Losing newspapers, struggling to think critically

by Rob Tiller

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.