If it seems like there isn’t anyone it seems like you can trust these days, that’s probably because there isn’t anyone it seems like you can trust these days.
Once upon a time, most Americans got their news from a handful of sources. There was your local paper (which probably got its national news from the Associated Press or similar), there were the network newscasts, maybe newsmagazines like Time or Newsweek, and that was the definition of what was going on in the world today. Today there are more places to get news than you can shake a stick at, from local news to talk radio to CNN to MSNBC to Fox News to blogs to other Internet forums to just people in the street. It’s a bewildering array of news choices.
Once upon a time, a few suits in New York determined what Americans would talk about each day. Until conservatives in the 1980’s started finding a liberal bias in what they reported, most people took this system for granted. Now there is no news monopoly, no news oligarchy. If you want to find out about voting irregularities in Ohio in 2004, you can. If you want to find out about the case against man-made climate change, you can. If you want to find out about the happenings of the Joe McLonewolf party whose only candidate is its namesake running for mayor of Nowheresville, Montana, you can.
But all this has made it a lot harder to at least have the idea that you really know what’s going on in the world, at least if you’re not setting out to be a partisan hack. Will you get your news from Fox, or from CNN? Will you get your news from the ABC station, or the CBS station? From Rush Limbaugh, or from NPR? From Huffington Post, or Drudge Report? From Talking Points Memo, or from Town Hall? Or will you drive yourself insane by trying to take something from all of the above? You don’t need to know every single detail of what’s going on in the world, at least theoretically, but the new conventional wisdom is that you can’t trust anyone to decide what’s important. Best to just take it all in, even though no one has that much time in the day.
But wait! What happens when different sources contradict each other? Frustratingly, you will rarely hear any of Talking Points Memo’s claims debunked at Town Hall (or vice versa), you’ll just see its very existence torn down. If someone says everything is going great in Iraq, and someone else says Iraq is going into the crapper, which is right, or how right is each claim? There are groups that publish exposes of inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions in the media, but a) they are ALWAYS partisan (and often more concerned with bashing their target than actually critically examining it and acknowledging where it might be right) and b) they focus exclusively on the mainstream media. These organizations are either lefty and complaining that the media is biased to the right, or righty and complaining that the media is biased to the left. Read the two in unison, and you get the sense that if the media is anything, it’s just plain incompetent.
Seriously, after years of being pilloried by the right til the cows come home and seeing conservatives drift over to Fox News and the like, why on Earth would the so-called “MSM” still exhibit left-wing bias?
It’s been said that having certain preconceived notions simply comes with the territory of being human, and that “bias” is inevitable. It’s also been said that in response to complaints of media bias, the media started publishing all claims no matter how specious and started presenting every debate as having two sides, even if it’s an evolution-v.-creationism debate where every last shred of evidence favors one side. Maybe people who watched ABC, NBC, and CBS were more likely to vote for Kerry because those three networks were in the tank for him; maybe it was because honestly looking at the facts of what was going on in the world would suggest Kerry was the right man to vote for. I wouldn’t be able to say if the media has reacted like that or if it’s to the extreme often suggested. Certainly cable news has essentially become a series of shoutfests driven by ideologues who draw immense cults of personality around them, embracing partisanship rather than getting rid of it.
I would suggest, though, that in addition to legitimizing illegitamate viewpoints, point-counterpoint debates may make it harder, not easier, to escape charges of bias, because if one side is seen as “winning”, obviously you didn’t make the other side strong enough. It couldn’t possibly be that if both sides were as strong as they could be the first side would be shown to be correct.
I do know for one thing that regardless of whether the mainstream media is biased or even incompetent at what it’s trying to do, it’s not entirely blameless. The media has been slow to react to the new proliferation of voices and in many cases only pays lip service to the Internet and its allies – launching web sites and “I-Reports” or whatever they call their user-generated video with one hand while snickering at nerds-in-the-basement-bloggers the rest of the time, feeling that they’re not really all that popular and beneath their notice. There really isn’t much of a reason why the “mainstream media” needs to be separate from the Internet, strictly speaking, why it shouldn’t cover the same stories and discuss the same issues that people online are debating, even if they sound like the deranged rantings of a crazy person. Especially if they sound like the deranged rantings of a crazy person, because thanks to the Internet, they won’t go away if you don’t lay the smack down.
The media’s quest for journalistic integrity and sourcing is in many ways something that’s sorely needed in the… non-mainstream media, for lack of a better term. If the blogosphere concerns themselves with correcting the MSM, maybe the MSM can concern itself with correcting the blogosphere. 2004-election-stealing conspiracy theorists, 9/11 truthers, (in 2004) Swift Boaters, and the like may want the media to look at their claims and publicize them, but I suspect that if the mainstream media actually did investigate them they would lose much of their popularity. And the media would do a more effective job at losing their accusations of bias than their recent efforts have been capable of. In fact here’s an idea: Let’s take the most far-out, extreme lefty you can think of, pair him up with the most far-out, extreme righty you can think of, and have them hash out any argument they may have, bombarding each other with points and evidence, until one side is throughly decimated and both sides become more sane.
It was thinking like this, several months ago, that led me to launch Truth Court (okay, maybe the actual announcement was only a month and a half ago) after reading True Enough by Farhad Manjoo, proposing an initiative that would look at every shred of evidence at both sides of a factual debate and attempt to come to a coherent worldview or conclusion, if not by me then by someone else. At one time I had been considering also starting a new feature, possibly after the elections, that would take all the hot posts from the top blogs on all sides of the spectrum and unite them under a single post so you could see what all sides were talking about, which might encourage cross-pollination of information. Right now, I’m thinking I’m not going to do that – and that Truth Court may be becoming less necessary – for two reasons. One, the election will almost assuredly change the paradigms on all sides of the political debate, especially if Obama wins.
Two, the media itself is starting to shake into a new paradigm, taking to heart some of the suggestions I made above. People in media are starting to realize that they threaten to be overtaken by blogs and “new media”, that the Internet and talk radio is not beneath their notice, and if they aren’t, they should soon. The Edwards scandal may have largely shaken the mainstream media out of what complacency they may have had, by creating an easy base for accusations of liberal bias and generally embarrasing the media for getting scooped by the National Enquirer and following a policy of “the blind leading the blind” thereafter. And more importantly, it gave a preview of what could have been the media’s future of irrelevancy and pariahhood.
That the media called around looking to fact-check and get to the bottom of Sarah Palin’s qualifications and McCain’s and Palin’s statements caught some commentators by surprise and got them wondering if the press is finally serving the American people in the way they always should have. The recent popularity of “fact-check” segments is also an encouraging sign as well. Quite a few people on the left see the Bush years as the dark years that, they hope, Obama will pull us out of. It’s somewhat fitting that the red state-blue state meme was started after the 2000 elections, because we may finally be pulling out of the dark years of barbaric partisanship as well.