SAN DIEGO — Several weeks ago, a reader proudly informed me that she doesn’t usually read my column – or, for that matter, any other column with which she disagrees. The letter brought to mind one I received a few years ago, in which a reader said that he used to read my column regularly until we started to disagree too much.
This behavior isn’t exactly a recipe for intellectual stimulation and personal growth. How would we ever get to know a subject if we discounted the views of those who see it differently? We know what we believe on the issues of the day – the Affordable Care Act, immigration, the government shutdown, the debt limit, education reform, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew why we believe it?
This is consistent with how Americans now consume information. It’s made to order, like a coffee drink you can get 15,430 ways. No more leafing through a bulky newspaper and peeling off the sections you don’t read. Now, you can go online, check boxes about your background and what interests you, and media companies will send you a personalized newsletter with only those stories that are likely to interest you.
We’re all so busy. Who has time to be challenged?
In my business, though, we’re supposed to challenge authority figures, powerful institutions and sometimes our own thinking. After nearly 25 years of writing for newspapers, I still subscribe to the journalist’s creed: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” I especially like the last part. The comfortable should be afflicted. Along the way, I really don’t care if I’m disliked by folks on either side of the political divide. After all, telling the truth won’t win any popularity contests.
Nor will it help you land a radio or television show in a climate where, the research shows, people on both the right and the left increasingly only want to hear points of view that reinforce what they already believe.
We could have seen this coming.
I have liberal friends who only get their news from liberal websites and cable television networks, and conservative friends who only frequent right-wing outlets. It’s human nature, I suppose. Folks always prefer a warm bath to a cold shower, even when they really need the latter. People feel they have enough conflict and confrontation in their lives, and so what they expect from media outlets is a kind of intellectual cave they can crawl into to seek refuge from things they don’t agree with.
These are some of the conclusions of a new study of media and news consumption from researchers at Tufts University who found that the new hot thing is “outrage-based” political opinion.
In a recent edition of Poetics journal, researchers Sarah Sobieraj, Amy Connors and Jeffrey Barry wrote: “These venues offer flattering, reassuring environments that make audience members feel good. Fans experience them as safe havens from the tense exchanges that they associate with crosscutting political talk they may encounter with neighbors, colleagues and community members.”
The researchers studied 10 “outrage-based” shows – such as those hosted by radio talk-show personalities Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on the right, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews on the left – and found that loyal viewers experienced “powerful connections” with a host who “presents as a kindred spirit who ‘gets you’ even when other folks do not.”
What about those who don’t “get you”? According to the study, nearly one-third of respondents – 31 percent – have stopped going to a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had come to expect from it.
These days, much of what appears on radio and television doesn’t challenge consumers. Instead, it provides a protective environment made up of like-minded people.
In other words, joining you in your cave will be some lovely folks who won’t fight, judge or criticize you for what you believe – because they believe the same things you do. And to pass the time, you can all sit around and make fun of those people outside the cave who think differently. Of course, that won’t be easy because you haven’t taken the time to understand what those people think and why they think it.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.