Monday, September 21, 2009

All Blogosphere, All Opinions

On Friday, President Obama met with a few newspaper editors and outed himself as a newspaper junky. More importantly, he expressed a concern for the failing print news media: “I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.”

Looks like the Commander in Chief just got around to watching the last season of The Wire, doesn’t it?

And I tend to agree with him, with reservations—mainly to add that the people are no longer shouting across the void but, rather, well within the void—the din of petulant and varyingly credible babble of the Internet—like one of the circles of Dante’s hell.

I am, of course, aware of the counter-argument that blogs and the Internet are the greatest assets to democracy since, well, since the advent of the newspaper. The free (though largely "local" or "particular") expression of opinion is a wonderful aspect of the new communications technologies, but the advancement of the blogosphere over other forms of information gathering and dissemination has its drawbacks.

For one, blogs lend themselves beautifully to self-expression but not so well to specific, concrete, factual information. (You might even cite this posting as a case in point.) The blogger feels encouraged towards special pleading, the establishment of ever more scrupulous shibboleths (that deny credibility to any opinions other than word-for-word parroting of the truisms espoused by the blogger or whoever the object of the blogger’s slavish admiration is), grandstanding, sweeping generalizations, and begging the question.

Few bloggers gather firsthand information (sadly, few reporters do either, as the centralizing of news media into fewer [corporate] hands and the reinvention of “news” as a for-profit commodity has usurped any sense of investigative reporting or the public good—or truth). Most plagiarize shamelessly from other blogs, making viral manipulation of the blogosphere fairly simple business for those with the resources to do so. And now 24-hour news outlets (32 minutes of news stretched to infinity) “borrow” heavily from the blogosphere—that is, when they are not commenting, with tireless self-infatuation, on the role of the media in shaping public opinion.

Bloggers are more consumers of information than its producers. In worst cases, blogs are black holes of truthful communication, so determinedly closed-minded and obscurantist as to be virtually useless in the search of accurate, reliable, representative, and credible facts. Blogs are, after all, simply private journals made public. Their model has never been the investigative reporter—or, for that matter, the conscientious analyst and critic.

Bloggers (including me) have not defined a set of ethics and guidelines comparable to those that developed in journalism (but largely abandoned over the past 40 decades—the nail in that coffin being Ronald Reagan’s veto of the “fairness doctrine” in his last full year as President, the mindlessly irresponsible aftermath of which has forever made Sidney Lumet’s once scathing social satire Network [1976] the model of woefully short-of-the-mark prognostication).

Most bloggers I have read, of all shades in the political spectrum, like to pontificate with an air of absolute certainty—without qualifiers, without nuance, without a shred of proof. They condemn “old media,” rightly, as tools of the corporations or big government, depending on their own political outlook, sometimes without even a vague awareness that corporations and government have been all but one and the same for quite a while (one thing Network got right, regrettably). The old media is all “bread and circuses.” But the new media, no better, is all Christians and lions.

But the “old media” many bloggers condemn is relatively new—born circa September 24, 1968, ironically at the point that TV news achieved its high point and most populist stance. And the “old media” even today carries pockets of resistance to the mainstream—South Park, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and Real Time with Bill Maher—which have inspired a certain if sometimes nebulous resurgence in radical thinking—now that “thinking” itself is de facto “radical.”

I think it’s time to resubmit the fairness doctrine—into mainstream media (newspapers, TV news, news magazines) if not in the unruly and nearly unmanageable blogosphere. In 1959 Byron White expressed the essence of this doctrine:

A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others.... It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.

But you might ask, Doesn’t the current state of the Internet already permit the viewers and listeners such a forum? And you would be right—but the blogosphere caters to narrow circles of usually like-minded ideologues and shows no promise of ever achieving a “general circulation” or attempting an open-minded, ostensibly unbiased approach to factual truths.

And without “newspapers of record,” hopefully in competition with and corrective complementation of each other, there is no route towards a consensus of the truth, so necessary for fostering democratic opinion making.

I tell my students that they have the right to any opinions they can back up and none to opinions they can't. But if all we have to back up our opinions are just other opinions, often biased, sourceless, cut-and-pasted, and sometimes anonymous—and, even worse, as we see now, contemptuous of facts—we wind up with only people shouting, veins popping at their throats, at each other in the void.

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