Explaining Why “It Depends”

These days, commenting on public policy and the political environment is a mostly depressing slog through various bigotries, misunderstandings, inadequate communications—in a nutshell (and boy, sometimes it is a “nut” shell!), a hot mess.

When I look for an explanation, a common thread that might shed some light on the place we find ourselves, I keep coming back to the unsettled, fragmented and frequently unreliable sources from which Americans get our information, and the seeming loss of what we used to call the journalism of verification.

Obviously, the information landscape is not wholly responsible for all of our various crises of governance, but it sure is implicated in much of it.

The Brookings Institution recently issued a report on the importance of what it called “explanatory journalism.” After noting the wealth of information now available online, and the fact that the internet has enabled unprecedented access to millions of people who didn’t previously have such access.

The digital revolution has laid waste to the 20th century business models of news reporting and publication but even in these early days of the digital revolution, citizens seeking information about politicians, public policy, and government performance have resources never before imagined.

But that, of course, raises the pertinent question:

But how many such model citizens take advantage of these resources to exercise the popular sovereignty and democratic accountability at the core of our democracy? Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.

What citizens know ultimately depends upon the credibility of the information sources they access. If my students are any indication, most of us lack skill in evaluating such credibility–and the opinions of assorted “crazy uncles” and radio shock jocks suggest that  a substantial number of Americans are uninterested in information that contradicts their preferred world views.

The results aren’t pretty. These paragraphs from the report say it better than I could:

American democracy has come under severe strains in recent years. We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions, the radicalization of one of its two major political parties, a vehement oppositional politics in Congress that has turned divided party government into a graveyard for nominations, while turning legislative initiatives and congressional oversight into little more than a weapon of partisan warfare. All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.

The roots of America’s dysfunctional politics are deep and complex. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that the media has done little to help the public understand what is amiss. An aggressively partisan talk radio, cable news, web and social media community has fueled a tribal politics that traffics in lies and conspiracies. The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. This pattern of false equivalence has served to reinforce a generalized, inchoate public distemper, one that is vulnerable to radical and anti-democratic appeals.

The question is: what can we do about it?


  1. What I’ve done is read, read some more and then read some more. I wish the internet had been invented 50 years sooner so that I could read as much as I do now.

    The problem with the media is that they LOVE political season! They are making millions off of the campaigns and yet serve no other purpose to mankind in the process. The CEO of CBS said so recently and was recorded by saying as much. They have plenty of money to hire true journalists to do investigative reporting but then that CEO wouldn’t have his home in the Hampton’s to spend his vacations. The fourth estate has failed us and I believe that bringing back the fairness doctrine might help but I doubt it.

    BTW, thanks for keeping up your blog while you recover. I hope everything is healing for you and you are doing great! Cheers.

  2. “What can we do about it?” We can search out and rely on organizations and information sources we are familiar with and trust; we can also research other organizations and sources to become familiar with. Check with others we know are tracking information to learn where they research.

    A few years ago I received a forwarded E-mail containing 24 separate accusations against President Obama; it came directly from a friend who is rather naive and believes those she loves, unquestioning their every word of the E-mail forwarded by a mutual friend I knew personally to be racist. I spent four days researching countless information sources on each of the 24 accusations and dispelled the vast majority with facts; the few with a grain of truth had been misquoted, taken out of context or had a simple explanation. My greatest surprise was the vast number of the exact same 24 accusations in many formats; some obviously professionally done. My naive friend chose to disbelieve the fact that our friend was racist, bigoted, xenophobic and after President Kennedy’s assassination stated to me “Someone should shoot all of the Kennedys.”

    The “digital revolution” also effects information sources in our personal lives. My primary physician’s clinic finally went to HealthNet Portal for on-line contact regarding all medical information and needs. One would think that receiving an E-mail from a patient would expect/require an E-mail response but one would be wrong. My request for a lab appointment resulted in numerous phone calls (being deaf I keep my land line in case I need to call 911 and have Caller ID); the following day I received two E-mails telling the they had called, received no answer, no voice mail available and gave me their phone number and hours to call. I did receive an E-mail response regarding MRI results; the physician’s version which was barely connected to the actual MRI reading which I luckily picked up in person. The new injury/damage wasn’t mentioned by the physician. Is there government control over our health care providers to turn to?

    Sad that we can no longer trust the media without checking their information for facts but it is necessary today. Fortunately; most of us do have the ability to research at our fingertips. We can read, occasionally, for ourselves that Indianapolis Power and Light is our biggest source of pollution then read why our elected officials do not choose to force them to meet EPA standards…which seems always to end that discussion with the status quo.

