Things are not well in our anarchic, allegedly gatekeeper-less new media environment when the most radical, bizarre and hateful voices routinely infect and then somehow come to dominate mainstream thought.
I keep hearing things in the news that sound outlandish and so outside what is reasonable, rational or Constitutional that I shrug them off as little asides in our grand diverse discourse, only to find days or weeks or months later that these off-the-wall agendas have become Big Stories.
So, for instance, little dribs and drabs of complaint are sounded about an Islamic center being built in New York City near the site of the terrorist-destroyed World Trade Center, and I think: Well, naturally, some people will let fear and ignorance and xenophobia trump the uniquely powerful and enduring American ideal that all people have a natural and (domestically) a Constitutional right to assemble and worship as they please, but cooler heads will surely prevail and the addition of another religious fixture in the nation's most diverse and vibrant city will not become a national story engulfing Congressional politics and cause the president to waver in his firm declaration of support for this unique and enduring American right and lead to overwhelming popular opposition to the construction of such a center.
I was wrong, as usual. Because that's what happened, because politicians and politico-entertainers would much rather divert people with issues like this than discuss, say, the economy, or our continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, heaven forbid, the remaking of the earth's surface through global climate change.
Salon.com has a piece charting how the story might have gained traction, which seems to follow a similar pattern for much of our diseased national dialogue.
Lots of people let us down when these things happen, but my primary concern on this blog is the journalists, who allow something like a noncontroversial building permit to grow into A Threat To The Nation through inertia, pack journalism and fear of appearing biased against xenophobia.
Let me just come out and say here, as a supporter of traditional journalistic values, that those values do not require the fanning of xenophobic flames. That traditional journalistic values call for judging the relative significance of one story against another, and that journalistic time and resources should not be steered toward the basest and most superficial kinds of stories in service of politicians and pundits who want to say "Hey, look over there!" so we don't have to talk about real problems in real ways. Journalistic values call for us to say: Well, I see that over there, but how is that going to affect the country's jobless rate or stop the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan or produce better responses for the increasing natural disasters affecting millions of people around the world? Why don't we talk about that for a minute?
Because journalism is an independent process. It has no obligation to hop on the diversionary political agenda of the moment. Its goal is to make people smarter about the world, better prepared for its challenges and more understanding of why things are the way they are.
Its job is also, I would argue, to defend the First Amendment, against all challengers. Because it looks like nobody else is going to do it.