The Casual Blog

Losing newspapers, struggling to think critically

The death this week of the Seattle Post Intelligencer as a printed newspaper is just the latest of a number of press fatalities, and more are sure to come.  As a former newspaper boy (delivering the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel), newspaper writer and editor (the Oberlin Review, Winston-Salem Journal), and lifelong newspaper reader, I’m a newspaper addict.  Although I get most of my newspapers online now, the thought of breakfast without actual newsprint is intolerable.  The Raleigh News & Observer is getting weaker by the month, as personnel and features are dropped and advertisers desert, but it’s an old friend that I’ll stick with till the end.    

This morning the N&O reprinted a column by Nicholas Kristof about the decimation of U.S. daily newspapers and the rise of the internet press.  He pointed out, as is well known, that one side effect of this is that on the web each person serves as his or her own editor, making the content choices that have traditionally be done by professional journalists.  

Kristof focuses on our tendency to gravitate to information sources that spin news according to our political leanings.   It might be Fox News, or it might be the Huffington Post; the important thing is, it’s obviously filtered.  That’s not entirely new, of course; people have preferred papers that accord with their political views ever since there were papers.  But now it’s more possible than ever to filter out disagreeable views.

There’s recent scholarship indicating that the more we talk with those who share our biases, the stronger those biases become.  Liberals talking together get more liberal, and conservatives more conservative. The net of this tendency is to make it harder to communicate with those with opposing views, because the views are harder to understand.

The danger is the threat to critical thinking, in the sense of thinking that critically examines its own premises.  There’s never been much such thinking, and it’s disturbing to think that as we become more and more citizens of the internet, there could be less and less.  

Kristof suggests that a possible solution:  a daily workout in the spirit of a trip to the gym in which we intellectually spar with persons we disagree with.  So Kristof  indicates he may be take up reading the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.  Somewhat in the same spirit, I’ve tried watching Bill O’Reilly, but that probably doesn’t count as a real workout.  He occasionally gets me exercised, but mostly he reminds me of Stephen Colbert.

Welcome spring, and birds

This morning, the second day of spring, and the first Saturday, I made it to the gym for a swim while it was still dark, and got to Ritter Park just as the sun was coming up.  Ritter has  playground with swings, a ball field, a picnic shelter, and a trail that runs by a creek.  It’s not a remarkable park, but it’s convenient for me.

For the first time in some months I got my binoculars out and scouted for birds.  I saw chickadees, cardinals, robins, tufted titmice, and goldfinches, and heard along with those a red tailed hawk.  Just the usual local birds, but I’m hoping to see migrants in the coming weeks.

This week the NYT reported that a third of the bird species in the U.S. were endangered, threatened, or in serious decline.  Some of the causes are short term, like urban sprawl and logging, and part is probably climate change.  

This is disturbing news.  The broad decline is consistent with my experience.  Each year, there seem to be fewer birds to see.

Still, it’s great to take some time to breathe deeply and listen and look at these amazing creatures.

Why blog?

There’s a new biography of John Cheever by Blake Bailey reviewed in last week’s Economist.  I enjoyed Cheever’s stories years ago, but I doubt I’ll get back to them any time soon, and also doubt I’ll read the biography.  But one of the great things about book reviews is, if you read the review, you don’t have to read the book to get something out of the book.  

This review had a fine little aphorism by Cheever.  Because many of his stories were rather depressing, someone asked him why he bothered to write.  He said, “I write to make sense of my life.”