Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nixonland 4: The Diverse Media

On page 183 of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein discusses the role of different publications in influencing opinions about the Vietnam War:

“An argument proliferated on the right: that winning would be easy—-only, Reader’s Digest argued, ‘Our government has not permitted it.’  A woman reading that in a dentist’s waiting room might sink down into the chair a confirmed hawk.  But if she happened to choose Ladies’ Home Journal instead, she might read this letter to the editor: ‘Before I went to Saigon, I had heard and read that napalm melts the flesh, and I thought that’s nonsense, because I can put a roast in the oven and the fat will melt but the meat stays there.  Well, I went and saw these children burned by napalm, and it is absolutely true.’  That might make you a dove.”

On pages 206-297, there is a similar passage: Reader’s Digest was talking about how Americans in Vietnam were visiting orphanages and reconstructing schools, whereas the “prestige press” was painting a picture of American soldiers wrecking South Vietnamese hamlets and killing inhabitants.  But Perlstein goes on to say that even Reader’s Digest readers were wondering what the Vietnam War was for.

I one time read an article for an American Government class about the diversity of media, and how Americans nowadays listen to viewpoints that agree with their own ideological persuasions.  I’ve heard more than one liberal hearken back to the good old days when there were three networks, and most people got their news from one of those three networks.  At least there was a commonality among Americans back then, as opposed to people getting their “information” (true or not) within their own little worlds.  Or so the reminisce goes.

Actually, there were diverse media outlets during the so-called good old days.  Sure, there were three networks that many Americans watched, but there were also local newspapers, many of which were conservative.  There was Reader’s Digest.  And a number of doctors and dentists had John Bircher publications on their waiting room tables.

And, nowadays, while people may read or listen to things that agree with what they already believe, there is more opportunity for different people to come together and discuss issues.  This happens on the Internet.
I wouldn’t say that things are rosy right now, however, for there is still suspicion of the “other,” and thus a reluctance to read an alternative point-of-view in an open-minded manner.  There are plenty of good discussions on the Internet, but there is also a lot of people talking past each other.

A professor once told me that he had a solution to all of the acrimonious political discussions that students were conducting online: put them into a room in a library, and have them read only the opposite point-of-view.  I think there’s something to this proposal, and yet it’s far from perfect.  I may have been an acrimonious conservative back then, but I shouldn’t have been put into a room where I’d read only liberal thought.  I hadn’t been exposed to the best of conservative thought!  I hadn’t mastered the conservative perspective!  Consequently, I believe that people should read as many perspectives as they can.  A helpful resource can be the Opposing Viewpoints series, or similar series: the types that include different perspectives on controversial issues.  In my opinion, that can provide people with a fuller picture of how things are: not a perfect picture, mind you, since different “sides” in America may share presuppositions that someone outside of America may disagree with, but a fuller picture—-at least fuller than reading only one side would get a person.

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