Monday, August 4, 2008

Interlude: Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Murdoch

Perhaps it's because I spent a week at the University of Virginia that I've been thinking about Thomas Jefferson, but the following article about the Fox News empire prompted these meanderings:

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article entitled "Mr. Murdoch Goes to War," Mark Bowden paints a bleak picture of Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Wall Street Journal and its assimilation into the Fox News empire. When one watches Fox News' rampant disregard for the truth in its quest to score conservative points, it's hard not to think about the yellow journalism of early print tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, when snappy, attention grabbing headlines were far more important than in-depth -- or factual -- reporting. Remember the Maine! Remember WMD!

We had a long discussion last weekend about the current state of journalism, and how outlets like Murdoch's Fox News deliberately mislead the public, reflecting on how it's only going to get messier as the US Presidential election heats up this fall. (To see how Fox News routinely disseminates lies and rumors about Barack Obama, check out "Fox Attacks Obama.") Murdoch asserts that there's a "liberal bias" in the media, thereby justifying his right-wing approach as "fair and balanced."

The truth is that there is no liberal bias, as studies repeatedly show. Just last week George Mason University released a study showing that the mainstream media is tougher on Obama than McCain, hardly a sign of liberal bias. The media watchdog group FAIR has consistently reported on the effects of media ownership by large corporations, resulting in news organizations that are loathe to report negatively on other branches of their corporate entity - more a sign of corporate spin than liberal bias. In such instances, the corprotocracy takes care of itself.

As we all know, the Web is a primary outlet for news (that and Jon Stewart's brilliantly satirical and insightful Daily Show). With the mainstream media losing credibility as valid, unbiased news sources, and with the corresponding demise of print media in general in favor of the Web, it's no surprise that the Web has become the primary information source for many Americans.

But what do you get when you rely on the Web for news? A simple Google search on any controversial topic typically brings up pages of bloggers, each with their own viewpoint. Or pages of supposedly "legitimate" websites offering "facts" about issue A or issue B. We spend a good deal of time as academic librarians attempting to show undergraduates how to evaluate websites for accuracy and authority, but how many Web surfers use these skills? Search, and the answer shows up, providing enlightenment byte by byte.

Given this context, Bowdens' succinct summary of the impact of the Web on serious journalism proves to be quite insightful:

The Web... has yet to develop institutions capable of replacing print newspapers as vehicles for great in-depth journalism, or conscious of themselves as upholding a public trust. Instead, the Web gives voice to opinionated, unedited millions. In the digital world, ignorance and crudity share the platform with rigor and taste; the independent journalist shares the platform with spinmeisters and con artists. Cable television and satellite radio have taken broadcast journalism in the same direction, crowding out the once-dominant networks, which strove for the ideal of objectivity, with new channels that all but advertise their politics. When all news is spun, we live in a world of propaganda.

The worst part of this is, the public doesn't seem to care.

Bowden does point out that good content can be found amidst the din of opinionated blather on the web - excellent journalism can easily be found with a simple Google search, if you're willing to seek. Many respected newspapers have strong Web sites, battered and shrinking as their print divisions might be. Iconic and respected print newspapers such as the Washington Post and The New York Times have done a fine job of crafting a presence on the Web. And other news sources, such as the BBC and NPR, offer Web and traditional TV and radio outlets.

In his Second Inaugural Address, in 1805, centuries before the Web, Thomas Jefferson realized that the risks of an unfettered free press and the potential for falsehood could be tempered by the public's common sense:
Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint. The public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions on a full hearing of all parties, and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion.
The question, then, is whether an enlightened electorate and the corresponding "censorship of public opinion" have the ability to find the truth? For while ignorance and crudity run rampant on the Web, so does journalistic rigor and taste; good reporting still holds its head high, despite being the same mouse click away as the spinmeisters and con artists. For my money, I hope the electorate adheres to both Mr. Jefferson's vision and to Mr. Townshend's. As in the Who's Pete Townshend, who famously said he "won't get fooled again." Indeed.

Sources: "Mr. Murdoch Goes to War," by Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly, July/Aug 2008; Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Religion, University of Virginia

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