Democratic Underground

Faux News, Real Views, and the Slow Recovery of Critical Thinking
July 24, 2001
by Slow_Simmer

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.


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