August 20th, 2011 10:44 EST
Is Today's News Unreliable? No, There's Just a Lot More of It
The knock on the Internet as conveyor of news and information is that there`s no vetting process, no assurance of accuracy or balance "in other words, no gatekeeping.
For most of my working life I was a news editor, and the more I thought about this nostrum the more I thought it ought to be challenged. I`ve been studying Internet content intently in recent weeks; my conclusion is that this argument is bogus.
First, we should distinguish between the words conveyor and purveyor. The mainstream media are purveyors. They sell information, and their vetting process, whether they cop to it or not, is influenced by their advertisers. There is a reason we read so little about the elusive Koch Brothers who, by funding the Tea Party, have reshaped our lives, crashed the stock market and heightened world anxiety "they control a vast amount of advertising. This is a form of censorship. When we had a vibrant local press it was somewhat less vulnerable to this kind of global advertiser pressure, because it depended more on the local car dealership and less on tycoons like the Koch Brothers.
Second, the idea that the Internet is an unvetted mess of fact, fiction, punditry and propaganda is based on the mainstream media`s suspect premise that in a more halcyon period news and information were impeccably reviewed by experts for accuracy, balance and fairness. This is a half-truth, or maybe a quarter-truth.
Until the conglomeration of the media in the 1980s there were a handful of newspapers in the United States that could lay claim to being thoughtful arbiters of truth and fairness, most notably The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Providence Journal, The Washington Post, The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, The Louisville Courier-Journal, The Oregonian, and a scattering of other newspapers that came close to this elite`s high standards.
That hierarchy has been sadly diminished by corporatization.
All these great newspapers were dependent on wire services, especially the Associated Press, which is governed by its members. To augment these services they often maintained their own wire services overseas and within the country. These services have been largely curtailed.
I won`t discuss here what has so disastrously reduced the press in the United States. The causes are many and complex. I won`t discuss them now because I want to assert the hopeful claim that the Internet is an unprecedented wealth of information and news that dwarfs the resources I had at hand when I was editing news for some of our best newspapers.
That said, I would have been hard put to handle this vast array of sources, not only because of the limited size of the news hole I had been given on any particular day but because many of the sources would have been unfamiliar to me. I would not have known their reputations. As a news editor I was constrained to use news my newspaper had paid for. I might have wanted to use other news providers, but my parameters were strict.
If you want to see how strict were the parameters, look at the Sunday morning talk shows. They`re as predictable as death and taxes. You can count on the same talking heads to repeat themselves in new and boring ways Sunday after Sunday. That`s pretty much how newspapers were. The Internet is changing that. It`s a lot more unpredictable and exciting "and, better yet, we`re all gatekeepers, not just Rupert Murdoch and his troops.
No news editor is defining the parameters. No news editor is deep-sixing 95 percent of the day`s report because it doesn`t fit in his news hole. Savor that for a moment. The implications are marvelous, just as Timothy Berners-Lee, father of the Internet, envisioned.
This is why the Internet scares the hell out of the media giants. They can`t handle it. They can`t manage it. They can`t limit it. So they want Congress to hand it over to them, and the House of Representatives has done the bidding of its corporate masters and voted to do so.
Day after day, taking time from my usual round of blogging, making poems, writing fiction, and fretting about this and that, I`ve studied the Internet in the hope that I might, like David, bean Goliath and his disingenuous claim that something irreplaceable has been lost.
What has been lost is not the careful vetting, which was as much about what fits as it was about what is fitting, but courageous local coverage of news and culture. What has been lost is a local press. And that can be supplanted by web-based news media "is being supplanted by them. Still lacking are business models to support these news operations.
I`ve contended in this space that each social networker owns his or her own newspaper. Each Facebook page is a newspaper. In the last few weeks I have scanned the web for political, cultural and literary news and ideas, posting what interests me on my Facebook pages. The response has convinced me that more information than ever before is available, and the crocodile tears about its reliability are rooted in a sense that the mainstream media have lost control of the game. They have, and they should lose control in the onrush of this more democratic and promising technology.
When I want to post something impeccably authoritative about poetry, I can turn to Sam Hamill`s posts. I also rely on him to seine the worldwide web for fascinating political and cultural ideas. I also turn to Andrew Carter and AlterNet, one of a growing number of alternative news organizations. I am, in fact, virtually unlimited in my choices of information, and my readers are equally unfettered in their ability to comment and dispute. I redact only abusive language and contentions I know for a fact to be untrue. Sam Hamill, Andrew Carter, and all the other individuals and organizations whose posts I admire are, in varying degrees, vetting their information. The ones I have named may be said to be members of the political left, but an equal number of sources are available across the political and cultural spectrum. As a Facebook newspaper owner, I am simply asserting the same prerogative newspaper owners have always asserted, namely to define editorial policy. A significant difference is that in the heyday of the print newspaper editorial policies were overwhelmingly conservative. Thanks to the Internet, readers are now getting a broader perspective of opinions and viewpoints.
