Monday, January 22, 2007

Warning: Unfiltered information

We bloggers are really getting under the skin of the journalistic priesthood. I was on about this just the other day, and here's another viewing-with-alarm newspaper column about how the little minds out in the Republic are in danger from "unfiltered" information — unfiltered, of course, meaning "stuff that journalists can't control." Ben Bova writes:
Anybody can write anything he or she wants to and post it on a blog or a Web site, or send it out as an e-mail message to anyone and everyone the writer knows. Anyone can read as much material as he or she wants to. There are no filters, no fact-checkers, no arbiters of taste or manners, no one to object to abusive language or foul words or just plain lies. …

In earlier eras, communications generally went through filters. There were almost always editors in the loop whose job it was to make certain that the writing — or broadcast, in the case of radio and television — was understandable, factually accurate, and in good taste.

If all editors did was what he says, he might have a point. Actually, few media even bother with such reasonable steps today. How many newspapers or broadcasters actually have "fact checkers"? The game is about getting the story out before the opposition; at most, a newspaper or TV producer might run a story through the legal department if there is any question of libel. Did the "respectable" New York Times check Jayson Blair's stories datelined from places far from where he actually was? Did CBS fact check Dan Rather's phony National Guard document?

But Bova's weaseling goes further. He confuses two completely different functions, copy editing (checking spelling, grammar, following the house style guide, etc.) versus the real "filtering" that goes on in the legacy media: the editors and publishers in corner offices who decide what is legitimate news or opinion that the public is entitled to see, and what is to be withheld. For instance, a couple of years ago an editor on some Pennsylvania rag announced that, supposedly after much soul searching, he was no longer going to publish Ann Coulter's column. The reason: she was an "extremist."

Editors and publishers believe that views — and often, plain facts — that don't fit into a standard ideological template are dangerous, per se. One and all, they imagine themselves to be "centrists" when they actually have their own biases in favor of political correctness, reverse discrimination, the Democratic Party, open borders and various other positions. They are centrists only in that their particular biases are widespread, not necessarily in the country at large, but among other people in their profession.

So they see it as a large part of their mission to make sure that the public isn't exposed to "wrong" ideas that might corrupt them.

There is no reason to have an exalted opinion of the public's ability to assess the truth or make good decisions. But editors who believe they ought to determine what reaches the public are no more wise or objective than anyone else. The editor-in-chief or publisher of a newspaper hasn't spent his life studying history, philosophy, spirituality, politics, the scientific method, the arts, or any other useful discipline. His career history consists of interviewing people who may be pig ignorant, writing stories to meet deadlines, and playing office politics to be promoted to that corner office. But Bova thinks that he and others like him ought to determine what is "fit to print."

Bova was upset because "
my grandson (age 12 at the time) read on an Internet site that the government is lying about the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. With graphics and supposedly expert testimony, the site purported to show that the Pentagon was not hit by a hijacked airliner, but by a missile fired by the Department of Defense itself. I looked at the presentation and it was pretty convincing, as far as it went. It’s easy to prove a point when you don’t allow any contradictory evidence to be presented."

Yes. Just like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the rest of the mainstream media. The Times allows no uncouth dissent in its pages to confuse tender liberal minds; The Post has one tame "conservative" in George Will.

Bova should have said to his grandson something like this:

"As you go through life, you'll find that the world is full of people with different opinions and different shadings of opinion. There aren't two sides to every question; there are as many sides to every question as there are people with ideas about it. Some opinions will strike you as crazy, others will seem crazy but those who hold them may offer what looks like convincing evidence. You'll discover that for every subject, there is a 'conventional wisdom' — that is, a standard view held by most 'experts' and people who imagine themselves to be experts, like journalists. In controlled media, like newspapers, magazines, and TV networks, this 'conventional wisdom' with slight variations or disagreement on minor points is all you'll hear. When you go on the Internet and whatever other uncontrolled media may pop up in the future, there will be a far wider variety of facts and ideas. There isn't much hierarchy, and anybody can publish what they damn please.

"What you see and read on the uncontrolled media will range from brilliant unconventional insight to dull platitudes to crackpot theories, only there will be no 'higher authority' like in the mainstream media to tell you which is which or keep you from knowing about anything they disapprove of. To reach any tentative conclusions, you're going to have to start from the position that nobody, yourself included, knows all the answers going in. Crackpots are mostly what they seem, but occasionally not. The conventional wisdom is sometimes right, maybe usually, but remember that it's basically just a machine that adds up the votes.

"In short, young man, you're going to have to do what successful cultures have always relied on their citizens to do. You're going to have to think."

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