Turbulence in the news business

James FallowsKevin Featherly reacts to a James Fallows essay that engages in a good deal of gnashing of teeth over the state of journalism.

I’m far more optimistic — both about journalism, and about the direction of civic discourse and the role journalism plays it.

Let’s start with this quote from Fallows:

But “general” news–the shared info on which people make decisions about policies, politicians, and the general business of self-government–is weaker than before. The most striking symptom was the “separate fact universes” of the 2004 elections. It’s not just that half the public disagreed with the other half about opinions or policies. It’s that they disagreed on basic facts — e.g., whether Saddam Hussein had launched the 9/11 attacks.

Let’s see, where do I start, with the straw man in Fallow’s argument, or his mischaracterization of the actual debate, or his outright lie?

As I pointed out in June 2003, the assertion that most Americans believe Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks is highly dubious. The assertion has become a favorite canard of the left (which seems to hint as Mr. Fallows’ own biases), but the left never talks about the contradictory poll numbers nor the flaw in how Gallup asked the question in the first place. Instead, the “poll data” is trotted out whenever the left (or some left-leaning journalist) wants to broad brush Bush supporters as misinformed.

The fact is, there are no “separate fact universes,” because the facts are what they are. There are only highly partisan spins. The right makes a big deal about Atta’s Prague-in-Spring visit, even though the evidence is murky, and the left ignores reports that show Saddam clearly coveted WMD and an opportunity to use them against American targets. Or to use one of Kevin’s examples, disagreements over Bush’s service record aren’t over the facts, but which facts are facts (and not lies) and which facts are important. Remember, not all facts are equal, so if the left wants to argue about pay records, the right is free to cling to the evidence of discharge records.

Also, to be a fact, a statement must be immutable, otherwise it is merely an assertion. On both the left and the right, assertions are too often treated as facts, which might lead some to conclude there are “separate fact universes.”

Where the right and left disagree, the complete smorgasbord of facts and assertions are available to both sides, but each side is highly selective in which facts are important and which assertions to believe. This isn’t a bad thing. It is simple reality. And it’s also the way it’s always been. We just get more of it now. And it’s louder now. But it’s not new. Just think back to every pre-Internet election you ever lived through.

I think there is a certain smug elitism in the idea that we all most become fully informed to participate in an election, or even in a civic debate. The long-standing food chain of opinion and knowledge, which has remained in tact for more than 200 freedom-filled years, has served our democracy well. I don’t believe the Internet or any changes in the journalism business have significantly altered how information passes through the chain. It’s just that the chain has become longer and more complex, and a few links have decreased in importance.

But even at the bottom of the chain, the causally informed are far more knowledgeable than some partisans give them credit for. Some partisans may not like the results, but that doesn’t make the casually informed any less wise.

In fact, everything that we’re seeing now in the hue of Fallow’s “separate fact universes” world only argues for the value of more channels of information and debate. The bigger the network, the smarter we all are. You have to wonder how much more effective the Karl Rove spin machine could be without the free-flowing networks of fact-checking and information follow up we have today. In some alternate universe, maybe we wouldn’t know any better than but to selectively believe Saddam personally met with each of the hijackers. After all, the Washington press corps has rarely shown itself to be terribly industrious in ferreting out facts (Watergate not withstanding).

In other words, there is value in highly partisan fact checkers who push the envelop of evidence and opinion, so long as counter-weights exist that are equally vigorous. Let the information marketplace sort it all out. Markets are rarely wrong, and when they are, our society and our democracy can absorb the blow.

This change in the media landscape may unsettle those who cleave too religiously to MSM, but it makes the whole fact and context checking process more rigorous. This better serves democracy.

In this highly competitive environment, the only way professional journalism is going to survive is to be both good and business smart. It takes money to produce quality journalism. Donation-based bloggers can’t do it on their own. As quickly as the turbulent and dynamic news business is changing, it will take smart, disciplined and savvy business leaders to keep the professional outlets of journalism alive. The most successful media businesses will be those that do the best job at maintaining credibility in an era when readers own the markets. Top-down journalism is dead, but that doesn’t mean good journalism is dead. In fact, we’re likely to get better journalism down the road because that will be the best way for media businesses to make money.

What we’re seeing now in the marketplace is merely flux as the old guard is retired and the power of the marketplace shifts from producers to consumers. In the meantime, the old warts are showing, but warts have never been fatal. Journalism will be fine, and so will democracy.

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