The Magical Thinking of High Conflict

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Flowers growing around barbed wire in Peru. Credit: Amanda Ripley

I didn’t know James Bennet very well, but when I wrote for him at the Atlantic, I found him to be unusually humble and curious. He did not assume he had all the answers. He listened when other people talked. I admired that about him. My sense is that the country could use a lot more humility and curiosity right now. So I was deeply saddened to hear he’d become another casualty of the high conflict that we’re in as a country.

High conflict creates magical thinking. We concoct fantasies in our mind about what will make us safe and get the enemy to — finally — repent. Last week, many New York Times reporters and others outside the organization protested the publication of an oped by GOP Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the use of military troops at protests. They rightly noted that the oped included loose language and dangerous rhetoric, stripped of historical context.

But I worry about where that protest landed. It reveals a profound misunderstanding of how we got here. The primary target of much of the outrage was Bennet, the New York Times editorial page editor, who resigned soon afterwards. By allowing such ideas to appear on the page, his critics argued, Bennet had made the world a more dangerous place.

I wish he had that power, I really do.

It is true that publishing something can normalize it, giving it the sheen of legitimacy. That is a real risk. It’s also true that publishing “both sides” or pretending to be objective is a cop out. But the solution to these real problems is not to simply shun widely held opinions that are ignorant. That never worked and won’t work now. The solution is to do the reporting.

Great journalism creates understanding. Especially in times of great conflict. Our job is to put events and facts in context. To illuminate. If Cotton’s oped shouldn’t have been published, let’s talk about the news story that should have been published instead. If polls show that just over half of Americans support the use of the military on American streets, good reporters ask themselves, Why is that?

Go do the reporting. Don’t just say “racism” and stop asking questions. That’s another cop out. What is underneath racism? How did we get here? How is it that the U.S. military is now the most trusted institution in the country and has been for years?

Help your readers understand the history, fears and assumptions that led to these beliefs — not just in a sitting Senator but in so many of your neighbors. You don’t need to normalize or humanize these beliefs in order to understand how we got here and how we can do better.

Serious journalism is in crisis, and shoddy opeds are not the main problem. We lost the trust of the country a long time ago by failing to cover it fully, with curiosity and humility. For me, the painful lesson from the 2016 election was not that the New York Times was too easy on Donald Trump or too hard on Hillary Clinton. Those things were probably true, but it just didn’t matter — not nearly as much as liberal New York Times readers would like to think.

Here’s the painful truth: The New York Times could have called Trump a liar every hour of every day leading up to that election, and Trump still would have won. He actually might have gotten more votes, not fewer. Currently, a whopping 7% of people who tend to vote Republican list the New York Times as a primary source of political news, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll. Meanwhile, 93% list Fox News. That’s not close.

The New York Times still has a lot of influence among elites, it’s true, but it’s not driving social norms in much of the country, particularly the parts that have disproportionate control over the U.S. Senate.

To miss this point is to miss the most urgent lesson for the future of American democracy. Mainstream media organizations left the door open for the propagandists at Fox News decades ago by utterly failing to understand vast swaths of the country — black and white. And now I’m afraid that we’re doing it again: failing in our most vital mission, which is to help readers understand themselves and the world around them a little better.

Last week, former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery tweeted this message: “We need to rebuild our industry,” he wrote, “as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

Really? If I want “moral clarity,” there are about a hundred places I will go before I go to the New York Times. That’s exactly the kind of hubris that got us here.

If we want America to be less vulnerable to demagogues in the future, we must rebuild the industry. I agree. The way to do that is to rebuild trust in the profession. Until hard-working, ethical journalists are trusted by more people, their work will not have the impact they want it to have. They might feel righteous, but they will be tweeting to themselves in a world that keeps getting worse.

I n his book Seeds of Science, environmentalist Mark Lynas bravely recounts how his views evolved over time, shifting from radical ideological activism to evidence-based activism. At one point, he describes re-encountering a professor he’d debated years before. The scientist, a geneticist at Oxford, asked him earnestly what he could have said to convince Lynas, back in the day, of the facts that Lynas now accepted as truth. What would have worked to make him change his mind earlier?

Nothing, Lynas told him. That is the harsh truth of high conflict. There was nothing the scientist — or any scientist — could have said. “It wasn’t that their arguments lacked force,” he wrote. “Their mistake was to think that their arguments mattered much at all.”

When people are in the thrall of an ideological conflict, they will not be persuaded by messengers (or newspapers) they don’t trust. That is basic human psychology. What did eventually change Lynas’s mind? It was his relationships with other humans with whom he disagreed, scientists who did not banish him or mock him but whose decency and competence made him question his previous assumptions. That is how lasting change happens: through more talking, more understanding, more curiosity and humility all around.

Author of The Smartest Kids in the World (2013) and The Unthinkable (2008) Journalist for Time Magazine, The Atlantic; Emerson Senior Fellow

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