Back in the day: Former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro and host...

Back in the day: Former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro and host John Sununu face off during broadcast of CNN's "Crossfire" on Feb. 16, 1996. Credit: AP Photo/CNN

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

 

So Keith Olbermann is back, this time on Current TV, the network cofounded by Al Gore. Olbermann is smart, talented and effective (just ask him), as are many of his counterparts at both ends of the political spectrum who thrive by essentially preaching to their choirs on Fox and MSNBC.

But now that left and right are once again at full strength on cable, there's still one thing to wish for: that at least once a week, the two sides would trade audiences.

I say this because for awhile now it's been so easy for each of us to live inside an echo chamber, insulated from anything but our own convictions and preconceptions. And it's only getting easier.

Instead of just sorting themselves into ideological ghettos, Americans are doing the same thing residentially. It's a sad fact, to embrace each side's caricature of the other, that your Birkenstock-wearing, latte-swilling liberals increasingly huddle together in like-minded communities, just as your gun-toting, Bible-thumping conservatives are doing. All this sorting means people have less need to hear from -- or get along with -- those who disagree.

Like so many things, this makes people happy even though it's bad for them. Ideological sorting leads us -- and our politicians -- to take more extreme positions. More extreme congressional candidates, for instance, get elected in places where the voters deliver landslide margins to a presidential candidate.

Media consumers have always sorted themselves, of course. Newspaper readers used to do this in the 19th century, when American papers had much more pronounced political leanings, sometimes even incorporating the name of a party into their title (witness, to this day, the Waterbury Republican-American in Connecticut). But with the advent of mass audiences, widespread literacy and faster printing technology, it made more sense for publishers to appeal to a broader class of readers. So political leanings and diatribes took a backseat to "objectivity," or at least a conscious striving for it.

We've always had small, ideologically oriented publications, such as The Nation and National Review. But the rise of cable TV has made it much easier for ideologues like Bill O'Reilly to reach larger numbers of like-minded people. Radio started that process long ago, going back at least to Father Charles Coughlin, the Detroit priest whose rabble-rousing broadcasts mesmerized so many Americans in the Depression.

It's great that people care enough about politics and current affairs to watch MSNBC and Fox, but tragic that they aren't watching programs where competing ideas more often get an airing. My sense is that such programming was once more widely viewed.

In the early 1970s, for example, "60 Minutes" used to have a segment called "Point-Counterpoint," in which liberal Nicholas von Hoffman debated the late conservative James J. Kilpatrick. That was also the heyday of William F. Buckley's "Firing Line," on which the famous conservative host debated leftist Noam Chomsky. "Crossfire," a more recent example, was canceled in 2005.

The Internet is making it even easier to protect ourselves from inconvenient facts or opinions. We already rely on like-minded people to send us stuff that affirms what we both think and believe. Soon we'll rely more and more on software to do the job -- software smart enough to know what we already know and approve of.

So if you're among the dozen loyal readers who agree with everything you see in this column each week, I have a suggestion: Get lost. Go read somebody who makes your blood boil. You might change your mind about something, and then with any luck find your blood boiling reading me.