PEN Quiz 2007 (Photo credit: englishpen)
Over the next few days, I’m writing up these shorter posts about things that I really wished were actually things in the media. Should it so happen that a wealthy philanthropist likes the sound of any of these and would like to bankroll them, you can contact me through my ‘about’ page.
One of my key arguments is about the importance of opinion writers. They — like ethicists and legal theorists — have the task of putting into language the intuitions of non-experts. If successful, non-experts will have better tools with which to express their own views.
The invisible hand likes to interfere and so opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful. They are successful if they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website. Thus, we have the foundation for the Outrage Economy. Not only do we share excellent pieces of writing with which we agree, but we feel the need to share things which offend us so that we can add our condemnation.
The invisible hand affects opinion writers in another disturbing way: opinion writers need to produce content on a wide variety of subjects, and thus there is an incentive to opine beyond the capacity and knowledge of the writer. Thus we get writers who one moment are experts on asylum seeker issues before turning rapidly to the carbon tax, and then to foreign affairs, &c., &c., &c. Far from being polymath foxes, they run the risk of becoming ‘Professors of Everythingology’.
It would benefit public debate if Australian opinion writers were more familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism:
Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.
How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;
Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,
And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.
Pope’s essay contains the core idea of what I’d like to see in the media: journalists who transcend their insecurities and have made peace with their ignorance.