  3. Sheila:”The question is: what can we do about it?”

    You take effective action like RECALLING THE TEA PARTY MAYOR OF JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA U.S.A. which is the GROUND ZERO OF THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT, as a starter. Let’s see how far “Jockey” Donald Trump can go without his ” Republican horse.”

    jock-ey (jak’e) n. one whose work is riding horses in races–vt., vi. -eyed, -ey-ing 1. to CHEAT; SWINDLE 2. to maneuver for position or advantage

    Sheila, I hope you’re feeling much better.

  4. Mark Twain supposedly said of gossip, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.

  5. “What can we do about it?” For starters we can demand of the news media that they name their sources. I am beyond tired of the “according to our sources” being the lead to every sentence that proclaims fact. I am tired of conjecture and opinion based on those unnamed sources. I want to know who said it. Period!

  6. By the way, you can still buy a “new” paperback of Governor Scott Walker’s”Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge” for 99 cents on Amazon.com. It’s a very good primer on how to run a NATIONAL recall election.

  7. I have become very interested in the dialogue and deliberation movement at the local level (www.ncdd.org). I have my policy students facilitate a dialogue in their communities to try to draw out the diversity of perspectives on an issue of their choosing. They do preliminary research and go equipped with some information, but in facilitating, they discover more about how perceptions guide action and decision making. If they could sustain these dialogues beyond a course assignment, they could truly engage participants to search out facts and test their perceptions. As I head into “retirement,” one of my goals is to help train local citizen facilitators.

  8. Theresa; your comment regarding “according to our sources” brought a question to mind I have asked for years but never received an answer.

    The 1st Amendment right to “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for regress of grievances.”

    Exactly where in that Amendment does it give the courts the right to jail members of the media if they do not reveal their sources? There is no demand that they do so nor are they given the right to refuse to reveal their sources in a court of law…or anywhere else. Does history show when, were and how that action began? Maybe Sheila has the answer.

  9. JoAnn. I am not a lawyer so I cannot speak to the legal issues you mention. But I do know a bit about the court of public opinion, and in that court the people have a right to demand the name of the source. If it is not forthcoming they can withhold the only thing that really matters in this society…money. Money in the form of viewers, customers, support of sponsors and advertisers.

  10. Ask a librarian! Librarians are trained to educate information users. When librarians earn their required master’s degree, they are taught how to evaluate information sources, and also how to teach other people to do it. Yet very few people ever take advantage of the opportunity to learn from librarians once out of middle or high school. There are librarians designated as liaisons for the various subject areas taught in higher education, yet those highly proficient colleagues are seldom asked to help teach students how to find and evaluate information. And I don’t mean inviting them to come in for a one-hour presentation once a semester. If given the opportunity, they can work directly with faculty colleagues to incorporate civic literacy skills into existing curricula (online or face to face) — without detracting from content or adding to teaching time.

  11. JoAnn and Theresa,

    The problem is a “catch 22.” SOURCES, in most cases, would refuse to divulge vital information if their personal identity wasn’t protected.

  12. A good journalist will find other sources, do the research and explain. Smoke ’em out, as it were.

  13. Local news reporting has all devolved into sensationally grim local crime, accidents and fluff, followed by weather reports that go on forever. Every freakish occurrence, no matter how serious or trite gets lead story treatment. To call it “news” is a corruption of the word.

    You might think that reporting on the politics of our state would get more detailed reporting as we are in the state’s capitol city. You would be wrong. Instead we get regurgitated press releases of drivel, pandering and prevarication. All of this wrapped in loud and obnoxious shilling by local ambulance chasers. We watch/read less and less.

    I don’t know the answer to Sheila’s question. Read and fact check? Vote? Try to not be disgusted to the point of becoming a hermit by the vitriol and hatefulness? Have your emergency bag packed? I know that “this too shall pass”, but what does the future hold when that happens?

  14. Theresa,

    “A good journalist will find other sources, do the research and explain. Smoke ’em out, as it were.”

    Excellent point. You’re right. But it takes a lot of time and “money” for the media to do that. And they’re not going to do it. An exception would be a monumental story like WATERGATE by Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post.

    But could that story be told today? I doubt it. At least not here in America.

  15. Sheila, your observations are pretty good (though biased slightly) and your writing is excellent.

    A couple points:

    “We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions,”
    -Justifiably so.

    “All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.”
    -Please, look at every single candidate up there. If you don’t think Clinton is as dangerous to America as Trump you haven’t been paying attention.

    “The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. ”
    -It has nothing to do with fear. Major news and media is deplorable and partisan with different “news” agencies actively and purposefully favoring the party that pays them and/or owns them.

    -My biggest beef with you Sheila is your finger pointing and erroneous belief that the Democrats are somehow “good” while the GOP is “bad” – They’re the same problem with equal guilt.

