Today, President Obama took on cable news pundits during a commencement address at University of Michigan in front of an audience estimated at 92,000. Said Obama (emphasis added):
But it was the last question from the last student in the letter that gave me pause. The student asked, “Are people being nice?” Are people being nice?
Well, if you turn on the news today, or yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago -- particularly one of the cable channels -- you can see why even a kindergartener would ask this question. We've got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story -- which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible.
Today's 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory sound bites louder and faster than ever before. And it's also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.
Still, if you're somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.
Given how Fox News and right-wing radio hosts have responded to the President's criticism in the past, I'm sure they'll be chomping at the bit to ponder these remarks next week.
Video of the President's commencement address can be viewed here.