Believing What We Read

By Jim Selman | Bio

Here is what I was reading in the Buenos Aires Herald this morning (paraphrased)—“Some folks like what Obama’s doing, other folks aren’t so happy”. Here’s another—“Lots of middle class people believe there is a financial crisis and others don’t seem to have been affected at all”. This is then followed by a restatement of the news for the last few months with a dash of history added in, such as comparisons between BHO and JFK or FDR. Blah, blah, blah…

I think that the malaise of the media has less to do with conservative or liberal bias than with its boring predictability. It’s becoming more and more evident to me that there is no news in the news. The press and TV journalism has atrophied into a kind of ‘Musak’ that plays in the background.

I believe in freedom of the press and have been devouring newspapers most of my life. I have been less enamored with TV news because ‘sound bites’ are often wrapped in a cynical view of the consumer and, in my view, become a big part of the ‘dumbing down’ of the general population. Nonetheless, it has always been my somewhat idealistic view that the two institutions that the US Constitution explicitly distinguished as necessary for our society to work were: 1) an independent judiciary, and 2) a free press. Both of these were seen as functioning outside the mainstream pressures of day-to-day affairs and therefore constituted the ability to maintain the ‘rule of law’ and, in the case of the media, to provide a kind of ‘mirror’ for society to observe and correct its mistakes.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen both of these institutions increasingly become co-opted by the very processes they exist to regulate or illuminate. It’s not so much that there is a ‘fox in the hen house’ as the foxes now own the hen houses. What we now get in the newspapers is a rehashing of opinions, journalists interviewing other journalists to get quotable ‘authoritative statements’, and economically determined editorial policy. Even ‘investigative’ attempts seem to be more about titillating than enlightening.

The newspaper business is struggling, as more and more news organizations like the Chicago Tribune seem to be going under and the Internet’s prowess and power continues to grow. But were I to be asked by these organizations what to do, I would point less to technological ‘fixes’ such as putting the current papers online than to restoring journalism as an objective and accurate account of what is going on and the context within which we should be paying attention. I don’t mean more editorials: I mean more facts and less competing points of view. Journalism by polling isn’t news, and polling data is not fact.

We grew up knowing that we should not believe ‘everything we read’. Perhaps we should amend that to ‘we should be skeptical about everything we read’ and rethink who we are as consumers of media—what are we committed to and what do we want to know to support and empower our vision and our priorities in life. When we read the news, do we exercise a modicum of critical thinking or simply take it in as ‘the way it is’. Finally, where do we go to get information that we can trust and how do we decide where to vest authority? This same question might be applied to our consumption of ‘blogs’ as well. In a world overflowing with commentary and information, how do we sort what is available? Do we go with what we like and agree with or do we have other criteria to govern our choices?

I am in this question for myself, and realizing how much of my worldview is shaped by what I read and take in on the Internet and TV. I will keep you informed on my progress as I pursue this inquiry.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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