Do we read the news to be more informed or to feel more correct? Tony Blankley, loveable curmudgeon or pompous ass depending on your perspective (for instance, if you have a correct perspective you'd be more inclined towards the latter), has a fairly interesting op-ed piece this week. He brings forth two points, both ostensibly about how we have totally unreliable information about the events in Basra, Iraq this previous week and how that's played out rhetorically amongst this country's talking heads and politicos.
Rather than spend much time on details (you can read the column for that) let's discuss his major points. First, he claims that news organizations are slowly but surely getting rid of their incredibly expensive news gathering mechanism. CBS, for instance, is talking about farming out its investigative journalism to CNN's newswire. This type of change, Blankley argues, has lead to an increase in spin and opinion over the legitimate reporting of news. It's an interesting take, one I think has an aire of truth about it, but seems to be missing one bigger part of the picture. Yes, traditional news gathering organizations are falling apart. However, with the rise of the internet community amateur and primary source reporting has gone up about a million fold. We see clips from speeches throughout the country, transcripts of events to which we would never have had access in the past.
The real concern is that as news has been decentralized we face two very real consequences: a) much journalism is being done by people simply not trained to actually do journalism; b) traditional media outlets have trouble competing and no longer have critical resources. As for the first of these issues, I think it is largely a misguided notion. Sites like Talking Points Memo are an excellent (and occasionally my primary) source for news. There is a sense of ethics and legitimacy there that rivals any news organization. However, there is another side to this coin, certain Kos diarists, MyDD posters, rightwing nutbars and people of many different stripes will often post stories of questionable legitimacy or with very obvious spin. One of the values of big corporate news organizations is that they have a lot to lose when they get something wrong. By taking some semblance of risk with every story they publish it helps guarantee a high bar of accuracy. We gain a lot by having a lot of information out in the public sphere, but that information is often set loose on a sea of informational chaos leaving readers with little or no way to judge the merits of these stories. This brings us directly to Blankley's second point: people use this vague information to support their preconditioned ideology either way, instead of letting fact dictate ideology.
Now I want to avoid an epistemological debate here, because my beliefs about knowledge are bit off the beaten path. For instance, I don't think there's any such things as real truth, but all knowledge is conditioned and created by ideology, which in and of itself is conditioned and created by our social and material surroundings. Anyhoo, let's pretend real things are real. I think Blankley makes a small point in the search of a larger point. With this scattershot news gathering system, people tend to take news and spin it how they want. Sure. But the bigger problem is that news has become a part of an insidious division of labor and specialization that will make garnering anything that resembles the truth harder and harder. No longer are there news organization, but conservative news organization and liberal news organizations. The division has gone even further on the internets, for instance I can rarely bring myself to read DailyKos anymore because of how blatantly they are in the tank for Obama (I am sure there are sites, like MyDD, that have the same problem in reverse). At the point where news is marketed to segments of the population we are not just operating on different ideologies, but different sets of premises and facts.
The challenge of have a national dialogue between people of different ideologies is daunting. The challenge of have a national dialogue between people who ostensibly live in different factual realities is insurmountable. This is one of the primary reasons I have often been so cynical about Obama's claim that he can unify America. In becoming more connected we have become more segregated than ever before. Sure I can talk to almost anyone I want over the internet, but we believe different things about the world and learn different facts, the reality we see is so easily the reality we want to see that we can avoid ever having to question our beliefs so longer as we are careful. The decline of big news has some positives, but in the end it is more a decline of a common community. Sure, the world may be flat, but it's just made it easier for us to see all the people in the world we agree with and go huddle up with them for warmth.