My intention with my last post was to make a very small, but very important point. Discernment is not cynicism, and cynicism is not discernment. What passes for critical thinking is often nothing more than a defense mechanism, wired specifically to keep presuppositions from coming into contact with pushback, disappointment, or worst of all, contrary reality. And there aren’t many better examples of this defense mechanism than the obsession that many of my fellow conservatives have with media bias.
Note carefully that I said “obsession.” Bias in media is real (as I said previously, and have talked about at length before, and will probably write about again). To pretend that most of the powerful journalism and entertainment businesses in this country are not steered by progressives is simply to ignore what couldn’t be plainer. But the idea I tried to get at in my last blog was that, while media bias is real, it is real in the same way and to the same extent that personal bias is also real. So then the issue is not whether we should ride every biased editor and reporter out of town on a rail, but whether we can muster the intellectual effort it requires to discern truth over and against ideology, both out there and amongst ourselves.
The problem for all of us is simple: You gotta trust somebody. No human being can function as their own all self-sufficient filter, accumulate all the necessary information on every possible topic, and be able to process all facts and nuances quickly and perfectly in order to render utterly reliable knowledge hour by hour, day by day. English has a word for that; it’s called omniscience, and if Christianity teaches anything, it teaches that there is only One omniscient person, and we aren’t Him. Every single person, conservative and liberal, progressive and traditional, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, rural and urban, cosmopolitan and localist–everybody has rely on something or somebody else to know what they need to know. To make suspicion and distrust toward established, respected, and accountable sources of information your default orientation is to either put yourself at the mercy of other sources of information–which are probably just as biased and ideological as the sources you eschew, but biased in a direction you’re more OK with–or, even worse, it’s to make intuition and assumption your primary means of knowledge.
Now, usually at this point a fellow conservative will interject with something like this: “You just don’t understand how agenda-driven the media is. Your idealism is admirable, but you just don’t get that those papers and those anchors are giving you only what they think can push you toward their assumptions.” I’ll concede that I probably have insufficient grasp of the ideological power plays at work in American media. Point given. But what if I responded: So what? Let’s assume you’re right that every CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, etc etc, news feature is commissioned, written, edited, and disseminated by progressives who sincerely hope I will inch further to the left after reading their coverage. So what? Do their eschatological hopes for people like me actually determine whether the information they present is valid or not?
Here’s where it gets interesting. If the answer to that last question is, “Yes,” then it seems to me that conservatives have adopted a kind of philosophical identity politics. Liberals make liberal news, because they’re liberals. I don’t know for sure, but I could have sworn conservatives were suspicious of worldviews that reduced individuals to the sum total of their sociological groupings. For me, it seems incoherent to insist on a politics that sees and values individuals within classes and systems, rather than the classes and systems merely by themselves, and then turn around and insist that the “left-wing media” means I don’t have to know anything about that NYT reporter or that CNN anchor before I dismiss them as ideologues. Something doesn’t add up.
You’ve gotta trust somebody. Free market economics are far from perfect, but one thing to admire about the way America works is that even biased, slanted, ideological news outlets have to compete against each other for public trust, have to keep each other accountable, and have to abide by certain norms and incentives. To dismiss an entire arm of intellectual credentialism is to lose a lot of faith in the free market, really quickly. You’ve gotta trust somebody, and it can’t just be you.