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Do You Like to Be Nudged?

Progressives like a centralized state composed of luminaries making enlightened decisions for the rest of society. They want that for media, too.

Do you want society’s so-called best and brightest “nudging” your decisions about what to consume – whether it’s for news, soft drinks or light bulbs?

If so, chances are you call yourself progressive. If you snort at the mere notion, however, you are almost certainly a conservative.

In fact, throw out all the other Rorschach tests. This is the one that separates one side from the other.

This difference is at the heart of a spat I find myself in with colleagues Darrell West and Beth Stone of the Brookings Institution. West and Stone contended in a paper in early February that our media organizations need to “nudge” Americans to consume “more thoughtful information.” I argued in a piece in The Federalist that their manuscript was a veiled attempt at putting the media revolution genie back in the bottle and returning us to the age when the likes of Walter Cronkite, NPR and The New York Times told us what was news. Not to be outdone, West and Stone returned the favor and scolded me this week for being anti-thoughtful.

Our little debate is actually a microcosm of a larger one. Progressives like a centralized state composed of luminaries making enlightened decisions for the rest of society. Conservatives fear that this state will treat the individual less like an adult and more like an infant — and, more importantly, tear his family and community apart.

In this wonk spat between West, Stone and me, the operative word is “thoughtful” — the quality I supposedly lack and a word they use no fewer than nine times in their response. To be thoughtful is indeed a fine quality, but I posit that the term here can be wielded to quash dissenting voices. Tin pot dictators don’t have laws that say “whatever Tin Pot doesn’t like is banned.” No, they ban actions, speech or even thought deemed “hateful,” “anti-social,” “against social conviviality,” and so on.

West and Stone are not totalitarians or even authoritarians. I am sure they view themselves as broad-minded, tolerant and urbane. They protest that “we are not ultra-liberals and we actually have voted for Republicans and Democrats” (though I would point out to Mr. West that a former professor at Brown University pulling the lever for Lincoln Chaffee doesn’t count).

They do, however, make clear that “thoughtful reporting” would be what Ezra Klein, Andrew Sullivan, Jill Abramson, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez — journalists ranging from liberal to very liberal — think is thoughtful, as these are the names they cite. One doesn’t find Brit Hume, George Will, Rich Lowry or Paul Gigot among their arbiters of thoughtfulness.

Even if they had included Charles Krauthammer, the idea of nudging consumers only toward what an elite of either side deems appropriate is frightening. Consider West’s interview on Bloomberg radio this past weekend on what he considers thoughtful.

Interviewer Bill Frezza asked West how he thought the media should deal with issues of settled science. West answered that “good scientists never resolve anything permanently because there’s always new information that comes around,” which is right. But then Frezza asked, “So would you be in favor of equal time for both global warming alarmists and climate change deniers?”

West: “I would not in that situation, just because you’re talking about a situation where, you know, 98 percent of scientists believe that the world is getting warmer and that human activities are part of the reason it is getting warmer. It is a very small number of people—many of them don’t have good credentials—who are challenging that viewpoint. So I think it’s a mistake when journalists equate those two perspectives when in reality, you know, scientists overwhelmingly believe in global warming.”

Indeed. I think we all get the point.

After I wrote my piece in The Federalist, it emerged that the Federal Communications Commission was launching a study on whether news outlets were covering “critical information needs.” Among these were the “environment” and “economic opportunities.”

This study would be an instance where the government uses its full might to force media outlets to cover what it wants, and the FCC’s actions led to a huge outcry. West and Stone don’t come armed with the power to take TV licenses away, and would only “nudge” us toward the “right” consumption patterns.

But caution is in order. Nudging is a term popularized in the policy context by former Obama official Cass Sunstein, by which he meant using public policy to persuade people subconsciously to make certain choices and not others. In media consumption, people click much more often on items that are higher on a search engine’s queue.

West and Stone observe approvingly that Facebook already gives priority to what it considers high-quality content. Conservatives need to be watchful of this. Facebook, Google and Twitter — all so essential to our new-found, post-Cronkite media freedom — are basically monopolies.

West and Stone complain that I denigrated their paper. I didn’t. I respect their work and also that of Brookings. I believe society benefits from a collegial, Socratic dialogue in which we probe each other’s thinking in policy and moral matters, in order to stimulate critical thinking. But to do that, you need to present more than one point of view. And no nudging allowed.

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