The Medium and the Message

September 27th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Why has our political discourse become so uncivil?  There are a number of explanations, but the most important is that we simply have too much access to bad information.  The information explosion of the past couple of decades has come about in different ways.  The most deleterious has been the internet, a true information superhighway with a seemingly infinite number of unrestricted on-ramps.

Cable TV has played a role, of course.  Without it, the only sources of information for most people would be newspapers, magazines, broadcast TV, and conversation with other people.  With it, we have a flood of sources of information, some of it of dubious quality and veracity.  But nothing equals the impact of the internet.  Anyone with a computer and a means of connecting it has access to “news” and opinion from an uncountable number of sources, including millions of blogs.

It’s easy to see the problem — most of that “news” and opinion is of very low quality, if quality is to be defined as well-reasoned and fact-based information.

Some will point out that politics has always been vicious, going back to the days of yellow journalism and even earlier.  The era of yellow journalism was a result, in fact, of technological advances during the industrial revolution — advances that made it much easier to produce information and distribute it widely.  Sound familiar?  That’s what the internet has done in our own era.

With so much information available, it’s difficult to limit your sources to just those that seem to be reasonably objective — and it’s probably not a good idea to avoid sources that are obviously strongly biased.  That would be like one team trying to play football between the hash marks, without knowing where the real boundaries are and what’s happening near them.

So how to deal with the medium (the internet) and the plethora of information it provides (and promotes)?  The first step is to develop a finely-tuned BS filter by staying close to mainstream, professional sources.  This includes, perhaps most importantly, large newspapers.  They may sometimes show bias, but it’s fairly easy to sort out fact from opinion even in news articles, particularly if you read several that report on the same topics.  Watching major TV news outlets is also useful, but it has to be done with caution.  For example, if you’re going to watch CNN for news, then also watch Fox News Channel (the news programs, that is).  The great weekly news magazines are pretty much hopeless at this point and best avoided — particularly Newsweek, which has slipped into blatant advocacy journalism.

I would challenge everyone to take an inventory of their information sources.  If you find that you’ve fallen into the trap of going only to sources that you agree with, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  If most of what you know comes from the likes of Limbaugh and Beck and all your news comes from Fox, it’s inevitable that your worldview will be skewed.  The same is true of those who rely solely on the likes of Olbermann and Schultz (and Air America, when you could still find it), with all their news coming from CNN and broadcast news programs.  Among young people in particular, information confusion has resulted in many of them considering the comedian Jon Stewart as their most important news source.

Like most people, I also receive my share of chain e-mails, another curse made possible by the internet.  The typical chain e-mail has a right-wing slant, and they’re often chock-full of bad information.  Now and then I go to the trouble of responding to some of them with links to factual sources that debunk them, but that often results in an angry response from the sender.  I’ve asked several serial senders to cease and desist, but it usually doesn’t work.  In one particularly vexing case, I had to ban the sender from sending me anything.

So how do we protect against becoming victims of bad information?  How do we de-program people who have become poorly-informed extremists by excessive reliance on crackpots like Michael Savage and Alex Jones?  Sad to say, it can’t be done — unless we get rid of the internet (and cable TV) entirely.

Fortunately, most people aren’t true internet addicts, and most people have a fairly well-developed sense of what’s true and what isn’t.  They’re focused on work, family, and their circle of friends.  Most people don’t think President Obama has a secret Muslim-informed agenda to destroy America, they don’t think 9/11 was a government conspiracy, and they don’t buy most of the other outlandish rants that pervade the internet.  That’s what will save us in the end.

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5 Responses to “The Medium and the Message”

  1. Dan Miller |

    I agree that there is a lot of crap on the internet. However, there is also a lot of very diverse good stuff. I rely on it heavily because here in Panama I can’t get either U.S. newspapers or U.S. television without a lot more effort than it is worth; newspapers are always at least several days old by the time I can get them and satellite TV is expensive, limited and unreliable. Ditto cable TV, unavailable where I live. I have come to appreciate the unavailability of those resources.

    The trick for the internet is to go to multiple sources, and a subject search for news on Google can be quite useful. That takes time and effort, but if really interested it is worth it. Go to Daily Kos, HuffPo, Slate and the really “conservative” blogs as well. They are all wrong and they are all right on some things. And, even if one agrees with one side or the other, it’s very useful to learn what the other side(s) is (are) saying.

    The internet is a marvelous tool if used intelligently and everything is taken with a modicum of salt. My feeling is that it is displacing, and will continue increasingly to displace, other media.

  2. d |

    That is so sad. The internet is so crazy and so full of weirdos,I hate that that is where all our news will come from, in the future. Change is not always good.

  3. Tom Carter |

    We might have been better off if the internet (and cable TV) had never come along, but that’s like standing on the shore and cursing the tide — there’s nothing we can do about it. Making the internet positive and useful depends on intelligent and rational users, and unfortunately there are too many people who use it to reinforce and spread their ignorance.

  4. Clarissa |

    “I would challenge everyone to take an inventory of their information sources. If you find that you’ve fallen into the trap of going only to sources that you agree with, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

    -This is why I keep reading this blog, even though I disagree with 90% of what people say here. The good thing is that the articles here are usually well-written, which is rarely the case with many blogs on both sides of the political spectrum.

  5. Tom Carter |

    Thanks, Clarissa. Those who write here often disagree with each other, too, but we (almost always) keep our disagreements within the limits of reasonable discussion.

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