  16. We all have our information biases, but the right wing has used disinformation quite well and very effectively. Yesterday I quoted Lenin. I won’t bother to do that again. We have had the media labeled as liberal for so long we take it for granted that they are. I have always felt that the only truely liberal medium was “Mother Jones”. The rest are either very far right or hugging just right of center.

    My father always told me, “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” Good advice then and now.

  17. It seems that we used to be way better at distinguishing between information and entertainment. Walter Cronkite passed on information, Lucille Ball provided entertainment. Both were professionals at their job.

    But ultimately both professions got swept up in make more money regardless of the impact on others which led to blurring the lines between them.

    More money could be made by attractive engaging purveyors of entertaining information and by more lifelike people next door entertainer/informers.

    Packaging is what sells, the contents can be made in overseas factories.

    We fell for Rush Limbaugh for God’s sake. We’re falling for Donald Trump! We’ve allowed our thinking to be hijacked to studio board rooms.

    Interesting history perhaps but how does this project into the future?

    Perhaps we can say that in the arms race between education and predatory business the latter has been on a winning streak here. They’ve moved from way over there to down the street to in our living and bed rooms to now on our person. What will be their next move?

    One has to hope for a revolution in education that puts it ahead of crass commercialism in the arms race. Is there evidence of that possibility?

    I would have to say maybe in Democratic states but going backwards in Republican states.

    Let’s just continue to let the Republican Party destroy itself and focus on improving the Democrat Party and demanding education reform.

    We can do this.

  18. Disappointed Joe,

    “My biggest beef with you Sheila is your finger pointing and erroneous belief that the Democrats are somehow “good” while the GOP is “bad” – They’re the same problem with equal guilt.”

    When and where on this Planet Earth were neo-fascism and democracy the same problem with equal guilt?

  19. “If you don’t think Clinton is as dangerous to America as Trump you haven’t been paying attention.”

    Joe. Perfect example. Thanks.

    Hillary suffers from perhaps being short on entertainment, and Trump short on information.

    Average Joe can’t see the difference.

  20. Someone mentioned a few weeks ago that the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette provides more reliable news than the Indy newspapers. The Journal Gazette is the only newspaper that I read online.

    Yesterday’s and today’s editions have articles regarding the Senate race in Indiana to replace Dan Coats. While I don’t know anything about Todd Young, I do know about Marlin Stutzman and he would be a terrible person to send to the U.S. Senate. He is the epitome of extreme Tea Party and religious extremism.

    Here is a snippet of a referral to Stutzman in today’s article regarding Indiana’s Chamber of Commerce endorsement of Young:

    – Stutzman said Thursday in an email that “it should come as no surprise to Hoosiers that these groups would endorse a moderate establishment candidate like Todd Young” because of the groups’ moderate stances on education, religious freedom, immigration and federal spending.

    The article can be found here if anyone is interested in reading it – http://www.journalgazette.net/news/local/local-politics/Choice-for-Young–overwhelming–12323648

  21. There has always been some form of Media Bias. Lets face it rich people owned the big newspapers, in the distant past. It was in their interests to preserve the status quo. Today we have large corporations that own the Media and since the Telecommunications was signed into Law by Bill Clinton conglomeration has only become worse.

    I will agree with Disappointed Joe, very good comments.

  22. The vast majority of humans who ever existed lived nasty, painful lives. We live in this short period of time after the world became somewhat war-weary and when for the U.S.A. the fruits of 18th Century idealism matched up with the last remaining large economy in the world. We have been remarkably lucky, perhaps more so than any large group at any time in history.

    So we are alarmed by the deepening and increasingly noticeable cracks in our civilization. We have lived in an era of progress, so we believe that is inevitable. It is not. Enjoy your time while you can.

  23. The Daily Kos reported yesterday (3/31/16) that Missouri State Rep. Tracy McCreery (Dem) proposed a bill to their legislature, “Lawmaker snaps, files bill demanding fellow lawmakers quit using ‘physical’ when they mean ‘fiscal'”

    Just had to add this bit of information while we are demanding intelligent reporting by the media.

  24. Today, I ran across a bit of timely and relevant information for those who rely on private wells for their drinking water. As my contribution to the digital revolution, the information from WISH-TV is below.

    “INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A state agency is offering Indiana residents free testing of their private wells as part of a push to document the state’s ground water quality.

    The Indiana Department of Environmental Management says state residents are eligible for the free testing if their property contains a private drinking water well.

    The testing will show what’s in their water, including if it contains potentially harmful chemicals. Those well owners will learn how to reduce their exposure to those chemicals.

    The free well testing is part of the agency’s 2016 Ground Water Assessment Survey.

