Almost nine years ago, Cass Sunstein, then a law professor at the University of Chicago, wrote an article for the Boston Review arguing that the Internet posed a danger to democracy because of its potential for ghettoizing groups according to their views and interests: The Daily We—Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?.
I confess I had not read the article until this morning when I read David Brooks’s column in the New York Times citing Sunstein’s article. Although I had never read the article, I have written much the same thing here (in a much pithier way if I do say so myself). Brooks takes issue with Sunstein, and I guess by extension, me. He cites a new study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro at the University of Chicago that disputes Sunstein’s argument. Brooks says that the Gentzkow-Shapiro study verifies that conservatives tend to gravitate toward Internet sites that reflect their views, and liberals do the same. But, Brooks says of the study, “the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities.” Brooks says the study shows that they move around, grazing here and there, and not necessarily in places where they agree with what they’re reading. If you want to read the study, by the way, it will cost you $5 to download it and I haven’t decided whether I want to shell out the money or not. At the moment I’m willing to accept Brooks’s reporting of it.
First of all, I’m skeptical about the Gentzkow-Shapiro findings even if I haven’t read them first hand. This is only one study, and I don’t know anything about the methodology.
Even if I did accept their findings, I still have a problem with all of these new sites. Once again, who are the people behind the sites? How thorough are they in gathering information? What is their agenda? Who checks their reports and how careful are they? Newspapers—good ones anyway—have a careful vetting process, endeavoring to insure that what they print is correct, thorough and fair. Obviously they don’t always succeed in that effort, but that’s the professional standard that they measure themselves by.
Back in the day, when I worked for The Washington Post, I used to attend the daily story conference where each section of the paper pitched its offerings for the front page. Questions were raised only occasionally about a particular story in that meeting, but a later meeting—the front-page conference—was a different matter. At the second meeting, the same editors met, but then they were confronted with a layout of the proposed front page for the next day’s paper. The editor from any section with a story being considered for the front page had to be prepared to defend his or her stories, answer questions, often penetrating, from colleagues and explain why that story merited front-page display. The other editors almost always had read the stories proposed for the front page by the time of the second meeting, and it wasn’t unusual for them to find holes in the reporting.
That kind of peer review made the paper better. It also served as yet another filter that stories had to pass through on their way into the paper. All stories were typically read by at least two, sometimes three or four editors before making it into print.
What’s the vetting process for online news and opinion sites where anyone—yes, including me—can say or write anything without a reader knowing whether it’s true, false or a total fabrication?
So maybe the Internet won’t cause the ghettoization of news and opinion even though the diversity of choices will mean that we’ll have in common fewer experiences and sources of information (another point where Sunstein and I agree); but it’s going to be increasingly difficult to know the source the news and opinions we can get from the Internet.
And that can’t be a good thing.