If you find yourself in a hole the best advice is to stop digging. What if you suspect you are in a bubble? How would you know you are even in one? And if you determine you are in a bubble what should you do? Get outside of it? Pop it? Why not just stay there if it is pleasant, and if getting outside of it will produce unsettling feelings?
The first question–finding out if you are in a bubble–was addressed by Charles Murray a few years ago. Murray devised a quiz intended to jolt bubble-dwellers into a recognition of their condition. PBS even ran a story on it back in 2012, during a window of time in which Murray was temporarily cleared of the charge of Bell Curve racism. At the time I thought it a good thing that PBS offered its audience a chance for self-reflection like this. But if anything the blue-red divide has hardened since 2012 and reflecting on one’s bubble status–blue or red–is still a good idea.
Public broadcasting was back in the news on this issue again recently, with Ken Stern, NPR’s former CEO, making the case that
yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus yes there is such a thing as liberal media bias, and it exists because the bubble exists.
Now, that’s not news. Former CBS correspondent Barnard Goldberg published Bias over fifteen year ago. It reached #1 on the New York Times best seller list for non-fiction, so the idea has been around. But it seems to have taken quite a while for it to gain credibility in some quarters. Back when Bias was published Thomas Frank tossed it aside quite cavalierly in the London Review of Books:
You might expect Bias – one of the bestselling non-fiction books in America today – to be a meditation on the tricky problem of journalistic objectivity, or a wide-ranging look at the sorry ruin that is the American press, or maybe a brief examination of what ‘liberalism’ means in this age of casual, sensitive billionaires. But no. Bias itself, the cultural crime that is the subject of Goldberg’s J’accuse, is never even properly defined. ‘Bias is bias,’ he writes. He knows it when he sees it, and he’s here to tell you that it’s all over the place. . . .I found all this tiresome, self-indulgent and more than a little embarrassing.
So it is a measure of how far we have traveled that we get PBS running Charles Murray’s bubble quiz in 2012 and that now we have a former NPR CEO acknowledging the bubble and advising journalists–who tend to live in a blue bubble–to get out of it from time to time in the name of good journalistic practice.
Part of the reason for the progress–such as it is–comes from the framing of the issue in cultural terms, something that blue-state smartypants can warm to. Frank seemed indignant that Goldberg was indignant, and it is true that the first round of bias reporting had a j’accuse quality to it, and nobody likes to be pillioried, most especially a blue-state smartypants.
But can’t we all agree that if the country reflects multiple cultural value sets that we are likely to partake of one more than another? The very tenets of sacred multiculturalism oblige an educated blue-stater to concede that zir values are likely to be different from the values of others, with cultural consensus as an inevitable result and the possibility of groupthink just around the corner.
So Goldberg’s indictment, toned down and converted to a frame that liberals can accept, has gained some credence over time. But how deep does that insight run? Progressive are fond of virtue signaling, and it could be that saying that Stern is “on to something” in his notion of visiting the heartland more often is attractive for that reason. Announce there is good in the heartland and pass the tapas, please.
Moreover, it is quite possible that Stern’s message will be challenged directly, or simply ignored. The force of the bubble is strong.
I present here examples of all three responses: virtue signal, challenge and ignore.
The first two examples come from Beat the Press, a weekly panel discussion show produced by the famed PBS Boston affiliate WGBH. The show is hosted by Emily Rooney, the daughter of that old rapscallion Andy Rooney. Rooney is occasionally–occasionally–inhabited by the spirit of her father and offers up a slightly reprobate thought. But then, even though she is the host, she is slapped down politely but firmly by her rotating group of panelists, local journalists and critics that are all, shall we say, deep, deep in a Boston bubble. Then, after the rectification, the universe feels good again, at least for a moment.
Last week the show ran a segment on Stern’s case for the existence of media bias. Rooney led discussion of the segment, taking issue with the idea that there should be a political litmus test for hiring reporters but expressing indirect sympathy for the idea of the bubble by hinting that it might be a good idea for news outlets to be more open in hiring to factors such as different “sensibilities, demographics, where you live, where you come from.”
