Sunday’s New York Times brings a book review by Bill Keller of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley. In the process of reviewing the book, Keller refers to the divergence between the old journalism where “a significant population of serious people feel the need for someone with training, experience and standards–reporters and editors–to help them dig up and sort through the news, identify what;’s important and make sense of it” on one side and the new journalism, thanks to the Internet where anyone can write what they want about what they want about anything without having to filter their writing through anyone else.
With the old journalism, Keller says, “the authority of professional journalists is both a valuable convenience for readers without the time or inclination to manage a tsunami of information on their own, and a civic good, in that a democracy needs a shared base of trustworthy information upon which to make its judgments.”
I’ve tried to argue much the same here. A cadre of professional interests, of course, constitute an elite, and in a democracy elitism and elites pose problems. Nevertheless, we can’t all be experts on everything. That’s why we have physicians, dentists, mechanics, tax preparers and, lamentably perhaps, lawyers. For quite some time Americans were content to allow an elite–or a few elites–to run domestic and foreign affairs, trusting (a word to which I will return) them to look out for the public’s interest. Some portion of the population, of course, disagreed with the elites and thought government wasn’t being run to further everyone’s interests. That’s to be expected in a democracy.
One of the elites was the group of people who watched the other elites and reported on what they were doing, not always completely, or accurately or even fairly, but enough of the time that the public usually had a good sense of what was going on. And, for the most part, the public trusted the information that this informing elite–journalists–provided them.
The key word here is trust. People for the most part trusted “the press” or the media as the press came to be called and they trusted their government. When they didn’t trust the government, because it was a democracy, they threw them out of office and chose another bunch to govern.
In those days, the public had a common reservoir of information to draw on. There were differences from one newspaper to another and then from one television network to another, but the basic pool was the same. As time went on, journalists developed standards, ethics and other best practices that became engrained in the profession.
The Internet changes all of that . One no longer needs a printing press, or a television or radio station to communicate with the rest of the world. Anyone can communicate anything to everyone, or at least to those who care to visit the communicator’s blog or website or read an email. There’s no one to ask the communicator “How do you know this?” or “Where did you hear this” or inquire about the reliability of the source. Correspondingly, we don’t know how reliable the information is or what the motive of the communicator might be.
Obviously, the old way wasn’t perfect. Information printed by newspapers or magazines more than once in a blue moon wasn’t accurate, complete or fair. Henry Luce had his own view of the world and when the facts didn’t conform to it, he tried to make the reporting reflect what he believed to be true. People knew that, however. They learned to take what Time magazine reported with a grain of salt because they knew the source and could evaluate the information accordingly. And Time was only one of a number of publications and other news sources. People had choices, but not so many that they were bewildered by them and couldn’t possibly sift through them all or determine what was accurate and what wasn’t.
So, the information elite has been shattered. Keller characterized the amount of news out there as a tsunami. Good word. Now we have the potential for a tsunami of communicators out there bringing us “information.” Are we better off?