepticism is degrading into a cynicism that can sour life in general.
Perhaps a free society can overdose on unfettered liberty to say, believe and do stupid things. Why not, as long as the consequences are suffered primarily by those who have thoughts, values and histories different than ours?
I see people who never learned that it is not OK to break another child’s toy because you were angry or jealous. I see people who cannot stand to see others achieve success or improve themselves and try to contribute to positive change.
Ideals have always had a hard time overcoming humans’ base fears and selfish desires. Religion helps, but for many becomes just another weapon against the “others.”
Political partisanship is just war in costume.
Education is the hope, but when it becomes a captive and held prisoner it can spoil and become bellicose propaganda.
Sometimes we are overly blessed with the freedom of too much information. Or cursed with a shortage of good intentions and responsible gatekeepers. Maybe that’s why there is a rise in things like yoga and forms of meditation — or abuses of medication.
It’s enough to drive a sober and thoughtful person to overindulge in prune and quinoa smoothies.
Dean Minnich has been a Navy and civilian photojournalist and columnist. He also served two terms as a county commissioner. He lives in Westminster. Reach him at email@example.com.