Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media

Everyone from President Obama to Ted Koppel is bemoaning a decline in journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion. But the author, a longtime advocate of these values, takes a journey through the digital-media world and concludes there isn’t any point in defending the old ways. Consumer-obsessed, sensationalist, and passionate about their work, digital upstarts are undermining the old media—and they may also be pointing the way to a brighter future.

Lies and truthiness. The regular journalistic reflex is to correct error by applying fact and logic. In moot-court competition, this pays off. In much of the rest of life, it does not. On being told “You’re wrong,” some people will say “Thanks for the correction!” Most will say “Go to hell.”

“There is actually a lot of energy released by opposing ‘settled facts,’” I was told by Jay Rosen, of the journalism school at NYU. “The more ‘settled’ it is, the more furious the energy. When someone points out an error in what Sarah Palin has said, that becomes another example of the liberal media, and it becomes another tool for organizing.”

“Liberals love to talk about the erosion of logic and the scientific method,” Nick Denton said. One example he discussed: Al Gore’s book about irrationality in public life, called The Assault on Reason, with passages like this: “The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas describes what has happened as the ‘refeudalization of the public sphere.’”

“But what if the answer to a false narrative isn’t fact?,” Denton says. “Or Habermas? Maybe the answer to a flawed narrative is a different narrative. You change the story.” Which is what, he said, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done. They don’t “fact-check” Fox News, or try to rebut it directly, or fight on its own terms. They change the story not by distorting reality—their strength is their reliance on fact—or creating a fictitious narrative, but by presenting the facts in a way that makes them register in a way they hadn’t before.

Jaron Lanier, author of Digital Maoism, was blunt when I asked him about Fox’s ability to assert a “truth” and have it echo through digital media. “We have created a technology that has wonderful potential, but that enormously increases our ability to lie to ourselves and forget it is a lie,” he told me. “We are going to need to develop new conventions and formalities to cut through the lies.” Stewart and Colbert have developed one such set of new conventions; others will emerge.

Undercovered stories. This will be a problem, as it has always been. “In a lot of different ways, the new journalism will be better than the old,” Steven Waldman, a co-founder of Beliefnet who is now doing a report on the information needs of communities for the Federal Communications Commission, told me. “But there are a few important areas where that is not the case. Especially local, labor-intensive, full-time ‘accountability’ journalism”—what used to be called “covering City Hall.”

Or, as the writer Steven Berlin Johnson, among others, has contended, local coverage could in some ways become much better, as systems arise to match “hyper-local” news—the burglary down the street, the test scores at the neighborhood school—with the audience directly affected by it. “I think in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest,” Johnson said in 2009 in a speech at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin. “There is going to be more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches covered.” Rather than worry about a general collapse of the press, perhaps we should watch carefully for specific failures of local, statehouse, or investigative coverage, and start experimenting now with ways to correct them—through nonprofit coverage or other means that new technologies make possible.

Disconnection. American life is becoming more polarized, and this is a phenomenon bigger than whatever is happening in the media. But the separate spheres of political discussion—Hannity for some people, Maddow for others—may be less of an emergency than is often assumed. “Government is not life,” Jeff Jarvis, a Time Inc. veteran and the founder of Entertainment Weekly, who now teaches journalism at the City University of New York, told me. “The fact that people want to ignore it is okay.” In this view, the political class, fascinated by the process of campaigning and strategizing, dominates the media, imposes its obsession on the public at large, and worries when citizens don’t share its passion.

“The people who are mainly interested in politics are crazy in a way,” Denton told me. “Maybe I’d rather reach people whose first passion is video games, or fashion, or are retirees or young professional women. Their interest in politics is the normal interest in politics, not as the main source of rage and resentment in their lives or to the exclusion of everything else.” The targeting of such communities, ever easier with social media, is not an answer to America’s polarization. But it does suggest the possibility of new, complex connections that offset a stark right/left divide.

Distractedness. “If young people are awake, they are connected,” Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, told me early this year. “When they’re walking, when they’re in a car, if they wake up at night, when they’re in class. This is probably doing something to their brains, but we don’t know what.” He said that a friend who flies regularly between California and Israel deliberately changes planes in New York, even though there is a nonstop between L.A. and Tel Aviv, so he can use WiFi on the U.S. leg of the trip.

At an individual level, I think the “distracted Americans” scare will pass. Either people who manage to unplug, focus, and fully direct their attention will have an advantage over those constantly checking Facebook and their smart phone, in which case they’ll earn more money, get into better colleges, start more successful companies, and win more Nobel Prizes. Or they won’t, in which case distraction will be a trait of modern life but not necessarily a defect. At the level of national politics, America is badly distracted, but that problem long predates Facebook and requires more than a media solution.

In this turbulent media environment, let’s remember something we saw early this year. Television networks have been closing bureaus all around the world. Only a handful of U.S. news organizations even pretend to operate a global network of correspondents. Americans are famous for their ineptness in foreign languages. Ten years of military engagement in the Middle East has done little to increase U.S. sophistication about Islam or the Middle East.

Yet with all these reasons why the media should have failed, in fact they succeeded. A major event in world history was covered more quickly, with more nuance, involving a greater range of voices and critical perspectives, than would have been conceivable even a few years ago. Within hours of the first protests in Egypt, American and world audiences read dispatches from professional correspondents—on Web sites, rather than waiting until the next day, as they had to during the fall of the Berlin Wall. They saw TV news footage—including Al Jazeera’s, which was carried by few U.S. broadcasters but was available on computers or mobile apps. Then the Twitter feeds from and about Egypt, the amateur YouTube videos from the streets, the commentary of contending analysts—all of it available as the story took place. We take this for granted, yet there has been nothing like it before. Even a year ago it would have been hard to imagine how thoroughly, and with what combination of media, voices, and judgments, an event in an Arab capital could have been witnessed around the world.

It is hard now to imagine the possibilities of the new media landscape, or the further problems it will create. “All these possibilities are fantasy until someone actually builds them,” Jeff Jarvis said. “We don’t know what we are building. But from a position of optimism and respect for the public, we have to invent tools and see what they become.” This message is unsurprising, coming from Jarvis; for years he has scolded the old media for being too slow to adapt to the new.

It was more striking, then, to hear something similar from Tom Brokaw, who was born in 1940 and was 15 years old when his family first got a TV. “We’re creating a whole new universe,” he told me. “All those planets that are out there, colliding with each other, we don’t know which ones will support life and which will burn up.”

At no stage in the evolution of our press could anyone be sure which approaches would support life, and which would flicker out. Through my own career I have seen enough publications and programs start—and succeed, and fail—to know how hard it is to foresee their course in advance. Therefore I am biased in favor of almost any new project, since it might prove to be the next New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, NPR, or Wired that helps us understand our world. Perhaps we have finally exhausted the viable possibilities for a journalism that offers a useful and accurate perspective. If so, then America’s problems of public life can only grow worse, since we will lack the means to understand and discuss them.

But perhaps this apparently late stage is actually an early stage, in the collective drive and willingness to devise new means of explaining the world and in the individual ability to investigate, weigh, and interpret the ever richer supply of information available to us. Recall the uprisings in Iran and Egypt. Recall the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti. My understanding of technological and political history makes me think it is still early. Also, there is no point in thinking anything else.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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