The BIG Picture: compartmentalization of ideas is no way to expand a world view

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John O'Connor, Editorial Director
John O'Connor, Editorial Director
My first paying job in journalism was at a weekly newspaper, far removed from long-term care. The neighborhood we covered might politely be described as port-of-entry. By one count, more than 20 languages were spoken atop the 30,000 porches our newspapers landed on each Wednesday.

Among the area's unique features was a remarkably high ratio of churches to worshipers. There were dozens upon dozens of them, sometimes three or four residing on the same block. Imagine a Baskin-Robbins where each of its many flavors gets its own store, and you get the general idea.

Despite the hardscrabble nature of the area, these edifices were remarkably well-built, and impressive to behold. Parishioners were rightfully proud.

But the reason behind the multiple churches was not something usually discussed in polite company. It came down to this: The German Catholics didn't want to pray next to the Italians. The Italians didn't want to worship with the Poles, and so on.

When each new wave of immigrants landed in the Back of the Yards, as this area is known, one of their first priorities was to construct their own house of worship. After all, they hadn't sailed 3,000 miles or more to sit next to the very same kinds of smelly strangers they'd grown up hating and making fun of.

This cornucopia of churches revealed more to me about the future of communications than a college professor whose expertise was supposedly in the same area. He insisted that new networks and the Internet would help open up the “marketplace of ideas.”

He was convinced that new media options would be used to help people become better informed. Turns out he was only partly right. Sure, these late arrivals have greatly aided the flow of information.

But that hardly means people are expanding their world views. Quite the opposite. All too often, the words and images help preserve established prejudices.

Want to learn how President Obama is destroying the nation's healthcare system? FOX TV will be happy to count the ways. Interested in seeing why Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) is a shill for the insurance industry? Try MSNBC.
These outlets appear far more interested in preaching to their ideological choirs than in creating a more enlightened citizenry.

As for the marketplace of ideas? It certainly remains a worthy goal. But the concept doesn't seem to be attracting too many shoppers.