The approaching death of newspapers, and of the news business generally, is no longer contested or in doubt. The form of speech assumed by those in the business who discuss their own demise has moved from plea to curse: from “we’re too important to fail” to “you’ll miss us when we’re gone.”
I have been reflecting for some days on this NYT column by Nicholas Kristof. He makes the case that democracy will suffer when the Kristofs of the world go extinct. This may sound self-serving, and no doubt it is: but it’s also typical of a strand of opinion about the relationship between news and freedom which stands, I think, in need of analysis.
Kristof’s trophe is the Daily Me, which comes to him second-hand from Nicholas Negroponte by way of Cass Sunstein. “When we go online,” Kristof worries, “each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper.” He continues: “if that’s the trend, God help us from ourselves.”
That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
Studies get cited purporting to show that such insulation leads to “polarization and intolerance.” The Daily Me, Kirstof warns, is what the “decline of traditional news media” will leave behind: individuals selecting their own information, which “acts as a narcotic, lulling us into self-confident stupor. . .” Beyond private virtue, he offers no proposals to save the situation. Salvation appears impossible. Kristof is Cassandra, prophesying doom.
I have touched briefly before on the catastrophic forecast of a Daily Me. Here I propose to inspect its theoretical assumptions, which often go unstated, and to consider whether these assumptions are coherent and supported by the facts, or rather the opposite.
It is well to begin with Walter Lippmann, who in Public Opinion delivered a crushing critique of the informational value of news. I find it extraordinary that Lippmann’s charges have ellicited no response other than silence. To my knowledge, no one pretends that news is anything other than stereotypes, warped by interested parties, pandering (however unsuccessfully) to potential readers. The proposition that news is essential to democracy, and a Daily Me harmful, is put forward as if Lippmann never existed.
Lippmann made an explicit distinction between news and truth. He held truth to be a Platonic absolute, “uncovered” by wise technicians rather than cobbled together by ordinary people. The Daily Me argument — part of a larger rationalistic faith — borrowed this Platonic vision of truth and, without a hint of irony, identified it with the news.
Let’s dissect the body of assumptions on which Kristof, Sunstein, and their fellow believers must must erect their arguments. Call it the five pillars of the Daily Me:
ONE: Truth is absolute, not a matter of perspective. Opinions are perspectival — that is, easy to arrive at and informed by prejudice. Truth is complex and accessible to few.
TWO: For democracy to function, the citizenry must be informed of the truth regarding national interest, economic activity, public policy, and foreign affairs.
THREE: Journalists mediate between the complexity of the world and the simplicity of the voters. They serve up truth to the citizenry, and oppose corrupt or self-interested opinions. (News is the name given to the truth served up by journalists.)
FOUR: The process of uncovering truth is the Socratic method — the real thing, not the ideal. In what is primarily an instructional performance, false opinions get smashed down by truth.
FIVE: Left to his own devices, the citizen will hide in a little ghetto of self-regarding opinions, partisanship, and prejudice. Truth must be imposed on the public.
It follows, if all these assumptions hold up, that the news are essential to citizens making the right decisions, while the extinction of the news will lead, as Kirstof prophesies, to polarization and intolerance.
I want to be blunt about my assessment. Not one of the five pillars stands up to scrutiny.
Truth is absolute, complex, and accessible to few. Even science acknowledges that truth is relative to a perspective. Truth may be absolute to God; for mortals, it’s a matter of what you can see from where you stand, and of trial and error. Most importantly, moral and political truths arise from history and tradition, and are accessible to anyone — whether plumber or college professor — who is not a rationalist.
Citizens must be massively informed for democracy to function. Two observations. First, the evidence consists of a handful of studies whose findings are limited in scope and time. They show that, without the benefit of the news, people tend to become either polarized or apathetic. Beyond the obvious contradiction, it is nowhere explained how or why journalists rise above this human tendency.
