Each spring when introducing the research paper I ask my sophomores how many of them are biased. Most of them don’t move; a few of them slowly raise their hands; there’s always at least one student who shoots up his hand for attention. After a few moments, I raise my own hand and admit that I’m biased, we’re all biased, and that’s how our brains work. The trick, I explain, is to write well despite that mental baggage.
While it’s true that our biases can quickly take us to some very dark places, they don’t have to. Part of being a reasoned human being is confronting our impulses — intellectual and otherwise — and rising above them. Unfortunately, rising above anything nowadays is much easier said than done, and one reason is that we are now reminded of our biases all day long.
Back in olden times, there was a thing called the evening news. The evening news was offered by a handful of major broadcasting networks and it aired each day, as its name suggests, in the evening. There was also the morning news, of course, and a handful of other places to sit and listen to someone tell you what was happening in the world, but our diet of such discourse was limited. It was limited from chronological and quantitative standpoints — by when we could get the news and by how much — and also limited in ideology. After all, the networks were businesses geared toward profit, thus it was in their best interest to present information that would appeal to the broadest audience possible. That is what broadcasting is, and so ideological biases, while certainly present because humans are biased, were generally not overt.
This began to change with advent of the cable news networks, first with CNN in the early 1980s and FOX news later. Twenty-four hours news seemed like a stupid idea for quite a while, because it is, but after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 the die was cast. It was a perfect fit — perpetual access to a brief, victorious, made-for-television conflict — and we have been watching cable news ever since, devouring one sex scandal after another, bemoaning every other constitutional “crisis” as if the sky was falling for the first time in our nation’s history.
CNN and FOX were, and are, ideologically biased. CNN is liberal because its handlers are liberal and its consumers are liberal. FOX news is the conservative answer to that world view. Conservatives don’t watch CNN, or the MSNBC that came later, except to mock them for their progressive slant. Liberals, of course, treat FOX with the same contempt.
This is not new information, of course, but it is relevant to camp out on this idea. A generation ago, these two distinct audiences that are now getting their information from news sources that validate their world view all day long, would have been one audience that digested the relatively same version of events for fifteen or so minutes a day.
Our ancestors would get their news and go do other things, like mend fences or talk to neighbors, often unaware or even concerned of how that neighbor was going to vote in the next election. People had their ideological differences, of course, and would certainly take time to voice them, but they weren’t reminded of those differences all day long.
As an illustration, if you tell a kid he’s a thief 15 times a day, don’t be surprised when he steals your wallet. These days we are told what to think and who we are, and, more relevant to this discussion, we are told who we are not. Most importantly, we are not “them,” those idiot suckers watching the other channel.
And we wonder why everyone is so mad all the time. We wonder what has happened to trust.
Now, one could construct a decent argument that the “now” version of news consumption is better, because we have more options. Thanks to 24-hour cable news, we are not limited in time by when we digest the version of information we want to digest. Thanks to the advent of smartphones, we are not even limited in space by where we digest the version of information we want to digest. From a marketing and consumer standpoint, this seems like a ‘win.’
I could try to answer that question, but I won’t, because, thanks to modern technology, dozens of people we will never meet have already answered the question for us, and have given us the version of the answer we want based on our browser history.
So, instead, I’ll ask another question: Are we consumers, or are we humans? I’m certainly not advocating for ignorance or apathy, but perhaps some perspective and humility to help us digest all the “knowledge” we gulp down each day.
In closing, another lesson I try to teach my students is that when it comes to doing research, the problem is not finding information but finding information that is helpful. They often look at me with pity when I try to explain to them the horrors I faced while writing my own research papers last century in a place called a library: sifting through card cabinets, wandering down stacks of books, plugging nickels into Xeroxes and writing out notes by hand.
And, if I’m being honest, they’re right, because it is easier to get information now, and that is wonderful. How can it not be?
It’s one thing, however, to read, think, reflect, and decide.
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have time for such luxuries anymore. We’ve outsourced those jobs to whomever will tell us what we want to hear, and can do it in the loudest voice.