Get Rid of Newspaper Opinion Pages!

Reply Wed 28 Jan, 2009 10:15 am
Get Rid of Opinion Pages!
By Rick Fahr - E & P
January 27, 2009

Sad, but true: They used to be valuable, when many readers still had open minds, but now all we do is preach to the choir -- or turn off everyone who "knows what they know."

The invitation to speak to a group of college students, some of whom were thinking about going into the media industry, came from an old friend. The topic was to focus on writing commentary, an aspect of a newspaperman’s job that was enjoyable a decade ago. These days, not as much.

As the discussion rolled on, I told the group about a change I’ve seen in the populace. Not just here. Not just somewhere else. Everywhere.

You, Gentle Reader, probably won’t believe it. You will contend we’re wrong. Why? Because you know. And that’s the point.

There was a time long, long ago " the 1990s " when an editorial writer could gather evidence, compose an opinion and present it to readers, who would consider supporting or rejecting the premise. Many times in my early career I thought we, our newspapers, were able to persuade readers to come around to our perspective " on approving a millage increase to fund municipal infrastructure projects, on holding an official accountable for Freedom of Information violations, on rejecting a spending plan that didn’t meet priorities.

Maybe we editorial writers overestimated our sway, but it felt like we could at least make the case. It felt like readers considered the evidence before they made up their minds.

Now? It seems that many people know what they know and they don’t need to know anything else. They certainly don’t have any interest in contradictory information.

Not all of them, certainly, There are some folks who truly do have open minds about issues " though most every person considers himself or herself to have an open mind.

How do we know that? They tell us when they call to chastise us for challenging their belief system.

It feels like we have become a nation of folks who already have the answers.

Evidence of alternative realities, go away.

Proof? Don’t need it; don’t want it.

I have no other way of explaining how callers, writers, visitors absolutely refuse to believe what’s right in front of them on fill-in-the-blank matters.

Global warming? “That’s just something a few scientists believe. They’re probably on somebody’s payroll. There are just as many scientists who think otherwise.”

No, there aren’t. Besides, don’t take a scientist’s word for it. Look around. The weather is changing. And it’s happening around the world. But, no, we’re still debating " and denying " it.

Politics? “That’s not the way it happened. He didn’t do that. ... Well, even if he did, we needed to do that.”

We long for the days when people believed what they saw with their own eyes. That time has past. Video proof of what a person said or didn’t say falls to the side when a person believes the opposite. And, sure, “we’re all for harmony and getting along” " just as long as our guy is the one calling the shots.

Even reading a newspaper has become an exercise in reverse-compartmentalization: “I’m cancelling my subscription” or “I’m pulling my advertising” because of an offensive cartoon or a picture that was too big or too small or a commentary piece was mean-spirited.

Never mind the other 99 percent of the edition that was worth well more than the coupla quarters it cost.

The epiphany struck me while taking with the college kids.
It came to me while talking about how families of service members react to media coverage. It occurred that families of service members and the service members themselves overwhelmingly support whatever conflict they find themselves serving, for self-preservation reasons. They want to believe that their sacrifices are honorable and just. They believe in their sacrifice, and that’s all that matters.

All that matters is believing what they believe. Knowing what they know.

Maybe that’s what’s going on. Americans want to believe in something, and so they cling at all costs to whatever it is they believe. Evidence that their belief is wrong threatens to shake their entire foundation. In these precarious times, people need to hold onto something, no matter if it’s rooted in reality or “reality.” It could be that that’s why folks ignore and refuse to believe that which contradicts their strongly held ideas.

Maybe opinion pages that purport to persuade have gone out of style. Maybe they are relics that serve no purpose, other than to preach to an agreeing choir while alienating a large segment of the audience. Maybe we should relegate them to the trash bin of history at a time when we can ill afford to push audience away.

Sad conclusion but one that strikes me as perhaps unavoidably accurate.

Rick Fahr ([email protected]) is editor of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., and is a two-decade veteran of the newspaper industry
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