A shrill feedback cycle is at work: Hasty reactions to hasty reactions to hasty reactions. Without clearance from the State Department, a diplomat in Egypt rushes to tweet about an anti-Islam YouTube video. The Romney campaign rushes to attack the tweet. The Obama campaign rushes to criticize the Romney attack. Journalists rush to weigh the political consequences of the campaign exchange. For days, meanwhile, serious questions about terrorism and embassy security get too little attention.
Political polarization heats up when discourse moves faster than the speed of rational thought. Given a chance to consider an issue carefully, people may see the strengths and weaknesses of each side. But when they respond immediately, they will cheer for the home team and boo the opposition.
This tendency is especially strong during the “live-blogging” of a speech or debate. We will often read “Wow!” “Yea!” “LOL!” or “Unbelievable!” We will seldom see a commentator saying, “Gee, I wonder what will be said next. Let’s all sleep on it.”
A recent Gallup survey shows that distrust of the mass media is at a record high. Polarization is one reason, since conservatives and liberals both perceive media bias that favors the other side, and they point to it. Moreover, people of all persuasions know that the mainstream press is not as thorough or thoughtful as it used to be. Reporters are reacting to what they see online, then posting their own stuff in hopes of keeping up.
As Jay Root writes in his wonderful new book on the Rick Perry campaign, “We’re not so much reporting the news as blurting it.” Even basic factual accuracy can suffer. Racing for a scoop this summer, CNN and Fox News initially – and falsely – reported that the Supreme Court had struck down the comprehensive health care law.