The independent news organization of Duke University

For sale: The Fourth Estate

If you present an argument in a classroom, it is expected to be logically sound. Otherwise, you can expect to have it rightly refuted. As a recent graduate, I have been disheartened to discover that these expectations do not extend to important places off campus. Like our government.

I now live in Washington, D.C., the front line of a polarized America. From the floor of the Senate to the op-ed page of The Washington Post, I am disgusted by the deliberate mistruths and toxicity that have polluted the national dialogue. Name your issue, it’s there. This conversation takes a necessary turn towards Fox News.

People say that Fox News is irrelevant because it yells into its own echo chamber and thus reaches only ultraconservatives. But even conceding that point, Fox retains unfortunate relevance.

My final Chronicle column lamented the mainstream media embracing “balance” as their primary value, unseating objective accuracy and giving Fox an apparent victory. Consider a linear spectrum from liberal to conservative. As long as balance trumps accuracy, whenever conservatives dive outrageously to the right, media outlets must move at least half as far in that direction to stay in the center. That taints everybody’s news.

Instead of trying to perfectly straddle that mobile center, media outlets have increasingly resorted to punditry; pair each comment from the left with a comment from the right and you have ostensibly achieved balance—at the expense of the truth.

If the news is just a soapbox for politicos, and outlets are afraid to call out disprovable lies, the system has collapsed.

When the now infamous Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., interrupted President Barack Obama, he didn’t yell, “I have statistical data that casts your theory into doubt!” A baseless claim, “You lie!” now suffices as a political riposte. And the solution to this behavior is not an equally extreme liberal demagogue like Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla. Just tell the truth!

The nastiness of our political discourse is unprecedented but not inexplicable. Our two-party system has had this all-out combative capability since Jefferson and Adams. It has just been held in check by the media—until now.

The American media has sold out. Politicians used to be restrained by objective fact checking and investigative journalism. Public accountability once held extreme rhetoric in check. Today, American news outlets are either perversely partisan or utterly defanged. And when the referees are biased or silent, the game quickly turns violent.

Students from one school may have little sway over the national media, but we are not powerless to turn back this ugly tide. We can’t pick the refs, but we can pick the players.

Believe it or not, it’s already another election year. North Carolina’s primaries are next month, and in November many of you can help elect a new U.S. senator and representative. So let me be the first to say: “Please vote.” As an official D.C. resident, I essentially no longer can. It’s one of the many things I miss being able to do at Duke.

Jamie Friedland graduated from Trinity College in 2009.


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