Monday, January 10, 2005

The Bland Leading the Bland

CNN is canceling Crossfire (link: Crooked Timber). Not a huge loss, as anyone who watched Jon Stewart's smackdown knows. But CNN's justification is interesting:
"Mr. Klein said he wanted to move CNN away from what he called 'head-butting debate shows,' which have become the staple of much of all-news television in the prime-time hours, especially at the top-rated Fox News Channel.
...
Mr. Klein specifically cited the criticism that the comedian Jon Stewart leveled at 'Crossfire' when he was a guest on the program during the presidential campaign. Mr. Stewart said that ranting partisan political shows on cable were 'hurting America.'

Mr. Klein said last night, 'I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.' He said he believed that especially after the terror attacks on 9/11, viewers are interested in information, not opinion."

I'm not sure that's what Jon Stewart was going for. The problem with shows like Crossfire, from my (and I believe Mr. Stewart's) perspective, isn't that they represent "opinion," it's that they concoct clashes between ideologies and thus artificially polarize America (as if it needs any help!). That's bad because it prevents interpartisan discourse and makes politics into a field of battle, rather than a reasoned, deliberative process.

But arguing that we shouldn't needlessly sow discord is not the same thing as arguing that we should eliminate all opinion from our information sources. Opinions are important, because they allow people to process the information given to them, prioritize it, catagorize it, and digest it. Most people don't think critically about the news they hear; opinion journalism forces them to account for different perspectives and allows to refine, or sometimes perhaps modify, their value systems and policy preferences. All of this is essential for a functioning democracy.

Opinions can be dangerous, of course. A demagogic pundit (Michael Moore, Ann Coulter) can do a lot of damage in a very short period of time. However, that's an argument for putting on sober, well-reasoned commentators on the air; it isn't an argument for eliminating commentary altoghther. One method seeks to combat demagoguery, the other tries to put its head in the sand and prays the problem will just go away. I'm sure we all know which option is better.

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