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Among the countless articles and words devoted to the expression of opinion in the last 150 years, the vast majority are forgotten endorsements of a status quo, or futile critiques from the sidelines that were soon overtaken by events.

· 8 min read
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For some time now, we have been hearing ominous warnings about the death of journalism and its consequences for society. Venerable daily newspapers have folded for good; foreign desks that relayed occurrences from distant places have been closed in budget cuts; broadcast outlets whose reporters and anchors made sense of a chaotic world have lost their audiences to social media; trusted sources have been displaced by trolls, tweets, and TikTok. “Is Democracy Written In Disappearing Ink?” asked a Toronto Globe and Mail essay in 2009. In 2021, an Atlantic investigation reported that “A Secretive Hedge Fund is Gutting Newsrooms,” while a later story in the same magazine wondered, “Is Journalism Headed Toward an ‘Extinction-Level Event’?” Recent books about this worrisome trend include Postmedia: How Vulture Capitalism is Wrecking Our News, Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights, Losing the News, and The Vanishing Newspaper. But while journalism’s decline is a legitimate concern, the related enterprise of commentary—opinion, reviews, analyses, editorials—is flourishing as never before. Or is this also troubling? 

It’s important to understand, first of all, that the ideal of impartially documenting noteworthy events on a regular basis is relatively recent. The advent of publishing—and subsequent forms of communication like cinema, radio, and television—did not immediately lead to delivery of objective “news,” but rather religious instruction, scholarly inquiry, and sheer amusement. Moral tracts and political pamphlets were printed and read alongside the earliest newspapers; within individual outlets, only over time did the pieces offering eyewitness accuracy and at least a pretense of neutrality become distinct from the stories intended as advocacy, sensation, or disguised fiction.

Eventually, the most popular journals and dailies designated separate space for material written to persuade, cordoned off from material written to inform. Publications ran readers’ letters responding to prior coverage, and unsigned pronouncements on issues of the moment were featured next to insights credited to guest experts from one edition to the next (the term “op-ed” sometimes confuses “opinion” and “editorial” as synonyms, but it formally means “opposite editorial,” whereby one-time contributions are placed on a page across from the recurring work of salaried editors). To have an op-ed or even a letter published was recognized as a special achievement. Meanwhile, the personal reflections of full-time newspaper columnists like Walter Winchell, William Safire, and Mike Royko made them household names in the United States, just as the literary legacies of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell are built in part on their careers as critics and essayists.

So, if journalism is the first draft of history, op-eds and commentaries are the handwritten notes scrawled in the margins—humanizing perspectives on phenomena otherwise described merely as raw data or dry facts. A handful of these are remembered for their enduring significance: novelist Émile Zola’s open letter “J ’Accuse,” published in L’Aurore in 1898, charged the French government with antisemitism in the Dreyfus affair; Henry Luce’s “The American Century,” a call to US global leadership, appeared in his flagship magazine Life a few months before Pearl Harbor; Orwell’s widely quoted “Politics and the English Language” excoriated journalistic double-talk in a Horizon issue of 1946; even the perennial “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” the New York Sun’s 1897 answer to the wavering faith of eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. Students of particular historical episodes will often cite contemporary editorials as indexes to an era’s evolving cultural consensus—my personal favorite is the London Times’ “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?” from 1967, in which William Rees-Mogg questioned the severity of the criminal sentence for drug possession imposed on Mick Jagger. “If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism,” Rees-Mogg harrumphed, “then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include tolerance and equity.”

Yet among the countless articles and words devoted to the expression of opinion in the last 150 years, the vast majority are forgotten endorsements of a status quo, or futile critiques from the sidelines that were soon overtaken by events. And that’s just the universe of print; since the millennium, a new galaxy of digital platforms such as Slate, Vox, Salon, the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, UnHerd, Compact, and the Free Press—along with the online editions of legacy media like the BBC, CNN, al-Jazeera, the New York Times, and the Atlantic—present endless, constantly replenished tsunamis of content, most of it not old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting but armchair assessments of the same news or commercial publicity streamed in from everywhere. It’s been called the opinion-industrial complex, a 24-hour, profit-driven churn of rhetoric and diatribe. And the DIY networks of Facebook, Substack, Medium, Wordpress, and Twitter, as well as the limitless comment fields of YouTube, Reddit, and Amazon, hold further gigabytes of input from virtual nations of ordinary, anonymous users. It’s the future, and everyone’s a pundit for 15 minutes. 

This is what happens when the possibility of consensus among the governed deteriorates to unmanageable extremes.

