Reponse originally given at The Media Project's conference “Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century”.
I’m glad George Gilder brought up the issue of global warming, because it so often epitomizes the promise and the peril of the Internet in the search for truth. As it happens, I don’t share George’s view on global warming, and when I say so on my blog or in my newspaper, I hear from readers who write to tell me in no unequivocal terms what a complete idiot I am. And they usually send links to websites that back up their claims with utter certitude.
Which is funny, because when newspaper colleagues of mine who are global warming skeptics write about their doubts, they too are bombarded by partisans who write to tell them in no unequivocal terms what complete idiots they are. And they usually send links to websites that back up their claims with utter certitude.
While blogs and websites can be helpful in analyzing issues and truth claims, many people experience them as an echo chamber, to confirm what they already believe. At their best, blogs serve as a useful corrective to distorted establishment media accounts. But at their worst, they feed a dangerously subjective mentality that the American satirist Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.”:
“Truthiness” is the idea that the most reliable way of knowing things is not through examination of facts or logic, but intuition. If it feels like it must be true, it’s not necessarily truthful, but it’s truthy – and that’s enough. Truth can be unsettling, but truthiness is therapeutic. As a journalist, I find it alarming how many people these days, on both the left and the right, are not really interested in truth, but rather in truthiness.
I had a political argument not long ago with a reader. She made a rather outlandish claim. I disputed it with facts. She then said, “Well, you’re entitled to your own opinion, and I’m entitled to mine.” I should have said, “Yes, madam, but your not entitled to your own facts.” But I didn’t because I know these discussions are often futile. She wasn’t interested in reconciling her opinion with the world of facts, or reconciling my own. In fact, she was resentful of me for judging her opinion. Besides, as far as she was concerned, I was a member of the corporate establishment media, and couldn’t be trusted. She’d read that on a blog somewhere, no doubt.
We live in a time of mass-culture egalitarianism, where old truths and sources of authority are under intense challenge, or have collapsed. Replacing them: the radical sovereignty of the individual. More and more, people have lost the idea of objective truth. We don’t speak of truth; we speak of truths – my truth and your truth. What’s true for me is not what’s true for you, the theory goes. This is a consumerist approach to truth, and it’s made our minds so open that our brains are falling out.
Still, I think society is better served by our seemingly infinite number of media sources. Though it must be said that bloggers, even the best ones, are parasitical: they don’t do original reporting themselves, but only analyze and aggregate the labor of professionals. As much as bloggers complain about the dreaded mainstream media, they would be nothing without them.
I should say that we would be nothing without us. I’m in the unusual position of being both a newspaper journalist and an independent blogger. I know from the inside how biased the US media can be, especially on certain issues, and I write about that from time to time on my blog. But I also know how ill-informed and biased bloggers can be, and how little they know about how quality professional journalism works.
To confuse things further, many journalists are now becoming bloggers as part of their day job. In 2003, I helped start the first blog on the Dallas Morning News website by creating a blog for the editorial board – the first of its kind in the United States. Now the News has 20 blogs on its site, involving not just opinion columnists, but also reporters. The line between reporting and commentary is blurring, as is the line between what’s officially journalism, and what’s little more than online coffee talk. Some of us at the News will write things on our blog that are far more casual than we would ever put in print. We treat the blog as if it were less authoritative than the newspaper itself – that is, as if the information we provide on the blog weren’t as authoritative as what appears in print.
But do readers? I’m not at all certain that they do. And this uncertainty makes me nervous – both for them, and for us.
The most appealing aspects of a good blog are spontaneity, immediacy, a conversational quality, a lively personality. It has to move quickly, and update frequently. All of these are traits that work against traditional journalism’s standards, which mandate taking your time to verify facts and get all sides of a story, and working to achieve, or at least to affect, objectivity. In the blog world, the traits that professional journalists try to suppress are precisely those that are prized. No wonder so many traditional journalists have been reluctant to embrace blogging. We know that blogging isn’t top-quality journalism, and rarely can be.
Yet this is the world we journalists must accept, whether we like it or not. My newspaper’s publisher has informed us that The Dallas Morning News will soon be considered nothing more than a version of Dallasnews.com. As star reporters add “blogger” to their public profile, journalism will become ever more a personality-driven enterprise. This will inevitably make journalism more subjective, I fear, one in which truth is determined not by who has the most accurate and complete facts, but by who tells the most entertaining, pleasing or convincing story.
That’s what the public increasingly wants – if they want real journalism at all. It’s a truthy world, folks, and a wired one. We journalists have to adapt somehow without losing our core principles – or die.