Thank you for reading this column. It’s not just that I appreciate your interest in what I have to say. I appreciate the fact that you are reading this publication at all. According to a recent set of surveys by the Pew Research Center, a distressing number of our fellow citizens rely mostly on television to inform themselves about politics and government.
I have no objection to making TV part of your media diet. To suggest otherwise would be exceedingly strange. For most of my adult life, I have appeared regularly on statewide television to discuss the issues of the day. (Since 1998, those appearances have been on “NC SPIN,” a talk show broadcast on more than two dozen TV and radio stations from the mountains to the coast.)
But broadcasting should make up only part of an active citizen’s news consumption — and, frankly, not the largest share of it. If you want to learn a great deal about a broad range of issues, there is no substitute for reading good journalism. You should read spot news, explanatory pieces, investigative work, and opinion columns from multiple sources.
Alas, many of us don’t vary our news diets. According to the Pew surveys, conservatives rely heavily on Fox News and talk radio. Liberals rely heavily on MSNBC, CNN, and National Public Radio. And when we read, we also tend to seek out publications that mostly reinforce our preexisting views. Liberals read The New York Times. Conservatives read The Wall Street Journal. Liberals visit the Huffington Post and Daily Kos to find online content they’ll like. Conservatives visit the Drudge Report and Breitbart.com to do the same.
In some ways, the situation is an obvious improvement over the news consumption patterns of a generation or two ago. We have more choices, and are no longer hostage to the news judgments and biases of the small handful of producers and editors who acted as gatekeepers for the mainstream media.
The downside, however, is that we often live in separate media realities. We don’t see, hear, or read the news and commentary that others do. If you lean to the Left, you may have no earthly idea why so many of your fellow citizens think taxes are too high, welfare programs are counterproductive, and private gun ownership is an indispensable right. If you lean to the Right, you might be puzzled by President Obama’s recent decisions on immigration, health care, and foreign policy.
I am vulnerable to the same temptations and prejudices as everyone else. So I’m making a concerted effort to vary my news diet. I’m reading The Washington Post in addition to the Wall Street Journal. (No, I can’t bring myself to read the Times — I do have standards, after all.) I’m listening to NPR coverage of events in Washington and reading The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The American Prospect to improve my understanding of liberal arguments and perspectives.
If you’re on the Left, I recommend you occasionally tune into talk radio and make sure to read good conservative or libertarian journalism on a regular basis. Check out National Review, Reason, and The Weekly Standard, for example. You may not find much with which you agree. But you’ll come away with a better understanding of how others think. You may also find that you can express your own views more clearly and persuasively, because you’re exercising your intellectual muscles.
I’m not a handwringer. I don’t believe our Republic is doomed because media consumption has fragmented. I place a high value on choice and competition. I hated the pre-Internet age when three networks and a few national papers and wire services could determine what the news was and how it would be spun to their largely captive audiences.
But I do think the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Start with your local newspaper — it remains indispensable. Then add in news and analysis from a variety of other sources. You may be surprised how much difference it makes.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.