Monday, July 19, 2010

Drowning in News

A century ago, Americans spent only a few minutes a day learning about the world beyond their own senses--"the unseen environment," as Walter Lippmann put it in his 1922 study, "Public Opinion."

Back then, he despaired of "the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify...we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach."

Now a rising 24/7 flood of news brings the unseen crashing into their heads, but are "better-informed" Americans better equipped to make decisions in a democratic society?

If Lippmann were alive, his despair would deepen at a New York Times report on "the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news...

"Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding--or shaming--writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms."

Such emphasis on quantity over quality has only shortened shrunken attention spans, leaving wired Americans more stuffed with information and starved for understanding than ever before, like Strasbourg geese being force-fed not for their own nutrition but the profit motives of the feeders.

On the Times opinion page, Paul Krugman derides "the pundit delusion, the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting--who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback--actually matters."

But Krugman finds no solace in "the fact that 'ephemera' don’t matter...that voters aren’t swayed by cheap tricks. Unfortunately, however, the evidence suggests that issues don’t matter either, in part because voters are often deeply ill informed."

So here we are, after a century of technological innovation, the most highly informed citizenry in history, reacting to crises with not much more understanding than cave dwellers--and much the same superstition and fear.

1 comment:

Serious Implications said...

That "technological innovation" serves the propagandist as well as the journalist.