Saturday, February 11, 2012

Words for Our Time

From The Essays of E.B. White,
..[D]istortion is inherent in partisan journalism, the same as it is in political rallies. I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or nonpolitical, that doesn't have a slant. All writing slants the way the writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many are born upright. The beauty of the American free press is that the slants and the twists and the distortions come from so many directions, and the special intereste are so numerous, the reader must sift and sort and check an counter-check in order to find out what the score is. This he does. It is only when a press gets its twist from a single source, as in the case of government-controlled press systems, that the reader is licked.

--Bedfellows, 1956

"No man is born perpendicular" caught my eye when I first read this essay. It seemed a particularly clever statement of an immutable fact. A more contemporary writer would likely omit the "born upright" phrase that follows. Writing in 1956, White could plausibly acknowledge integrity in many partisans regardless of their slant. That is a more difficult task in 2012.

Integrity is in short supply these days but slant is plentiful. That's where the rest of the paragraph offers a cautionary tale. White extols the free flow of information--slanted and straight, dubious and dead on--from many sources and the diligent reader who sorts through it all to know the score. White also warns about a single-source press that deprives the diligent reader of the information needed to know the score.

The warning anticipates 21st century America. Rather than government control of media, we have corporate corporate control of media. And that media is primarily electronic. White's diligent reader has been replaced by a mostly passive consumer of a very limited diet.

Alternative information is available. The diligent reader (or listener, some electronic media are credible and informative) can still look beyond the limited corporate fare to find the information that will tell the score but generations accustomed to having news served to them are unlikely to look beyond the handouts.

Are we licked yet?

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