Guest column: Subtleties sometimes lost in narratives

University professor and friend Dwight Allman discusses why journalistic shortcuts often shortchange the public, writes Roger Plothow.

To become media literate, one must learn to spot sloppy journalism.

All journalists are guilty of it, despite our best intentions. For example, we too often use terms that are either too general or almost entirely meaningless, like referring to states as “red” or “blue.” What, exactly is a “blue state” or a “red state?”

Dwight Allman is a friend from my high school days who is now an associate professor of political science at Baylor University. He got his doctorate from the University of Chicago – one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning – and is fluent enough in German to read Nietzsche without the need for English translation. In other words, he’s really smart.

I asked him to weigh in on the red-blue issue and, of course, I wasn’t disappointed.

“I live in the ‘heart of Texas’ (as Waco likes to call itself), a reliably red state that has awarded its considerable cache of electoral college votes to the Republican presidential candidate in 11 of the last 12 national elections,” he wrote.

Sound familiar so far?

“Moreover, my congressional district (TX-17) is one in which the real race is these days pretty much confined to the Republican primary, which typically revolves around a contest to establish who the ‘true conservative’ really is.”

Rings a bell, right?

“And yet, the multiple and various ways in which Central Texans conceive of themselves as ‘conservatives,’ and the priority they assign to different issues or concerns in working out their ‘conservative politics,’ results in a considerable range of voters identifying themselves with the label ‘conservative,’ not to mention the variety of viewpoints that come to be so denominated.”

As is true in Idaho, “the question of what constitutes genuine conservativism is regularly at issue in Republican primary contests.”

Again, as is true in Idaho, Allman says of his own home district: “ ‘Conservative politics’ is a relatively dynamic and regularly contested concept within its borders.”

These are subtleties that are too often lost on journalists trying to establish a coherent narrative where one may not exist, a circumstance exaggerated by politically motivated media.

“I worry that elements of our contemporary media increasingly have a ‘balkanizing’ effect on us, both as individuals and communities,” Allman writes. “Media directed by an expressly partisan purpose seems to me to promote a civic culture that increasingly inclines us to withdraw from the public square, limiting our political involvements and engagements to ‘red’ or ‘blue’ ghettos. These forms of media thus mitigate against meaningful exchanges, interactions, and cooperation between individuals who find themselves in different parties, or committed to different candidates, or even in the same party but with rival views concerning the best way forward, since they encourage us to view one another as morally suspect and politically beyond the pale.”

We’re not finished with the professor. Next week, we talk about media literacy and the prince of political shenanigans, Machiavelli.

Roger Plothow is Editor and Publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong weekly column and news and media literacy.