A Preference for Bad News

October 4, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wright links to an article by Rod Dreher claiming that “our news media, through heavily biased reporting and analysis, are turning significant numbers of American voters against religious conservatives.”

I was skeptical that the media have this power. The “media elite” may be secular, and their views may be be at odds with those of conservative Christians. But the only evidence Dreher gives that their politics influence viewers is the finding that people who watch more TV news are more likely to think that “Christian fundamentalists are ideologically extreme and politically militant.” That’s probably because extremism of any stripe is what gets on the news. Or maybe it’s because it’s true, and people who pay more attention to the news have a more accurate view of what’s happening.

Besides, Dreher goes on to maintain that the US is still a religious nation with a populace that generally takes a dim view of nonbelievers. That contradicts his main point. If we are still religious, even after decades of our media being dominated by secularists, their anti-Christian influence must be very weak. So why get all worried? Why pay so much attention to the beliefs of the people who write the news?

Then on Friday, David Brooks echoed my sentiments, not about religion but in reference to the right-wing media. Limbaugh, Beck, and the rest, he said, make a lot of noise, but their ability to change votes is minimal.

Now I found myself in the position of Dreher. Although I had scoffed at Dreher’s idea that the secularism of US newsrooms was swaying the country, here I was, insisting that Limbaugh and Fox TV had to be having some effect. But why did I react that way? Why would we (Dreher from one side, me from the other) insist that the people we didn’t like were so influential?* Why wouldn’t we take comfort in the idea that they were, as Brooks says, like the Wizard of Oz – seemingly large on screen, but in reality small and powerless behind the curtain?

At first, I was reminded of the joke my mother told me long ago about the old Jew who subscribed to the newspaper of the American Nazi Party. His neighbors were appalled. “You should read the Jewish Daily Forward” they insisted. “Why do you read that garbage?”

“If I read the Forward, what do I see? Jews killed in Germany, pogroms in Russia, anti-Semitism in Poland, Jews persecuted everywhere. If I read the American Nazi paper, what do I see? Jews control the government. Jews own all the banks. Jews have all the money. . . .”

My second thought was that our preference for bad news – our insistence that our enemies must be having some nefarious impact – was yet another instance of what Lindesmith called the “evil-causes-evil assumption.” If something is evil, it must have evil consequences. This assumption must be a very powerful indeed. Even when faced with the possibility of good news – that our enemies are ineffectual – we’ll cling to our assumption and keep reading the bad news in the Forward.

* I’m referring here to my initial gut reaction. In fact, Brooks doesn’t provide much convincing evidence that the right-wing voices go unheeded. He cites only one systematic study of the absence of a Limbaugh effect, but that study was focused on one narrow issue – Rush’s urging Republicans to cross over and vote for weaker candidates in the Democratic primaries.

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