This is certainly an age of opinions. Print news outlets, our own included, have embraced anonymous commentary on the web as a way to generate more online traffic as print takes its financial hits in a rough economy.
Cable networks spend much of their time pitting talking heads against each other. News executives recognize that passionate barking from right and left is a cheap substitute for more-detailed and civic-minded news gathering and analysis. Don’t be fooled. The more responsible those outlets are in a civic sense, the more they hurt their television ratings, their profits. Entertainment “journalism” rakes in the bucks. This cheapens our culture in the process, makes thoughtful people feel dirty. But it’s important to recognize that we’re getting what’s most in demand in America’s free market of news.
Meanwhile, bloggers offer a range of opinions on every subject, some well done, some plainly inflammatory. But the blogoshpere is setting an opinion-making lead that many major news outlets are following in a thoughtless and lazy manner. It’s quite common now to see TV anchors pull up a laptop for a “what they’re saying about it on the Web” segment. When CNN’s computer froze during one such piece, I felt I had witnessed a moment of divine journalistic justice.
Of course, we all feel entitled to our opinions. But my gripe is that so few seem interested in even trying to be persuasive. Has anyone ever won you over to his side of thinking by making a fool of you? On top of that, what if they seem to take great glee in exposing your foolishness? Do you not recognize the prevalence of this “you’re momma’s so ugly” attitude in our opinion culture?
People who make earnest efforts at commentary are often met with invective. And the natural reaction to belittling attacks is to flail with whatever is in our arsenal, such as extreme sarcasm or overly broad and derogatory assessments of character. We raise a shield and duck to avoid any solid points from the other side, not acknowledging if someone else was on target.
I think people are generally confident in their ability to make quick judgments about others. We like to say that we don’t do this, that we’re bigger than this. But we have to do this all the time. Do I want to interact with this stranger or not? Do they pose any threat? Can I trust them to drive this vehicle? Is this person on the phone interested at all in what I have to say? Are they competent enough to handle my business?
We get a feeling about people in a word and a glance. And if you’ve lived long enough, you begin to see these feelings validated with proof. I knew something wasn’t right about him. Well, I could tell right off that she was good-hearted.
These instincts have value. When this is highly developed, we say someone has street smarts.
But I think feelings go only so far. If this is what we base all opinions on, we’ve accepted an inner laziness.
For instance, I think there’s a tendency to make decisions about elected officials in a quick-draw manner. I naturally have a gut feeling about someone when I first consider them for an office. If I hear something that validates that feeling, I feel pretty sure of my “decision” in an election. And I’m eager to ignore conflicting information. Likewise, I’m angry at those who just don’t get it. What is wrong with those folks?
I bet a lot of people, if they are honest with themselves, would recognize that they do this, too. They use the same tools in picking a candidate that they do in assessing strangers in daily interactions. It’s much easier to go on a feeling about a person than it is to invest in the complicated and exhaustive task of learning about policy differences. Anyway, we don’t even trust that policies proposed by a candidate will be carried out once that person is elected.
As I said, national news organizations take the easy route, too, looking for simple shows of conflict, for horse-race material rather than taking the time to lay out policy differences.
Our presidential race includes month upon month of spectacle, culminating in one collective show of opinion. It’s a bizarre climate, entertaining at times but exhausting and disheartening, too.
But today’s opinion culture gives us plenty of opportunity to vent. So we fire shots, feeling disrespected, seemingly oblivious to the fact that respect usually comes when you offer it first.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.