Research News

Vanderbilt professor takes on media bias

A little respect could go a long way to preserving democracy in America, says Vanderbilt professor Bob Talisse in his new book.

Democracy and Moral Conflict, published by Cambridge University Press, takes a look at the level of political debate in modern America. Whether it’s Rush Limbaugh and FOX News on the right or MSNBC or Michael Moore on the left, Talisse is disturbed by what he sees.

“If there’s a danger to democracy, it’s the attitude that there’s no reasonable opposition to the view that someone happens to favor,” said Talisse, associate professor of philosophy and political science. “If that’s true, democracy has got much larger problems than having made the wrong decisions about wars and energy policy and all that.

“Those are serious mistakes, but we can correct them. If we give up on arguing civilly, everything else falls with it.”

John C.P. Goldberg, a law professor at Harvard, called Democracy and Moral Conflict “a timely, original, and unapologetic defense of constitutional democracy.”

“Artfully blending careful philosophical analysis with contemporary illustrations and accessible prose, Democracy and Moral Conflict makes an authentically democratic and powerfully reasoned case for democracy,” Goldberg said.

The death penalty, abortion, health care reform, gay marriage, stem cell research, euthanasia are all issues that have polarized Americans, Talisse says. There is – in the minds of many people – no middle ground.

The media has increasingly become part of the problem, Talisse said. Instead of devoting itself to non-partisan reporting of the facts, all too often the road to riches is paved by pandering commentary.

“People are now able to select where they will get their news on the basis of which outlet is going to confirm the views they already hold,” Talisse said. “If we create these echo chambers in which we keep hearing the confirmation of our own views, we become less and less able to draw the distinction between people who are wrong and people who are stupid.”

Most issues aren’t simple, and pretending otherwise isn’t helpful, Talisse said.

“There are libraries of books full of the intricacies of the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, gay marriage and everything else – and you soon realize that these are much more complicated issues that any one person could master in a lifetime,” Talisse said.

“I can see the attraction to a world viewpoint that is that the world is smart people and ignorant people. And the smart people are able to tell you in simple, plain language, what the truth is about things. Everybody else is just silly so you don’t have to bother to listen to them.”

So, is there any media outlet Talisse would recommend as trustworthy?

Like a philosopher, he suggests we answer that question for ourselves. However, there is one rule of thumb that can be helpful, Talisse said.

“Any outlet which presents a complex issue as so simple that there’s just one smart view and everything else is dumb, we should distrust.”

Media Contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS