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The Thursday New York Times finds columnist Nicholas Kristof engaged in some conventional fretting. Noting that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will from now on "exist only in cyberspace" (the future of newspapers may be on the 'net, but that's still considered interment), Kristof observes that "the public is increasingly seeking its news...from grazing online."
Which is terrible why? Because "when we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about. Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that's the trend, God save us from ourselves.
"That's because there's pretty good evidence that we generally don't truly want good information -- but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber."
By this point in Kristof's column I was talking back to him (probably out loud).
Does he think this is something new? Daily journalism has always been about the Daily Me. Back in the heyday -- when hawkers waved the mastheads of as many as a dozen titles -- readers traded their pennies for the ones that reflected the world the way each of them wanted it reflected. And when they cracked open their papers and plunged in, did they read everything? Of course not. They turned to the sections, the features, the bylines they knew they could count on. If it was a snappy, counterintuitive, iconoclastic argument they were looking for -- well, the place to find that was the comics page. I wonder how many liberals once regarded Little Orphan Annie as their guilty pleasure.
When the dozen papers diminished to one or two in a city, and those survivors felt obliged to cast a wider net, they ran into trouble. The Chicago Tribune can be blamed for doing plenty of things wrong, but what a lot of its oldest, most loyal readers can't forgive it for is opening its pages to divergent opinions. From where I stand, that's balance. From where they stand, that's losing its way, surrendering its principles, and throwing in with the Maoists.
Online, the cafeteria line of choices gets infinitely longer. But it's the same line.
"The danger," says Kristof, "is that this self-selected 'news' acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor." The solution? "Perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore."
That's one way. Another is easier. It's to stick to our own, but bear in mind that nobody does more to undermine the thoughtful opinions we hold dear than the zealot who turns them into dogma. Learn to play devil's advocate with ranting friends. They'll thank us for it.