Friday, March 17, 2006

This 'ain't so' either.

Today's Detroit Free Press had a guest editorial by Philip Meyer, Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of USA Today's board of contributers and reprinted from USA Today titled "When the truth just 'ain't so.'"

"This is Sunshine Week, a worthy effort by journalists to generate public support for removing barriers to government information. But government secrecy is not the only obstacle to the public's right to know. There is also what I like to call the Will Rogers problem."

There can be no such thing as the "public's right to know." The concept "rights" pertains to action, the freedom to pursue knowledge and aquire it if it is available. There is no such thing as a right to a thing before you own it. To believe in the right to know means that someone must be forced to provide the public with knowledge. It would mean newspapers are free. Same with TV and radio time. Journalists like Mr. Meyer would have to be forced to provide me with the knowledge I seek.

In a free and civilized society, people buy knowledge. We buy newspapers. We watch commercials on TV and listen to them on radio. We have the right to trade for knowledge but not to the knowledge itself without trade. As for government secrets, there are objective reasons governments keep somethings secret and our courts have upheld these reasons before and will do so in the future. Evidently, Mr. Meyers thinks all government knowledge must be open to the public. This is an irrational position. The "public's right to know" is a quaint idea probably invented by journalists. It is also a false one.

He then quotes Will Rogers: "It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble. It's what we know that ain't so." So now it's not just the "public's right to know," it's the "public's right to know" correct or true knowledge. However:

"The informations age has exacerbated the Will Rogers problem. Truth and falsehood are equally easy to disseminate. English poet John Milton, writing in the 17th century, assured us truth would always win in a fair and free encounter--true as long as the public paid attention." So now the problem is so much information the public isn't paying attention to it. He doesn't give any supporting evidence for this notion except for more assertions:

"But the astounding surplus of information today is making attention a scarce good. Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate in economics, saw the problem as far back as 1969. Information, he said, consumes the attention of those who recieve it. Therefore, "a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." That sounds like a good arguement for less class time, less homework, less study time and less lecture time. Think universities will go along with that?

"Thomas Davenport and John Beck, in their 2001 book, "The Attention Economy," credit television as "the most successful attention-getting technology in human history." It does it,they say, by using brief narratives, careful timing and understandable characters." Ok. If TV is the "most successful attention-getting" technology in history, then why do we have "attention poverty"?

"These are, of course, the techniques of fiction, and jounalists have tried to adapt them to the harder task of truth-telling." Boy, you sure can say that again! (I'm amazed he admitted that much) "Making the truth compelling is important, but liars can use these tools, too." But why does truth have to be compelling? Why can't truth stand on its own merits? He is admitting that journalists should appeal to the public's feelings. Truth just isn't enough in the middle of "attention poverty."

"When the second Iraq war was launched three years ago, a majority of Americans believed something that wasn't so: that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He wasn't. Nor was Iraq found to have weapons of mass destruction, which was the Bush administration's main justification for the war."

The idea that Americans thought Saddam was personally involved in 9/11 is a flat out falsehood. Mr. Meyer is now the willing purveyor of that which just "ain't so."

"Traditional journalism has poor defenses against lying by government or other powerful institutions." I'm afraid that everyone has poor defenses against being lied to. This is not some malady unique to journalism that can now be used to turn the media into the league of "extraordinary journalists." But that is exactly what Mr. Meyer seemingly wants:

"Its (journalism's) code of giving "both sides" and leaving it to the reader to choose caused a long delay in the public's acceptance of the 1964 surgeon general's report on smoking and health." So because the public took a long time to accept the SG's dogmatic report, there is something wrong with the public? It will probably never occur to Mr. Meyer that the people were slow to accept the report because they knew they were being lied to. Of course Democrats were in charge in '64 and it's impossible for them to lie to the people. Where was Mr. Meyer's concern about a lying government back then?

"To help the public sort things out requires greater journalistic skill than just telling both sides. The reporter has to understand the issues to help the readers choose." I am reminded of my post titled "Imagine That" (January archives) where Bush did not want the pizza delivery guy to stand on his front porch and give him an in-depth analysis on the nature if pepperoni and how to digest it. But that is exactly what Mr. Meyer wants his pizza delivery guys (journalists) to do.

There are a lot of things wrong with that op-ed not the least of which is the obvious condesending attitude that the people are too stupid to think for themselves. That professors of journalism know better just "ain't so."

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