Surmounting five riddles of the information sphere

Martin Gurri writes:

“The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile,” wrote Walter Lippmann back in 1922, “is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished.” Lippmann found truth in the analysis of causes and relations—in context. I will have more to say about that.

But what is news?

A century of dishonesty has accumulated around that word. I’m willing to give a pass to political bias—the kind of reporting that makes Trump the villain of every New York Times story and the hero of Fox News. It’s perfectly possible to be an honest partisan. The lack of truthfulness I want to consider runs deeper and is more corrupting.

There is an implicit ideology of the news. It rests on three claims: one, that consumption of news produces the omnicompetent citizen supposedly required by democracy; two, that news is a special form of information, complete in scope and objective in tone; and three, that the mission of news is to act as the voice of the people against the predations of power and wealth. As with most ideologies, these propositions are not internally coherent—but note that they enable news practitioners to feel morally superior both to the public (which must be educated) and the political class (which must be exposed).

All three claims are false. As a record of human affairs, the news is a vast ocean of silence, sprinkled with arbitrary islets of content. Three million people died in the Congo out of range of the news, at a time when CNN was pursuing, relentlessly, the adventures of a runaway bride. The world is full of such forgotten humanitarian crises, ignored by Western journalists. It is taken for granted that presidents and politics rule the news—while science, technology, poetry, the visual arts, philosophy, and religion receive scarcely a whisper.

News is not truth. In the time of the tweet, news isn’t even first in delivering “news or information,” as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis recently noted. News is bait for ads sold by a hard-nosed business: rather than inform citizens or protect the underdog, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, Vox, and Politico are trying desperately to make money. That fact explains many of the strange distortions of news content. The failure to cover the civil war in the Congo was a business decision. So is the obsession with Trump. The primacy of politics, on the other hand, allows journalists and media owners to feel like players in the great game—with an added moralistic buzz. Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post converted an unpopular billionaire into the hero who would save democracy from dying in darkness.

The riddle posed by such contradictions has a simple answer. Let’s demystify the news. We can consume it or not, believe it or not, find it useful and entertaining or not, but we must never again grant it a privileged position, either in our politics or in the hierarchy of information. The public has lost all trust in the news. That can be repaired with a sensible reappraisal of its value. Freed from magical claims, the news will cease to be an agent of dishonesty and post-truth, and assume its proper place among the information sphere’s near-infinity of stuff.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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