The dangers of echo chambers in newsrooms

Two days ago, Nicholas Kristof published “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus.” As you might expect from a New York Times op-ed, it’s typical of public discourse surrounding its topic. Kristof argues that campuses are liberal bubbles in need of bursting. This is, in fact, what conservatives have been saying for decades; the difference is that Kristof pitches the argument as avuncular advice, liberal to liberal. “Too often, we embrace diversity of all kinds except for ideological,” he admonishes his readers in the first person plural.

Never mind that his sole example, Oberlin College, is wildly unrepresentative of actually existing American higher education. It’s more similar to Harvard, where Kristof was an undergraduate, or Oxford, where Kristof was a Rhodes Scholar, or Boston College, where I teach.

Never mind that focusing on disembodied ideology at Oberlin, where 80% of students are white and 89% do not qualify for Pell grants, allows Kristof to avoid addressing the underrepresentation of people of color and poverty- and working-class people (these categories of course intersect) on elite campuses and, correspondingly, the experiences and opportunities afforded to these people on less well-funded campuses.

Besides, in a rhetorical irony that is quintessentially 2016, the ostensible targets of the argument have already done the introspection being recommended. I attended Wesleyan University. During my time there, the relationship between campus discourse and public discourse was a constant topic of conversation. Ideological battles on campus consciously played out against the backdrop of a public sphere that derided places like Oberlin and Wesleyan as liberal bubbles. The ‘real world’ loomed large, not only as a rhetorical ploy in difficult conversations, but also as the reality everyone would face after graduation. Student activists are already doing the hard work that Kristof blithely recommends as if for the first time.

Kristof’s piece has generated significant pushback, probably more than it deserves. It isn’t even the first time he himself has made the argument. I want to suggest one reason for the disproportionate response: Kristof’s chiding, can’t-we-all-just-get-along tone epitomizes a news media bubble whose default mode is Everything Is OK. It’s the same bubble in which Donald Trump stood no chance of winning a presidential election.

Everything Is Not OK. A few weeks ago, police used water cannons on Dakota Access Pipeline protesters in Cannon Ball, ND, in subfreezing weather, injuring hundreds. Whether you find yourself on the side of the police or the protestors, the violent confrontation has to indicate that Everything Is Not OK.

Betsy DeVos, the appointee for education secretary, rose to political prominence by creating so many charter schools in Detroit that the quality of education at both charter schools and public schools deterioriated. Whether you support or oppose the charter school movement, the appointment of a billionaire lobbyist with a questionable track record and no experience as a teacher or school administrator has to indicate that Everything Is Not OK.

Scott Pruitt, the appointee to head up the Environmental Protection Agency, denies the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change for political reasons. There may be room for debate on the precise extent of climate change and the most effective political response to it, but Scott Pruitt is not in the room. He’s not even in the building. Regardless of your position on energy reform or the epistemological limits of modern science, the appointment of a dedicated opponent of scientifically informed policy to head the EPA has to indicate that Everything Is Not OK.

All of these developments deserve more media coverage than they’re getting. Meanwhile, Kristof argues that it’s liberals at Oberlin who are standing in the way of an ideologically robust public discourse. Only within the news media bubble could such a notion appear as a hard truth.

My interest in public discourse in 2016 grows out of my research on medieval English political prophecy. In fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century Britain, prophetic discourse furnished common ground for the most and least powerful members of society. It took the form of social protest but was soon co-opted by elites as political propaganda. Prophetic writing crowned kings and got everyday people killed. The ideological underpinnings of prophecy, its forms of epistemic closure, can be obvious to us now, because prophecy comes from a political world we no longer inhabit. The ideological underpinnings of public discourse in 2016 can be more difficult to ascertain. An op-ed seeming to recommend the piercing of an echo chamber might turn out to be yet another reverberation in an echo chamber.

In my experience, echo chambers on campus mostly don’t exist, or if they do they are not dangerous in any widely accepted definition of the word. Echo chambers in our institutions of mass media, and our collective inability or unwillingness to recognize them, are as dangerous as ever.

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