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  • Cass Sunstein, Glenn Beck, and Diversity of Opinion

    Posted on September 11th, 2009 Helian No comments

    Cass Sunstein has been confirmed as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Budget and Management. The right refers to him as another of Obama’s “czars,” although the position has been in existence since 1980. As Katie Connolly of Newsweek informs us, Glenn Beck was among those who were less than thrilled about Sunstein’s appointment. According to Connolly, after taking down Van Jones, “Beck has him in his sights. Recently he urged fans, via his Twitter feed, to collect and save all the information they could find about Sunstein.” Predictably, the stalwarts of the left are frothing at the mouth about all this, striking pious poses as noble defenders of freedom of speech even as they work tirelessly to eliminate it via the “fairness doctrine.”

    Glenn’s allergic reaction to Sunstein is justified, to the extent that he is sitting at the opposite end of the political spectrum. On the other hand, Cass Sunstein is no Van Jones. He is a progressive leftist, but he is not a self-blinkered ideologue who is incapable of appreciating points of view that differ from his own.

    Some of the right’s objections to Sunstein relate to his attitude concerning freedom of speech. He wrote an interesting essay on the subject back in 2001, excerpts of which appeared in the Boston Review. It’s worth a closer look. The picture of the man that emerges from his own work is a great deal more nuanced than the filtered versions we’ve being seeing from both his detractors on the right and his hagiographers on the left (who, BTW, do not include Kos). In fact, it turns out that some of the reactions to his nomination are good illustrations of a problem he associates with the rise of the Internet:

    We can sharpen our understanding of this problem if we attend to the phenomenon of group polarization. The idea is that after deliberating with one another, people are likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which they were previously inclined, as indicated by the median of their predeliberation judgments. With respect to the Internet, the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought before—but in more extreme form.

    The problem of group polarization is certainly real. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the Amity-Enmity Complex I have referred to earlier. Indeed, Sunstein describes the Complex very nicely:

    For present purposes, the most important point is that group polarization will significantly increase if people think of themselves, antecedently or otherwise, as part of a group having a shared identity and a degree of solidarity.

    According to Sunstein, the problem is exacerbated by the increased ability of individuals to self-filter the news in modern society:

    Of course, these developments make life much more convenient and in some ways much better: we all seek to reduce our exposure to uninvited noise. But from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.

    Sounds harmless enough. However, Sunstein’s version of how these “shared experiences” were acquired in the past will have his detractors on the right rolling with laughter:

    To be sure, the Internet greatly increases people’s ability to expand their horizons, as millions of people are now doing; but many people are using it to produce narrowness, not breadth… What is different is a dramatic increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. For all their problems, and their unmistakable limitations and biases, these intermediaries have performed some important democratic functions.

    Here, of course, Sunstein is referring to what is often referred to as the “legacy media.” Supposedly these “intermediaries” performed the invaluable service of bringing individuals into contact with stories and ideas that they would, given the choice, have ignored, familiarizing them with other points of view and providing balance to their own.

    Here, I must join the right rolling in the aisles. The idea that the legacy media, which, by the time the Internet appeared on the scene, had long been feeding us an utterly one-sided and slanted narrative, grossly abusing their great power in the process, were somehow performing a “valuable service” by exposing us to “diverse points of view” doesn’t pass the “ho-ho” test. Their stony silence during the Van Jones affair was a stark reminder of just how effective these “intermediaries” used to be in making sure that inconvenient truths never saw the light of day. Returning to the essay:

    People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experience with diverse others and exposure to material that they did not specifically choose.

    They have a range of encounters “to material that they did not specifically choose,” all right. However, it is hardly “chance” material, and, instead of choosing it themselves, others do them the honor of choosing it for them.

    A system in which you lack control over the particular content that you see has a great deal in common with a public street, where you might encounter not only friends, but a heterogeneous variety of people engaged in a wide array of activities (including, perhaps, political protests and begging).

    This comparison of the legacy media with the “public street” is one of Sunstein’s favorite hobbies. In fact, their street led in only one direction, and it was certainly not public. Now, however, we run across some of the nuance that doesn’t appear in the diatribes of the right:

    None of these claims depends on a judgment that general interest intermediaries are unbiased, or always do an excellent job, or deserve a monopoly over the world of communications. The Internet is a boon partly because it breaks that monopoly. So too for the proliferation of television and radio shows, and even channels, that have some specialized identity. (Consider the rise of Fox News, which appeals to a more conservative audience.) All that I am claiming is that general interest intermediaries expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public. Indeed, intermediaries of this sort have large advantages over streets and parks precisely because they tend to be national, even international. Typically they expose people to questions and problems in other areas, even other countries.

    However, after these hopeful remarks, Sunstein quickly returns to his obsession with polarization:

    Consider discussions among hate groups on the Internet and elsewhere. If the underlying views are unreasonable, it makes sense to fear that these discussions may fuel increasing hatred and a socially corrosive form of extremism.

    One wonders who will get to decide what is “reasonable,” “hateful,” and “socially corrosive.” Is Sunstein unaware that there is a difference of opinion on the subject?

