In Defense of Nuance

A splintered and partisan media culture threatens American democracy.

Thirty-five years ago, few could have imagined how partisan and splintered the media would become. In 1985, the majority of Americans who watched network television news or read their local newspaper trusted that these sources were being careful to separate fact from opinion, according to a Gallup survey at the time. By 2017,  however, that same poll found that less than one third of Americans felt the same way.

It’s not just because of cable news. The rise of social media has only made things worse. Facebook and Twitter each operate under algorithms designed to magnify the most extreme, angry, and oversimplified opinions. Scan the top tweets or most liked posts on any given subject. You’ll feel like you’re dropping in on a conversation between people who are all wrong because they overstate their case and refuse to acknowledge any valid points from the other side.

The most reasonable voices—the ones somewhere in the middle of two extremes—are the most difficult to find. Those folks don’t have as many followers. Their posts don’t get as many likes; reasonableness, after all, doesn’t drive nearly as many clicks as anger. But they are having undue influence. The Pew Research Center found last year that more Americans get their news from social media than print newspapers. That’s terrifying.

Nuance is perhaps the greatest casualty of our current media culture. It’s not just that fewer forums and publications exist to reward it. People with nuanced opinions are justifiably afraid to express themselves because taking a complicated position may well result in attacks from every direction.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for everyone who can see the value in recognizing multiple sides of an argument—or who thinks in gray rather than black and white—to support writers, thinkers, and outlets that offer nuanced perspectives. The Washington Monthly is one of those publications.

My personal test for any publication’s merit is the extent to which it allows for thoughtful disagreement. The Monthlypasses that test. The first piece I had published on these pages argued that Amy Klobuchar may be Democrats’ most electable candidate. Yet, they also published a rebuttal by Nancy LeTourneau this month arguing that her electability wasn’t particularly strong. (LeTourneau even called me out directly!) Even though I still think Klobuchar would have a better chance of winning key swing states than other Democrats, my colleague made the valid point that the Minnesota senator has generally run in past elections under favorable circumstances.

Within a ten day period, the Monthly published both a piece by Anne Kim about the importance of white people recognizing the institutional barriers faced by Black Americans (a position I agree with) and my critical review of Ibram X. Kendi’s How Be An Antiracist. These two pieces do not reflect diametrically opposed viewpoints, but  they reveal the extent to which this magazine prizes tolerance, diversity of opinion, and the inherent value of a free exchange of ideas.

On social media, different perspectives might be portrayed as adversarial, but in fact, I believe they are complementary. They serve a vital role in advancing difficult conversations about some of the most important challenges of our time. And that’s the point.

The Monthly embraces complex issues with the nuance and care they deserve. Even when its advancing an agenda—like on confronting corporate consolidation or expanding universal vote-by-mail—it maintains an ethos of treating its opponents with respect. What’s more, its editors give their writers the space to offer different perspectives. As a consequence, they help bring us all closer to the truth, because only by subjecting ideas and arguments to scrutiny, and by providing facts alongside valuable context, can we separate the specious from the solid, the flawed from the valid.

So, if you are like me and frustrated by media organizations whose opinion you can guess before even reading their pieces, or by social media platforms that elevate the most extreme viewpoints, please do your part to support the pursuit of truth through nuance: make a donation to the Monthly during this month’sfundraising drive.

Thanks to NewsMatch, a national organization dedicated to helping sustain non-profit journalism, every dollar you give will be matched dollar for dollar, whether it’s $10, $50, $500, or more. Your donations, of course, are tax-deductible. If you contribute $50 or more, you will receive a complimentary one-year subscription to the Monthly’sprint edition.

This is a rare opportunity to double your impact for our unique and, dare I say, incredibly important journalism. Our media ecosystem is not designed to reward nuance any more. It’s up to us—as consumers of news and commentary—to support those who provide it. Publications like the Monthly are essential to our democratic process at a time when America’s democratic process needs all the help it can get. I hope you’ll consider making an investment in our democracy by supporting Monthly this holiday season.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform and increasing civic engagement.