The ESPN Effect:

Some 15 years ago or so, my buddy Roger and I were talking on the phone as we did pretty much every week , and the subject turned, as it usually did, to baseball – this was before I got the soccer bug and started to put baseball matters behind me.  We were chatting about this and that, and one of us made some comment about how well some infielder or other ( Omar Vizquel?  Rich Dauer?) played defense.  I then said something like – “but it does seem like the overall level of defense is improving all over – I see so many great plays these days . . .” before I recognized how stupid a comment that was.  Of course I was seeing more great defensive plays than I had 10 or 20 years before – because 10 or 20 years before there had been no Sportscenter (or equivalent).  In 1992 (or whenever exactly this was), I could turn on the TV and catch 20 or 30 minutes of great highlights every night, including 5 or 6 truly spectacular defensive plays; in 1980, or 1960, to see 5 or 6 truly spectacular defensive plays, you had to watch 20 or 25 hours of baseball, minimum.  [That’s what ESPN was doing, in effect – watching 10 or 12 games simultaneously and pulling out the highlights].  It was just my mind playing a trick on me; I had unconsciously made a very simple mistake.  The way in which I was perceiving the world of baseball had, with Sportscenter, changed fundamentally, but I hadn’t taken that into account.  Without thinking about it, I had plugged into a simple formula:

Old Days:             5 spectacular plays in 25 hours of baseball watching

New Days:          5 spectacular plays in ½ hour of baseball watching

And I had reached the obvious (and obviously wrong, on reflection) conclusion that the rate of spectacular playmaking had gone up.

I call it the ESPN Effect – mistaking filtered reality for reality.  We do it a lot.  All I hear from my left-leaning friends these days is how crazy people on the right are becoming, and all all I hear from my right-leaning friends is how crazy people on the left are becoming, and everyone, on both sides, seems very eager to provide evidence of the utter lunacy of those on the other side.  “Look how crazy they’re becoming over there, on the other side!” is becoming something of a dominant trope, on left and right.  It is true that we’re seeing more crazy people doing crazy things on the other side (whichever side that may be, for you) coming across our eyeballs these days.   But that’s all filtered reality; it bears no more relationship to reality than the Sportscenter highlights bear to the game of baseball.  My very, very strong suspicion is that there has never been a time when there weren’t truly crazy people on all sides of the political spectrum doing their truly crazy things. Maybe 1% or so, or even 0.1% — which is a very large number, when you’re talking about a population of, say, 100 million.  They didn’t get through the filters much in the Old Days, but they do now.  All this talk about how extreme “the debate” is becoming – how, exactly, does anyone get a bead on what “the debate” really is?  In reality?