Silencing the sound bites

| Forum Editor

The latest chapter in the ongoing war between the Internet’s devotees and their mainstream media adversaries is an article in The New York Times Magazine about Mike Allen, writer of an e-mailed morning news digest called Playbook that is enormously popular with Washington, D.C., residents and other “politicos.”

The article reads a bit like a well-established pastor warning against the dangers of some new, misguided youthful craze. Virtuous and yet hopelessly quixotic.

Railing against the 24-hour news cycle sometimes feels like protesting the rotation of the earth. Now that technology has enabled the two to coincide, both seem equally irreversible.

But inevitability does not confer worth. Publishing newsworthy information is good; calling information “news” for the sake of publication is not. The Internet is the newest purveyor of puff, but it is not the only culprit. Both 24-hour news channels and online news outlets have the space and time to provide depth and context, yet too often that space and time becomes a void to fill rather than an opportunity for meaning. It elevates trivial sound bites at the expense of elevating our discourse.

The problem with entities like Playbook is that they attach more (and at best only equal) significance to one-line gaffes and their implications than to policy speeches and proposals. Rather than cover issues thoroughly or provide historical background and—most importantly—perspective, too often the media supply only an ongoing, insular loop of debate about who’s winning and who’s losing.

Constant coverage also tends to wrongly treat speculation as news. What would be considered malpractice in any other forecasting field is standard in political punditry. It doesn’t matter that the political chattering class totally mispredicted the presidential nominees in 2008 or jumped overnight from viewing health care as the demise of the Obama presidency to celebrating the historic achievement; we consumers of commentary are like addicts, returning for yet another dose of which member of Congress is wavering on health care reform now.

And yet, inevitability need not require complicity. I cannot stop news outlets from covering politics as a blood sport, but I can encourage you to occasionally look for broader meaning amid the carnage.

The most meaningful questions in today’s political debate are not whether Sarah Palin will run for president in 2012 or which party will dominate the midterm elections according to the latest polls. The better queries revolve around the worth of specific policy proposals or stem from in-depth consideration of long-term political trends. Daily approval ratings are not as important as legacy, nor are the former magic eight balls for predicting the latter.

Instead, seek out the commentators whose perspectives are original and meaningful rather than relying solely on those who treat the regurgitation of Washington’s echo chamber platitudes as some type of public service. If you cannot break away from the constant drip of chatter, at least set aside some time to read pieces that are more reflective.

I am not some Internet-hating Luddite. I like the Internet, not least because it gives me easy access to articles like The New York Times Magazine’s take on Mike Allen. I also think blogs and their ilk are an important check against a mainstream media that has at times grown complacent.

But in the case of writing, quantity tends to decrease quality. Politico’s “talking point of the day” (and scoop of the day, player of the day, link of the day, joke of the day, even birthday of the day) mentality leaves insufficient room for stories and ideas that span more than a 24-hour rotation.

As college students, our news consumption is a form of self-education. As we learn, we should take care to avoid the delusion that more links equals more knowledge.