That’s not to say that the material they generate is necessarily bad writing or shallow thinking. The op-eds of yesteryear and the blogs and posts of today constitute a wide-ranging public conversation, some of it profound, that’s a necessary element of democratic societies. Conversation is really just ideas, though, and ideas are not reality. Like the private musings inside our own heads, they might not—or should not—be manifested in outward action.

Consider only two fragments of this elevated dialogue from over 20 years ago. This is Christopher Hitchens writing in the Spectator on September 29, 2001, about “The Fascist Sympathies of the Soft Left”:

The very first step that we must take, therefore, is the acquisition of enough self-respect and self-confidence to say that we have met the enemy, and that he is not us, but someone else. ... But straight away, we meet people who complain at once that this enemy is us, really ... I have no hesitation in describing this mentality, carefully and without heat, as soft on crime and soft on fascism.

And here is Susan Sontag writing in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section five days earlier:

Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a “cowardly” attack on  “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? ... Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.

Two brilliant intellects demonstrated in two prestigious periodicals; two contrasting viewpoints on an issue of real-world import—what difference did they make? If Christopher Hitchens and Susan Sontag couldn’t create a workable consensus, how can armies of lesser scribes, bloggers, tweeters, podcasters, and Redditors achieve any more? 

The problem is that the proliferation of opinion sites tends to chase down the biggest, most divisive topics to gather the pro or con attention of the largest possible readerships, while smaller (or more manageable) matters get ignored. Insofar as beat journalism is indeed dying and curated anger is taking its place, this is how we get whole electorates hopping mad over Critical Race Theory or the war in Gaza, but indifferent to re-zoning plans in their own neighborhoods or restructuring announcements by their local employer.

In their 2022 book The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion, Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing describe the big picture:

People aren’t involved in their communities anymore, in part because they don’t have to be. We’ve got smartphones and Netflix and a thousand other diversions. ... At the same time, local newspapers are dying out and political discourse is becoming increasingly nationalized, which means most issues are abstract and dominated by tribal allegiances and caricatured Right-Left narratives. To the extent that citizens think and talk about politics, they think and talk about national politics. In our current mediascape, that means whatever cable news is covering, whatever narratives are driving traffic on the internet.

Today, the core audience for reviews and editorials is precisely the people who don’t need to read any more of them: the interested, the engaged, and (perhaps most importantly) the literate, whereas the apathetic majority, scrolling through funny cat videos, have long ago made up their minds. The same paradox applies to the post-literate consumers of themed podcasts and YouTube channels. Even when a contrary position is presented—rare enough when so many platforms are ideological echo chambers attracting the already susceptible via proprietary algorithm—it’s received by a sliver of the public self-selected for firm beliefs and contentious debate, who just end up throwing in their two cents on matters that ultimately get decided by oblivious others. 

Being informed and reflective are worthy attributes. Mediated information and reflection, however, define those attributes for us: rather than encompass the infinite possibilities of human wisdom, emotion, or spirit, they artificially set the parameters of what’s worth knowing and contemplating (think of all those articles, including this one, that begin with some variation on everyone’s talking about... a subject you may or may not have actually heard everyone talking about). As journalist Matt Taibbi conceded in his 2019 polemic Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another

In print media your eyes scroll down to similarly themed stories, stringing you from one outrage to another. Keep clicking, keep delving deeper into the argument, make it more and more your identity. We don’t want you signing off until tomorrow because we don’t want you to even understand that you have an inner dialogue separate from the news experience. Click on, watch, read, tweet, argue, come back, click again, repeat, do it over and over, rubbing the nerve ends away just a little bit each time. With each engagement, you’re signing over more and more of your intellectual autonomy. ... If you want to be happier, if you want to live in a world that may be thick with problems but is at least a sunnier place where people are more decent to one another and more willing to cooperate and show kindness, just turn off the tube. 

Of course, the influence of a provocative published opinion may translate into popular votes that determine the making of laws and the starting of wars, but no one can really measure how that happens; no doubt provocative cases for exactly the opposite claim can be produced in rebuttal. Soon, the whole point-counterpoint process may be farmed out to an essay-composing artificial intelligence program, and we’ll be taking sides devised for us not by moral reasoning but by a machine. As much as we welcome a broad discourse on difficult questions, and a capacious library of recorded thought on current affairs, we might remind ourselves that whatever anyone says or thinks, life goes on and death comes to us all, even to the temporary winners of ephemeral arguments about passing things: Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?

George Case

George Case is a Canadian author of numerous books on social history and pop culture, including ‘Takin' Care of Business: A History of Working People's Rock 'n' Roll’ (Oxford University Press, 2021)

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