Second, and more theoretically, this idea is part of the rationalist exaltation of politics as the supreme activity, and of government power as the lever that will move the world toward perfection. But in a representative democracy, the informational needs of the individual will focus on family, profession, community, hobbies. In the selection of representatives, accurate judgments of character may be far more important for the health of democracy than intimate knowledge of facts.
Journalists serve up truth to the citizenry. I can add little to what Lippmann has already written on this score. Those looking for more up-to-date evidence of journalism at work can find it here and here.
Truth is uncovered by a Socratic clash of opinions. Learning occurs in school. As adults, we train in a profession, read books, travel, exchange information with people we trust, watch TV, spend time online, etc. The claim that people learn by absorbing opinions they oppose is a bizarre one — even Kristof admits he is “sometimes guilty myself of selective truth-seeking on the Web” — unless one believes that most people hold wrong opinions, and must be liberated from ignorance.
Left alone, the citizen will hide in a Daily Me of prejudice. If, as Kristof and Sunstein believe, the web is the cause of the Daily Me, web behavior should become progressively more fragmented and isolated. But the power curve rules the web, as it does all human relations. A few sites get vast numbers of visitors.
What troubles Kristof is the disappearance of a docile, predictable mass consumer for mass media. That consumer never existed. Informationally, people have always lived in small communities of interest revolving around family, community, profession, church, sports, hobbies, etc. Sometimes these interests intersect, sometimes they crystallize into larger points of reference — but this is rare.
While mass media held an information monopoly, such micro-communities were bent to the limited and pre-selected tastes of a fictional mass consumer. With the web, an informational “long tail” has sprouted from the power curve — the term was coined by Chris Anderson with relation to retail sales — in which all tastes, from puppies to porn, become articulate, public, communal. This isn’t a Daily Me but a Daily Us; it isn’t a new thing wrought by the web but a reversion of the information environment to the actual shape of American life.
One would think that removing a powerful class of interpreters of reality, not unlike the medieval church, would be applauded as a boost to democracy. The same applies to the citizen becoming his own gatekeeper — how can this be a bad thing?
Kristof’s horror over this development reflects a fear of ordinary people, and a faith in journalists as Platonic guardians over the public sphere. Americans, he warns, “don’t truly want good information.” I observe without comment the amount of presumption contained in that one word, good.
I find it useful, when it comes to heated public debates, to turn toward the Founding Fathers, and inquire of them what their opinion might be. They rarely lack one, and it rarely disappoints. Of course, problems of mass media and the web might be considered an exception. What wisdom could men in powdered periwigs dispense about the latest communications technology?
But the Founders thought about information, and how it related to government.
In number 84 of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton takes on the problem of information and distance. One objection to the new Constitution was that, in a continental nation, “the seat of that government must necessarily be too remote from many of the States to admit a proper knowledge on the part of the constituent of the conduct of the representative body.” To put the question differently: how does the citizen obtain the proper information about a distant government, which he requires to safeguard his rights and to direct his duty?
Here is Hamilton’s thinking on the matter:
There is in all the arguments which relate to distance a palpable illusion of the imagination. What are the sources of information by which the people in Montgomery County must regulate their judgment of the conduct of their representatives in the State legislature? Of personal observation they can have no benefit. This is confined to the citizens on the spot. They must therefore depend on the information of intelligent men, in whom they confide; and how must these men obtain their information? Evidently from the complexion of public measures, from the public prints, from correspondences with their representatives, and with other persons who reside at the place of their deliberations.
The eighteenth-century Republic of Letters probably shared more traits with the internet than with the mass media that, in the next century, overwhelmed it. Hamilton, a creature of this environment, endorsed its application to representative government, and came close to stating that every citizen is — and must be — his own gatekeeper.
The claim that the public needed a guardian class to ensure its consumption of “good information” would have struck him as preposterous and dangerous to freedom, no doubt the product of one more “illusion of the imagination.”