    IDEM officials say they’ll be able to “build a story” about groundwater quality in the state from the data collected from residents who invite the agency to test their wells.”

    Complete information about this program along with an Online application is in the below link:


  25. Louie, here’s a good explanation of Bill Clinton’s telecommunications act.

    Can you explain what aspect of it blurred the lines between entertainment and information?

  26. The access to information is wonderful nowadays, BUT:

    1. Mostly people get their information from their chosen bubble chamber, and

    2. We still need journalism, because it can be hard to wade through the the political spin. And that means journalists who ask probing questions and just don’t try to elicit a dramatic sound bite. I wish I could turn Diane Rehm of NPR loose on these clowns.

  27. @Roxane, you are so, so correct. The straight news story of traditional, old school journalism is dead. The 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, and why) do not draw readers unless the particular story is accompanied by a picture of someone purportedly suffering, preferably an out of context picture illustrating physical confrontation, a bit of perceived violence, and some blood as the icing on the cake. If it bleeds, it leads, or at least, it leads for those who get their information from the 5 o’clock television news.

  28. What are the reliable sources to receive news? If none can be trusted and all have a slight bent than where can a person go to get some relatively reliable information? A fair number of people do not have the time to do a literature search to see what article is reliable and what isn’t…especially with the volume of information out there. You almost need to hire someone to do this for you.

    I will read something and do a quick search to see if it is reliable only to find out that the reporting source is owned and operated by ‘so and so’ or that newspaper is owned by…I mean seriously, unless you have a staff to smoke this stuff out the average American is working long hours often in jobs that are short staffed out of choice, children are in more activities than ‘we’ were and so commuting them to one gig after another …time is a precious commodity and a quick cursory search may not be enough to determine the validity and reliability of the news being disseminated.

  29. Anybody interested in this topic would get a lot from the current movie “Spotlight”. It clearly shows investigative journalism as we all wish it still existed pervasively.

    What we broke is the business model for it. How and how much we are willing to finance it.

    We love it for free but seem to put a high value on it. How high.

  30. @RN, there are methods for sifting through the various and the assorted articles that appear or tout themselves as straight news, reliable news, unbiased news. For example, if you read an article from MSNBC or the Daily Kos, it’s likely the article has a decided slant toward a leftist position; on the other hand, reading an article from FoxNews or Breitbart News ensures you’re reading an article slanted and written to favor a far-right view.

    So far, it’s easy enough, right? Just eliminate any article from FoxNews, MSNBC, Breitbart, or the Daily Kos. That’s just a beginning, but a good beginning unless, of course, you prefer to read articles that basically ‘preach to the choir’ and make you feel good about your preconceived ideas.

  31. Here is a good example of our Corporate News McMega-Media – I had to go to Common Dreams Web Site for this – “You are the heart and soul of this revolution,” Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders told a diverse crowd of an estimated 18,000 supporters in the Bronx on Thursday.

    18,000 Thousand People, let me say that again 18,000 Thousand People is Huge. FOX, CNN, and MSNBC are totally focused on Trumps latest gaffes, and replaying over and over again his Campaign Managers arm grab of a reporter.

  32. @Louie, since we’re living in the age of the digital revolution, how about including a link to that story, to your contribution? You know the old adage, “Seeing is believing.”

  33. @Louie, as another poster inquired earlier, how do we locate news outlets that are not biased, not given to publishing only stories that shine a positive light on a particular partisan agenda?

    Well, I will say that any article published or recommended by http://www.commondreams.org/ is directed toward, slanted toward its posted cause, ‘Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community’.

    And, this is how we filter, decipher, or sift the straight news outlets from those news outlets with a particular bias.

  34. It’s common nowadays to think in terms of biased reporting which to me implies a heavy dose of opinion along with, or in place of, facts.

    The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth contains no opinion. It is therefore inherently non biased. One has to form their own opinion around the facts, not vice versa.

    It is a little nonsensical to talk in terms of reading conservative bias then liberal bias then average them.

    Research requires ignoring all biased sources and taking in facts and evidence and data then arriving at your own ideally unbiased opinions.

    It’s quite possible to do and an ability that education is supposed to arm us with.

  35. Biased reporting. The tendancy of people to think that you can somehow counter biased reporting by reaching out for reporting with opposite bias and mashing them together.

    My question is why do people need other people’s opinions? Why not just get the facts and form your own opinion?

    Facts are out there. Sometimes one must separate the wheat from the chaff but that’s not that hard to do.

  36. Pete,

    “My question is why do people need other people’s opinions? Why not just get the facts and form your own opinion?

    Facts are out there. Sometimes one must separate the wheat from the chaff but that’s not that hard to do.”

    I agree with you. I think you know “what in the hell” you’re talking about.

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