Tag Archives: governance

What We Lost When We Lost Newspapers

I recently read an article on Resilience–an aggregator website–that struck a chord.

The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of what I’ve referred to previously as the “journalism of verification.” These are the paragraphs that really resonated with me:

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

Recently, former programmers at Facebook accused the site of manipulating the identity of “trending” stories. I have no idea whether this is true (actually, I sort of doubt it, for a number of reasons not relevant to this post), but in a culture permeated by suspicion, I’m sure the accusation will get traction–and add to our already high levels of paranoia.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information must compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. 

The result, of course, is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

Just one recent example, among too many to count: Sean Hannity of Fox “News” recently cited an “authoritative report” to the effect that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails, and was debating whether to release them. And where did this “authoritative report” originate? On WhatDoesItMean.com.

Currently, WhatDoesItMean.com boasts front page headlines such as “Northern England Stunned After British Fighter Jets Battle UFO,” “Russia Warned Of ‘Wrath Of God’ Event As West Prepares To Honor New Planet With Satanic Ritual,” “Music Icon Prince Dies After Obama Regime Fails To Heed Russian Warning,” and “Mysterious Planet Ejected From Black Hole At Center Of Galaxy Warned Could Soon Impact Earth.”

Look, I don’t think anyone wants to return to the era of the “gate-keeper,” where reporters and editors got to decide what news was–what merited coverage and what could safely be ignored. But we desperately need to identify methods that will allow consumers of media to recognize what’s wheat and what’s chaff– to distinguish spin, propaganda and opinion from factual information.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the nominee of a once-respectable political party should be all the evidence we need that the extent of media coverage and the value, accuracy and relevance of that coverage are very different things.

What we lost when we lost the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government.

What’s the Weather Like on Your World?

I don’t know whether anyone reading this remembers it, but there used to be a popular song titled “Two Different Worlds.” Clearly, Americans are now living in different worlds—albeit not the benign ones referred to in the song. Indeed, we seem to occupy different universes.

Consider:

Franklin (son of Billy) Graham says that there is only one election left to “save America” from godless secularism.

The secularists, he claimed, want to prevent people from praying anywhere other than inside a church, so that “having a service like this in a few years could be illegal.”

A pastor named Bickle has endorsed Ted Cruz, because he is confident that Cruz will “hunt down” Jews who refuse to accept the “grace” of Christ.

Recently, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign proudly announced the endorsement of Mike Bickle, the head of the controversial International House of Prayer and an extremist pastor who believes, among other things, that Oprah Winfrey is a forerunner to the Antichrist. Among Bickle’s more radical views is his prophecy that as the End Times approach, all Jews will be given a chance to accept Jesus, warning that if they do not accept “the grace” of Christ, God will then “raise up a hunter” who will kill two-thirds of them “and the most famous hunter in recent history is a man named Adolf Hitler.”

A certain Rick Wiles, identified as an “End Times Radio Host,” says Obama had Scalia killed.

Wiles said that the assassins who killed the conservative justice “deliberately left the pillow on his face as a message to everybody else: ‘Don’t mess with us, we can murder a justice and get away with it.’ And I assure you, there’s a lot of frightened officials in Washington today, deep down they know, the regime murdered a justice…. This is the way a dictatorial, fascist, police state regime takes control of a nation.”
It’s reasonable to assume that few people are as disconnected from reality as these and similarly-disturbed folks. I take comfort in the belief that there have always been unstable, frightened and angry people blaming all the world’s ills on some group or other— that we just didn’t hear about them as often before the Internet.
But how rooted in reality are the rest of us?
A recent article from the Washington Post suggests that the Right and Left see each other as very different countries—and that what both see is wildly inaccurate. Republicans think that 46% of the Democratic party is African-American; double the actual percentage of 24. They estimated the percentage of Democratic atheists at 36%–the actual percentage is 9. And they were equally off-base estimating the percentages of union members (44%) and LGBT voters (38%); those actual percentages are 11 and 6, respectively.
For their part, Democrats think that 44% of Republicans earn over 250,000/year, although the actual number is 2%.  They estimate the percentage of Republicans over the age of 65 at 44%; the actual number is 21%. They came closer with their estimates of the percentages of Southerners (44%, actually 36%) and Evangelicals (estimated 44%, actual 43%).
The remainder of the article describes the very different worldviews and reactions of voters listening to President Obama’s State of the Union Speech. It was hard to believe they were listening to the same words.
All of this leads to some pretty sobering questions.
What produces such gaps in the polity’s understanding of the world we inhabit? And more importantly, how do people who occupy such dramatically different worlds live together?

 

An Expression of Our Shared Aspirations

Recent polling by veteran survey researcher Stan Greenberg has confirmed some conventional wisdom, albeit from a somewhat different angle.

Unsurprisingly, Greenberg found that a large majority of Americans support popular social programs like Social Security, Medicare and even the Affordable Care Act.

An equally predictable finding: a majority of us view government with a significant amount of distrust.

Greenberg concludes that it isn’t enough for proponents of social programs (mostly Democrats these days, although the partisan divide wasn’t always so sharp) to center their candidacies around their support for these programs; they also need to emphasize a commitment to specific government reforms.

Reform of government, then, means more than just getting money out: It should involve specific, plausible reforms that would reengage citizens in the process of government, creating new ways to make all our voices matter….

Above all, it should include a positive vision of reform of the political process, and the role of money, that does more than reimpose limits on the political influence of the very wealthy, but empowers citizens as donors and participants. And, the most difficult challenge of all, there has to be an effort to restore to the public face of government, the legislative process, a sense of compromise and shared commitment to the public good, despite deep disagreements.

All of this should fit into the context of a reaffirmation of the importance of government, not as a force outside of our lives, for good or ill, but as an expression of our shared aspirations.

“Government as an expression of our shared aspirations.” That sentence struck me. How long has it been since the voting public viewed their government as a mechanism for achieving our common goals and aspirations?

The fact that such rhetoric sounds quaint, if not odd, to contemporary ears is a measure of how impoverished our political discourse has become.