The virtue signaling gambit was taken up by panelist Joanna Weiss . She starts with an obligatory jab at Stern for “tourism”, mocking Stern by mimicking him: “hey, I went to Kentucky, aren’t you proud of me!”. Her judgment: “there’s something really disgusting about that.”
But then without a hitch she goes on to talk about the value of the five years–she says it twice–the five years she spent in Louisiana as being “formative” in her career as a journalist. Let the record show five years is not tourism, and my experience is not disgusting!
OK, she makes a good point, even if she felt the need to slam Stern on the way. But one waits for evidence that this “Northeast kid” has incorporated any of her insights from the time she spent in Louisiana on the show. Alas, her regular appearances on Beat the Press have shown no trace of her time down south and as a practical matter she remains a Northeast kid through and through. Pass the tapas.
The challenge gambit was taken up by panelist Callie Crossley. Crossley has zero tolerance for Stern’s argument.
In my own circle I have all of that that he went touring around the world to find. So I don’t have to go there with Ken. . . . so I am disgusted by his cultural voyeurism, let me start there.
That seems to be the gist of her argument. Grow up. I don’t like you.
Maybe just maybe it is true that Crossley herself sees all kinds in her newsroom–though I expect the diversity arguments there, as contentious as they may get, are limited to fights about differences on correct progressive doctrine. There is no engagement by Crossley over the core of Stern’s argument–that blue state bubblers see things differently than people in the rest of the country. For her the whole world is plain to see from a perch at WGBH.
Since Crossley batted clean-up among the contributors the camera then turned back to a wrap up by Rooney. Chastened as ever by her panel and especially the angry moral posturing intended by Crossley to be The Final Word, Rooney closed the segment by saying “I couldn’t have said it better myself!” And the world was right again, for a moment.
The ignore gambit is apparent in this segment on yesterday’s All Things Considered in which three female journalists discuss whether we are at a tipping point in our culture on sexual harassment and, if so, why the tipping point would come at this specific time, in the wake of Weinstein but against a longer term recognition of the issue.
I refer you to the full transcript and audio since we are discussing culture bubbles and the entire interchange is worth reviewing as ethnography. But I will mention here a few highlights.
For instance, take this framing part of the conversation at the outset.
I think you start with Anita Hill. I mean, her testimony shocked people. It led to some pretty important changes in the culture. The next big moment would be Bill Cosby because even though we haven’t had the same ripple effect of Harvey Weinstein, certainly it got the country’s attention. If someone like Bill Cosby is accused of these things, you know, we need to pay attention.
And then I think another very, very important piece of this – and this is what everyone said to me when I talked to them – was President Trump, the allegations against him for sexual misconduct and then the release of the of the “Access Hollywood” tape. So I think those, I mean, there are certainly other moments, but those are some three pretty important moments.
Bill Clinton? Kathleen Willey? Paula Jones? Juanita Brodderick?
Then there is this:
Sheer numbers are so clearly a part of this. There’s the #MeToo campaign, which I think astonished people because it was so ubiquitous. It felt like everybody in my Twitter feed was tweeting #MeToo.
I don’t gainsay that #MeToo is a big thing. But consider how the contributor put it: everybody in her Twitter feed was tweeting it!
Or take this exchange:
KING: You know, I have to say, there is a generational divide here. And I experienced it myself this week. I am in my mid-30s. And I’ve been talking to women in our newsroom who are in their mid-20s. They see this differently than I do. For them, there is no spectrum. There is no varying degrees. For a lot of them, there is no tolerance at any level. And I’ve heard this a lot from women who are 24, 25, 26. I got to say, that really seems like progress. Alexandra, what do you think?
SCHWARTZ: I totally agree. I think it does seem like progress.
Again, I am not making the point that the views presented are ill-founded. But what does it say when three journalists assembled to presumably undertake an analysis jump comfortably into a presentation style that is deeply rooted in the culture of their newsrooms?
Note also the reference to youth, which admirably presents the preferred point of view in a harder, undistilled form, and is to be applauded for it. Thus we not only embed the rightness of our own cultural values in a news analysis but also, in the reference to youth, suggest the inevitable arc of history titling toward us.
Culture is a wonderful, powerful, dangerous and inevitable thing. Handle with care.