Monday, November 12, 2012


There have been plenty of calls for a more "trustworthy" media, and an essay where Craig Newmark opines: "The press should be the immune system of democracy," is simply one more on the pile. But the fact of the matter is that "the media" is a collection of businesses, each with a customer base that it must attend to. And any number of internet commentators have made an important point about "free" media - if you're not paying for it, you're not the customer - you're part of the product.

It's nice for us to sit back and lament the current state of the news media. But the market forces that Mr. Newmark reference have lead us to where we are today, a media landscape that concerns itself mainly with attracting the largest audience, which in turn influences advertising, which in turn pays the bills.

When you look at those information sources that are really invested in being trustworthy, one notes that they all have something in common - people are basing important decisions on the information that is being presented. Whether it's financial information, or a surf report - when people are deciding what to do, and what to spend money on, based on the information they receive, they actively vote with their feet (and their wallets) when the information is not up to snuff. This is not normally an issue for the typical media outlet. If a local newspaper or broadcaster mangles the details of someone's life, or allows a candidate to skate by after making a dubious statement, they're not going to have one hundred thousand angry people switching to a new source because their business suffered or they missed an important opportunity. The simple truth of the matter is that most of us don't really need cable news or drive-time radio to be accurate. There's nothing riding on it. These low stakes, more than anything else, are the issue, and this is what drives the gray area between information and entertainment.

For the press to be important as "the immune system of democracy" there has to be a relevant, personal and immediate cost to being ill. For most of us, there isn't. Many of the problems that good-governance activists decry are, a) for many people, abstract and opaque, b) only really an issue for a minority of the public and/or c) have been brewing for years, if not decades. (By the same token, we're not going to fix them in any given single term of office for any particular political figure.) The constituency for putting in the work to fix any particular problem, therefore, is rarely, if ever, larger than the constituency for the status quo. Therefore, there isn't a large enough constituency for aggressively making sure that media coverage sticks to, and promotes, the facts.

In a society driven by polarization, the choice of whether or not to fact-check, and how vigorously to dig for the facts of the matter is often viewed as being indicative of taking sides. And many people in the United States today are all for that - as long as their side is the one taken. From where I stand, people's ethical perceptions are driven just as much by ideology as anything else - once people have chosen sides, the "out group" is seen as more ethically suspect than the "in group." Comments following Mr. Newmark's post were very revealing of that.

In the end, the press is not the problem - we are. The press is a tool. We must be the ones to wield it, and do so well.

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