Some of the more important contrarian journalists, like Greg Palast "people we desperately need "tend to hype their language to the detriment of their credibility. I know why they do this. They have little financial support, and they need attention to draw funds.
In the course of my little study I noticed that the most suspicious information tends to come from the big-money think tanks that the mainstream media are apt to draw upon as gospel. Can I get away with using those words "most suspicious? Will you let me get away with them? All I can say is that I`m a lifelong newspaperman and I think I can smell a rat when I encounter one. The think tanks try in every way to manipulate the press, because they have an agenda. One way to consider this problem is to consider how the press responds to readily available government sources "they`re under-used and marginalized by the media. They`re not supposed to have an agenda, although political appointees often try to strong-arm them. These are the same political hacks who perennially bad-mouth and scapegoat the government. For example, The Bureau of Justice Statistics, The Labor Department and the Census Bureau, to name only a few sources, regularly publish invaluable information that ought to be further developed by the media. But what is more likely to happen is that the media will rely on handouts summarizing these agencies` findings, instead of exploring their implications. When one city supplants another as the murder capital of the nation that ought to spark all kinds of inquiries and not be buried on page three. And when Chicago youths are said by some government agency to exhibit unrest, the press ought to get to work finding out what`s going on. But in truth the agenda-driven reports of the think tanks are usually given much more attention than more reliable government data. This in itself is a major story, but who is going to report it? The press does not like to inquire into its own foibles, and yet these very foibles shape and misshape the nation.
The political right, I found, tends to rant more than the political left. It tends to preach to the choir more than the left. But on both sides ideological contentions are marred by disparagement, sarcasm and uncontested rumor. For example, Congress is regularly said to have more perks than it actually has. The Civil Service is routinely called bloated and overpaid, but there are no facts to support these arguments. At the same time scant attention is given to widespread local corruption, which often endangers the environment, restricts voting, gerrymanders voting districts, and creates and maintains too many layers of government and too much patronage.
Worse for the country, public discourse centers on Washington, an easy target, scapegoating a famously effective civil service and ignoring the widespread corruption of local government in the United States by developers and others.
But each citizen-voter using the Internet with a modicum of skill and determination can come up with vast treasures of information, ideas and "perhaps most important of all "angles of vision, new ways of seeing things.
The spectacle of English rioters using their smart phones to exchange information is as worrisome to Britain`s press as it is to its right-wing government because it is a sure signal that people are no longer dependent on authorized media for their information, and it foreshadows a world in which it will be increasingly difficult to govern by regulating information.
I tend to be a man of the left, although not on every score or in every instance, so my own Facebook pages cannot well serve a conservative looking to see how he or she might run an effective newspaper on the web. But my Facebook pages can serve as a guide to how the web can be drawn upon to enlighten discourse.
And if the citizen journalist, using a social network as his newspaper, wishes to adhere to ideals of fairness and balance, instead of buttressing his ideology and preconceptions, the Internet as a news source for his own newspaper is fabulous. The mean-spirited language can be redacted. The bully can be banned from the schoolyard. And only thoughtful ideas and their presentations can be encouraged. This is not a matter of left or right but rather a matter of courtesy and decency.
In other words, we can have the newspapers we want. We don`t need to be nostalgic for a news world that never really existed. We can have it in any intellectual arena "the hometown, the region, the state, a profession, an art. We can publish what we want. We don`t have to complain about the way the news is presented to us or the way news is omitted. Think about it. Think about it, because you can be sure that the media giants are thinking about it day and night, and they don`t want you to have what has already been handed to you by Tim Berners-Lee and his many successors. It doesn`t matter what the color of your politics is, you had better start operating your own newspaper before the privilege is taken from you.
Salman Khan, the founder of The Khan Academy, believes a higher education is a fundamental human right. And he`s heroically doing something about it. I say here and now your right to run your own newspaper is a fundamental right, and I hope you will run it with thoughtfulness, fairness and respect for those with whom you disagree.
This is my testament as a newspaperman, after weeks of studying the issue. Journalism is alive and well, but it`s shape shifting.
Djelloul Marbrook`s first book, Far from Algiers (Kent State University Press, 2008) won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. Artists` Hill, an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Crowds of One, won the 2008 Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction. Artemisia`s Wolf, a novella, was published by Prakash Books of India early in 2011. Alice Miller`s Room, a novella, was published in 1999 by OnlineOriginals.com (UK) as an e-book, and Bliss Plot Press of Woodstock, NY, recently published his novella, Saraceno, as an e-book. Orbis (UK), Smashwords.com, Potomac Review (Maryland) and Prima Materia (New York). His second book of poems is Brushstrokes and Glances (Deerbrook Editions, 2010). Recent poems were published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Oberon, Meadowland Review, The Same, Reed, The Ledge, Poemeleon, Poets Against War, Fledgling Rag, Daylight Burglary, Le Zaporogue, Atticus, Long Island Quarterly, ReDactions, Istanbul Literary Review, Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, Damazine, Perpetuum Mobile, Attic, and Chronogram. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in Germantown, NY, with his wife Marilyn, and has lifelong ties to Woodstock.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com