04 October 2008

The Internet as Objective, Independent Media

I've noticed something very interesting in the past few weeks. Internet sources are now seen as more objective and independent than traditional media.

Listen to this bit from Michael Shear and WaPo this morning:
Moments after the House of Representatives approved a bailout package for Wall Street on Friday afternoon, the McCain campaign released a television ad that challenges Obama's honesty and asks, "Who is Barack Obama?" The ad alleges that "Senator Obama voted 94 times for higher taxes. Ninety-four times. He's not truthful on taxes." The charge that Obama voted 94 times for higher taxes has been called misleading by independent fact-checkers, who have noted that the majority of those votes were on nonbinding budget resolutions. (emphasis mine)

I remember a day when the major newspapers and news outlets were considered capable of fact-checking information on their own. But, it is testament to the times that if NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox News, CNN, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, or any of the other major news players were to present information as fact, a vast majority of people would view it as untrue due to the news media's partisan bents.

How did this happen? I think it is all this fair and balanced business. As a scientist, I see this happen all the time in the news. In the interests of presenting "both sides of a story" (a false dichotomy in most cases), the media will present some scientific breakthrough and then an opposing view--usually an outright rejection of the findings based on some obscure technicality. And what is the American public left with? The idea that rejecting scientific findings based on beliefs is OK because even scientists can't agree on this stuff. So there are people who actually think that we haven't landed on the moon, that global warming is a government conspiracy, that evolution isn't true or if it is it is directed by the will of God, that the Holocaust never happened, etc. And thus, we have woo trumping science on a regular basis.

But in most cases, scientific theories are not up for debate. Evolution is real, folks. We aren't way out on a limb here. We're pretty solid on the facts. We've got 150 years of facts piled up in neat little stacks all pointing toward the same reality. Sticking your head in the sand because it conflicts with what your preacher tells you, doesn't change the reality. There is no controversy. There are no two sides to this story. There is one and it is the right one.

When did the media become afraid to tell us this? This isn't a case of bitching about taxonomy with lumpers and splitters. Many, many things in life are stone-cold fact and any other perspective is fiction. For a lot of things, there are no shades of grey. When it comes to scientific theories, the only areas of grey are in the details.

But the real question is, why did the traditional media give up its credibility, and at what point did internet sources like Snopes and FactCheck.Org get to be the "trusted" source for Americans? I think it is time for the media regain its credibility. There is a reason that we protect professional journalists from revealing sources...it is precisely so they can bring us closer to some approximation of the truth. But no one has the balls to stand up for their own work anymore. The media has become unprincipled, unless that principle is making money. I think it is time for a media outlet to start acting like it is worthy of the tremendous protections that we bestow on them. Take the commentary and partisanship out of the reporting of the news and put it back where it belongs: in a clearly identified opinion/commentary portion of the news.

Is this asking too much?

1 comment:

  1. I definitely agree with you that this is a huge problem... but don't you think this is to some degree recency bias? It does seem like perhaps the newspapers were more trusted a couple of decades ago, but I read an article not too long back (damned if I can remember where I read it) discussing how the "objectivity" focus of newspapers only came with corporatization -- a double edged sword. Before that was the so-called yellow journalism, which if I recall correctly in reality included very dogged, independent reporting, such as work supporting, for example, Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" about meatpacking, but of a piece with this was journalism with an agenda, like, supporting Upton Sinclair, or tearing down politician X, or whatnot.

    I'm sure Im' missing the proper details and nuance to explain the history correctly, but I know there's a lot to be learned in this area, and just like politicians have been (often, though not always) nasty, venal, and corrupt for as long as the term has existed, and the amount of "political bile" seen today is hardly a bump in history, I think the news media has always had this problem, just in different ways at different times. Not to say the problem isn't real or getting worse; I just think the historical context makes it not a novel problem. The internet, in a way, is perhaps bringing back yellow journalism, with the pluses (a variety of agendas and biases, rather than a few main corporate ones, giving more perspectives, some of which are more independent and rigorous than others, many exploring crannies of society not covered by the "big" media) and minuses (more difficult to fact check, often salacious, more ephemeral than mainstream sources).