Rick Perlstein has a post up on the New York Times’ Room for Debate blog in a discussion, framed by the Times, of how the internet has played a role to rising extremism, as seen with the Koran burning pastor in Florida. Naturally Perlstein flips this flawed premise on its head from the start.
The problem is not the Web. Anti-JFK rallies “revealing” to every school child in Orange County, California that Communists planned to colonize the United States by the year 1970 drew bigger crowds than Tea Parties today, with nary a blogger among them.
The problem is that elite media gatekeepers have abandoned their moral mandate to stigmatize uncivil discourse. Instead, too many outlets reward it. In fact, it is an ironic token of the ideological confusions of our age that they do so in the service of upholding what they understand to be a cornerstone of civility: the notion that every public question must be framed in terms of two equal and opposite positions, the “liberal” one and the “conservative” one, each to be afforded equal dignity, respect — and (the more crucial currency) equal space. This has made the most mainstream of media outlets comically easy marks for those actively working to push public discourse to extremes.
Don’t blame the minister and his bait-and-switch bonfire either. Once upon a time anticommunist book burnings and threats of book burnings were not unheard of. The difference is that Associated Press reporters did not feel obliged to show up. That shift in news values, not the rise of the Internet, is the most profound way that times have changed.
When the press cares more about selling conflict than telling stories that actually matter, the appeal of extremism is evident. But it’s also flat out bad for our country to give attention to any gasbag who tempts us with base hatred. As we just saw, there’s a lot of ignorance that is driven by hate from demagogues like Glenn Beck on TV and radio. This isn’t about the internet, as Perlstein says, it’s about the media making the people who hate other Americans more important than the people who are trying to solve problems in all three branches of government. Burning a book is more appealing to the media than a hearing on prison reforms or building telecommunications infrastructure in rural America.