‘The honest pursuit of the truth’

Economist Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recently stirred up a political hornet’s nest with his theory that Fox News has damaged the Republican Party by creating a bubble for conservatives to brainwash themselves.

In his paper, titled “How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics,” Bartlett theorizes that watching the network is essentially “self-brainwashing” for viewers, making them believe that the United States is a more conservative nation than it actually is.

With Fox News guarding its flank, the Republican Party has changed its presidential primary gauntlet to reward candidates with extreme conservative views who may be appealing to the network audience, but not the overall electorate, Bartlett said.

“Many conservatives live in a bubble where they watch only Fox News on television, they listen only to conservative talk radio – Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, many of the same people,” Bartlett said. “When they go onto the Internet, they look at conservative websites like National Review, Newsmax, World Net Daily. And so, they are completely in a universe in which they are hearing the same exact ideas, the same arguments, the same limited amount of data repeated over and over and over again. And that’s brainwashing.”

I would argue that many liberals are guilty of the same plight. Hint: If your key sources of “news” and information are MSNBC, The Huffington Post, The Nation magazine and various liberal blogs, you also are living in a selective, protective bubble, surrounding yourself with a comfortable echo chamber.

Although it’s perfectly reasonable to dial in to news outlets you trust, many folks have crawled into their like-minded media bunkers and have no desire whatsoever to even hear what the other side is saying, much less that there may be valid criticisms about the information they are hearing over and over again.

In Wisconsin, the problem is exacerbated by the emergence of outwardly partisan advocacy websites such as Uppity Wisconsin (progressive) and Right Wisconsin (conservative), which disseminate faux “news” that is filtered, skewed and often just flat out wrong. However, if the consumers of that propaganda do not make an effort to hear or read counterpoints to those lies, they usually are not even aware of the distortions or of their own blind spots.

Ironically, the very people who would benefit most from hearing Bartlett’s treatise probably never will, because they remain in their bunkers.

For the past four semesters, I have taught an advanced journalism class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My final exam for the students is simple and short, but hopefully memorable. I ask each student to repeat back to me my definition of journalism: “The honest pursuit of the truth.”

Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter and editor Don Walker, who passed away far too young last month, was a walking, talking embodiment of this definition of the profession. Don will be missed in this town in so many ways.
We would have a smarter electorate and our political discourse would be much more civil and respectful if all of us would commit to learning the truth, instead of settling for pre-filtered nonsense.

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