    How does this bear on the Internet? An increasingly fragmented communications universe will reduce the level of shared experiences having salience to a diverse group of Americans. This is a simple matter of numbers. When there were three television networks, much of what appeared would have the quality of a genuinely common experience. The lead story on the evening news, for example, would provide a common reference point for many millions of people. To the extent that choices proliferate, it is inevitable that diverse individuals, and diverse groups, will have fewer shared experiences and fewer common reference points. It is possible, for example, that some events that are highly salient to some people will barely register on others’ viewscreens. And it is possible that some views and perspectives that seem obvious for many people will, for others, seem barely intelligible.

    In fact, these stories were chosen and reported in a way that conformed to a political narrative. It’s odd that the very modes of communication that freed Americans from the heavy handed slant of the legacy media are now the reason Sunstein is worried about “balance.” Obviously, he never felt threatened by the gross bias of the legacy media because he agreed with it. The perceptions of other people who aren’t quite as in tune with that media as Sunstein regarding the nature of this “common, shared experience” are entirely different. In reality, an elite had the power to choose what our “common shared experience” would be, and then interpreted it for us. The Internet and talk radio demolished that power. The very real danger that government could hand it right back to them on a silver platter with the “fairness doctrine,” restoring the “diversity” their propaganda machine used to dish out, is a far greater cause for concern than Sunstein’s worries about polarization.

    However, Sunstein’s suggestions for curing the problems he alludes to are hardly as heavy-handed as his detractors would have us believe. Returning to the essay:

    I do not intend to offer a comprehensive set of policy reforms or any kind of blueprint for the future. In fact, this may be one domain in which a problem exists for which there is no useful cure: the genie might simply be out of the bottle. But it will be useful to offer a few ideas, if only by way of introduction to questions that are likely to engage public attention in coming years.

    Drawing on recent developments in regulation generally, we can see the potential appeal of five simple alternatives. Of course, different proposals would work better for some communications outlets than others. I will speak here of both private and public responses, but the former should be favored: they are less intrusive, and in general they are likely to be more effective as well.

    Nevertheless, I suspect the cures Sunstein suggest are worse than the disease. They include:

    Disclosure: Producers of communications might disclose important information on their own, about the extent to which they are promoting democratic goals… Television broadcasters might, for example, be asked to disclose their public interest activities. On a quarterly basis, they might say whether and to what extent they have provided educational programming for children, free air time for candidates, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired. They might also be asked whether they have covered issues of concern to the local community and allowed opposing views a chance to speak. The Federal Communications Commission has already taken steps in this direction; it could do a lot more. Of course, disclosure is unlikely to be a full solution to the problems that I have discussed here. But modest steps in this direction are likely to do little harm and at least some good.

    Here one might ask what happens when TV stations insist they are perfectly objective, and entirely fair? The real effect of the type of “disclosure” favored by Sunstein will be exactly what conservatives are worried about when they criticize the fairness doctrine; the exclusion of all but a single narrative. There is, in fact, no such thing as objective reporting. I can think of one type of disclosure that would really be helpful. Anyone who reports the news on public media, whether they claim to be unbiased or not, should disclose their opinions on 15 or 20 of the “hot button” issues of the day, regularly updated. Ones that might serve at the moment include abortion, the public option in health care, the war in Afghanistan, talk radio, etc. If we know what their opinions on such issues are, we will also know how they will filter the news.

    Self-Regulation: Producers of communications might engage in voluntary self-regulation… Any such code could, for example, call for an opportunity for opposing views to speak, or for avoiding unnecessary sensationalism, or for offering arguments rather than quick soundbites whenever feasible.

    NPR and the BBC are perfect examples of why this idea would never work. Their editors are likely convinced that they are paragons of this type of “self-regulation,” yet they are invariably and persistently slanted. Here, I must agree with Rush Limbaugh. He is an opposing point of view, and one that, for all practical purposes, never existed before he came on the scene. I disagree with him on much. However, he may well be the single greatest promoter of freedom of speech and diversity of opinion this country has ever produced. Talk radio and the Internet provide Americans with far greater access to diverse and alternative opinions on just about any subject one could name than exists anywhere else in the world. Neutering them because they are “polarizing” would be a fatal mistake.

    Subsidy: The government might subsidize speech, as, for example, through publicly subsidized programming or publicly subsidized websites.

    The effect of subsidy will be what it has always been; the cultivation of points of view preferred by those in power.

    Links: Websites might use links and hyperlinks to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views.

    Again, notice that, contrary to what some conservative websites have been suggesting, Sunstein is not proposing these links be mandatory. However, his idea raises other issues. Would he include the views of Nazis, Communists, cults, creationists, etc., among those to be linked? Who would decide which of these to exclude?

    Public Sidewalk: If the problem consists in the failure to attend to public issues, the most popular websites in any given period might offer links and hyperlinks, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions… But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers.

    In fact, weakening the power of “general interest intermediaries,” i.e., the legacy media, has been one of the greatest boons of the Internet. It was precisely those “general interest intermediaries” that walled people off from opinions the editors of those former gatekeepers preferred they not hear. As for the authors of the “popular websites” Sunstein is concerned about, they are very well aware of their opponents’ points of view, and must address them or immediately be exposed among their peers. This is a significant break on extremism. So are the comment sections that appear after many blogs on both the left and the right, and typically include both “pro” and “con” points of view. In fact, the legacy media were far more effective at barring our access to opposing points of view than the Internet could ever be.

    Well, be that as it may, Cass Sunstein is a highly intelligent man who is willing to listen to opposing points of view. His opponents on the right who are crying for his removal would be well advised to consider those facts and be careful what they wish for.

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