Monday, January 11, 2010

How to Read Newspapers

Newspapers are a lot less important than they were during their heyday of the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, but they are still an important source of opinion. Their function of providing "breaking news" has mostly been usurped by television and internet, but the electronic media has difficulty providing "color" and "texture" to the news, that is, an "interpretation" of the meaning of the bare facts scrolling across the screen on cable news or popping up in 500 word stories in your in box. Such methods are fine for stock quotations, sports scores and weather reports, but very poor for conveying political ideas, moral dilemmas or analysis of why things happen. This is where newspapers come in.

Now, having spoken a good word for the dead tree media, I now have to acknowledge what is widely known to be true: daily newspapers are dying out. Lay-offs at all the major dailies (including recent ones at the Washington Times and the New York Times transcend all ideological brands (WT - conservative, NYT - liberal) and are not limited to towns and small cities (they don't come much bigger that NY). Newspapers are being replaced by on-line versions of newspapers, blogs and new websites.

It remains to be seen whether any of the older, traditional, print version newspapers can actually make a successful transition to the electronic age or not. Maybe a few will, but never again (please Lord) will we see the situation in which an entire city or region depends for its "interpreted events chronicle" on one or two large conglomerates of news which represent a particular worldview not shared by the majority of their readers and which act in a paternalistic manner to "educate," (which, actually means in this case "indoctrinate"), their readers.

Public opinion today on the Internet is a glorious smash up of contradiction, passion, debate, accusation, defense, counter-accusation, satire and cut and thrust. This is a far healthier state of affairs than the situation just prior to the Internet when corporate ownership of media was becoming overly concentrated and the worldview of journalists was becoming nearly monolithic.

Nevertheless, even in this great conflict of opinion on the net, newspapers still matter. A person who wants to be informed and alert to what is going on around him needs to read them. But how? How, in particular, should a Christian who wants to develop a Christian mind read them?

1. Never Read Just One: If the choice was between reading only one newspaper or reading none, I would recommend none. I'm serious. Most newspapers have a political and religious slant and they are not famous for conducting debates about things within their pages. Sorry, but that is not what they are good at doing. Reading only one is little short of indoctrination.

2. Read Editorial/Columnists' Take on the News, Not Just the News: In Canada, the Toronto Star is the organ of the left wing of the Liberal Party. It has great sympathy for the NDP but can be counted on to recommend that (1) the Liberal Party adopt NDP policies and (2) we all vote Liberal. The National Post will advise you to vote Conservative, but often will urge the Conservative Party to adopt Liberal policies in order to get elected. The Globe and Mail is an interesting and eclectic mix that treats subjects that more liberal papers will ignore, but will seldom do so from a conservative perspective.

In the US, the New York Times marches in lockstep with the Democratic Party. The Washington Times is a conservative, usually pro-Republican paper, while the Washington Post is, well, not.

In the UK, the Times of London will give you a leftist slant with enough business news to maintain some of its non-leftist readership. Actually, many paper are quite adept at this. The Daily Telegraph is a bit more conservative, but in the sense of allowing the conservatives to have a voice along with others.

All these mainstream papers tend to march in ideological left of center lockstep when reporting the news. The entire mainstream media in the West reflects the left-wing worldview of the universities where the journalists and editors were trained (one hesitates to say "educated"). Where you see some differences from the party line tends to be in the "Op Ed" pieces written by non-journalists such as politicians, political staffers, employees of think tanks, religious leaders, etc. The Washington Times will run an Op Ed by Sarah Palin, for example, while the New York Times would not. Sometimes the blatantly leftist bias in the reporting of news stories will be challenged directly by columnists and op ed writers and this is the most interesting part of reading a newspaper. Sometimes the contradiction is sharp and deep and then the reader actually gets a chance to use his brain and think about the issue. Unfortunately, such moments are rare in certain newspapers.

3. Read More Than One Newspaper: I usually read the Times of London, New York Times, Washington Times, and the National Post. I also subscribe to the dead tree edition of the Toronto Star - although it is often pornographic and sex-obsessed - because I want to know what the enemy is thinking. I also check the stock market on the Globe and Mail daily and that gives me an excuse to scan the headlines and columns there.

Now, let me hasten to add, lest this make it sound like I do nothing else with my time, that I am using the word "read" in a peculiar sense. I never read a newspaper "from front to back" as you read of characters in novels doing in the old days. Much of the time, I am just scanning the headlines and reading the odd column or op ed piece here and there.

The really crucial thing is to read the same news story in two or more papers and then to read columnists' take on that story from two or more papers of different ideological bents. I also read blogs and other internet material that challenges or contradicts what the newspapers are saying. (I do not listen to news on the radio or watch it on TV because it is so shallow and biased that it is basically a waste of time.)

This kind of reading helps gain perspective and requires critical thinking. So, for example, on global warming. During the Copenhagen summit, for example, I would typically read the Times of London account, an op ed piece in the Washington Times, the anti-AGW blog of James Delingpole at the Daily Telegraph site and then note how the Toronto Star's treatment differed from the National Post.

The goal is not simply to detect bias. That is laughable; bias is everywhere. As I like to tell my students, the mere uncovering of bias in an author is not a refutation of his position; a person may very well be biased in favor of something and still be quite right about it. And the fact that someone you dislike is against something does not make it good. Smoking is not a good habit just because Hitler was against it. In fact, bias is more a sign of intellectual life than anything else; the only problem is when people are unaware of their biases or dishonest because of them. But that is mainly a problem because it prevents them from arguing well.

It is also important to stress that the goal of reading multiple accounts of the same events or issues is not because we assume that one can find the truth in the middle. That is intellectual laziness. In fact, quite often the truth is almost completely on one side or the other. This is not always the case, but it is the case more often than lazy thinkers might think.

Once one has made up one's mind on an issue, the next step is not to cut oneself off from contrary opinions, but to try to apply the arguments one has been convinced by to one's opponents. This prevents a stultifying self-satisfied, ossification of thought. It also keeps the door open to intellectual conversion by better arguments that may be developed for a point of view than the ones you rejected in rejecting that point of view.

With the advent of the net, reading newspapers has become more feasible than ever and safer than ever - so long as one avoids these rules:

1. Never read just one newspaper and never read just the new stories themselves.
2. Always read contradictory interpretations of the same events and issues.
3. On major issues continue to read contrary perspectives even after you have made up your own mind.

It is not easy to think Christianly; but it is a certainty that one will never think Christianly until one begins to think in the first place. Reading newspapers can help you think if you do it well.

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