News, Real Views, and the Slow Recovery of Critical Thinking
July 24, 2001
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer remarked that
the press attending his briefings were "here to make those
judgments and you're the White House press corps, and I think
you're set apart from most press corps in America in terms
of exercising that judgment. You're not the Internet." (White
House press briefing, May 31, 2001.)
Dave Kansas, who left The Wall Street Journal in 1996 to
join TheStreet.com, knows differently. Dave wrote in his NYT
article "The New Economy" (p. C5, the New York Times, 7/16/01),
"When I left , we struggled to persuade print reporters
to make the jump to the new world. Most journalists at that
time viewed the Internet as a pig pen for scoundrels, wallowing
in rumor and salacious innuendo."
Parts of the Internet still are pig pens, or worse. But there
is a rapidly growing segment that is satisfying the need of
people to find out why, as William Pitt put it, there is "a
ghost in the machine" - a creeping unease about the direction
the country is heading in.
"Much early media coverage of the Internet focused on the
inadequacies of its content. Matt Drudge, an Internet gossip
maven, became a favorite target...the readers...have figured
out that online writers like the gossipy Mr. Drudge do not
adhere to top-drawer journalistic standards, nor claim to.
And presumably, most people go to chat boards understanding
that they are...nothing more than barroom conversation...few
would confuse it with news." (p. C5, the New York Times, 7/16/01)
DU has had some posters confuse themselves and others with
the expectation that DU is a news site and should be treated
as and used as a news site. One poster has even written complaints
for the Canadian print press, arguing that these boards should
be equivalent to reading online newspapers. This is not an
appropriate view of bulletin boards.
Mr. Kansas knows it, and so do experienced users of bulletin
boards. He wrote, "But the Internet has made it possible to
offer a quick first draft of print journalism, a format in
which readers have come to expect facts and interpretation...No
longer a worrisome curiosity, the Internet is simply another
of the means by which people find out what in the world is
going on." (p. C5, the New York Times, 7/16/01)
True enough. But what will happen when a growing divide is
perceived between the news as the conservative broadcast editors
and owners see it, and the news as it is reported on the Internet?
It may be that Mr. Kansas has been describing the role of
the Internet outlets of the major broadcast agencies, but
I'd like to cast the net wider. I see a more complex interaction,
crossing and recrossing the divide between "news" and "views."
Let's take Fox (a.k.a. "Faux") News for an example. "We report,
you decide." Well, Fox decides what to report. So Roger Ailes
may need to rephrase this as "We decide to report, you decide."
But it's really hard to "decide" based on reports that are
only, as one DU poster put it, "as liberal as the conservative
owners allow." So even this twist of phrase needs some work:
"We decide what to report, you decide how to think about it."
What the Internet has done, as Mr. Kansas observed, is give
people another outlet by shortening the news cycle massively.
The news digestion process now looks more like this: "We decide
what to report, you decide to logon and find the early gist,
and then read the print."
The million-dollar lawsuit slapped on Free Republic for posting
entire articles rather than excerpts is an example of what
happens when the Internet is used to suborn print media rather
than augment it. However, responding to the Internet-and-print
combo may be more complex than that. My own news habits are
changing, I notice. I log on to find the news posted early.
I get the paper to think it through. I log on again to talk
about it with other people. My news digestion process, modified
to include this behavior, now looks like this: "We decide
what to report, you decide what to read, you decide what to
think, you decide to debate."
The Internet has cost the print media and the big broadcasters
the authority of the last word. If it were not for the hounding
of Greg Palast, who is being sued for breaking the reports
of the vote fraud in Florida, I would say that critical thinking
may yet stage a slow, but satisfying, recovery. We cannot
help but be suspicious of the motives of the media pursuing
Greg Palast and Gary Condit, or not pursuing the problem
of the White House expunging the Reagan papers before releasing
them - but we can write the last word.