The Trust Conundrum

I was recently asked to participate in a panel exploring current levels of trust and distrust in government. Among other things, we were asked to consider what citizens might do to mitigate the growing cynicism about politics, and whether we thought the current media environment was contributing to widespread distrust of government at all levels.

These are questions worth pondering.

I think a great deal of distrust in government is a result of the deficit in civic literacy that I have written about previously. When citizens don’t understand constitutional constraints on the public sector, when they are unfamiliar with the most basic historical and philosophic roots of our particular approach to self-government, they are unable to evaluate the lawfulness of government activity. One result is that government action that should be entirely predictable looks arbitrary, while corruptions of the process are seen as “business as usual.” Normal checks and balances are decried as unnecessary red tape, and egregious abuses of legislative mechanisms like the filibuster are seen not as a misuse of power, but part of the ordinary, mysterious processes of the political system.

When citizens aren’t able to distinguish between use and misuse of the power of the state, it’s no wonder they believe all public policy is for sale.

The current chaos that is the media is even more consequential, because a healthy Fourth Estate is critical to democratic self-government.

Citizens can’t act on the basis of information they don’t have. The paradox of life in the age of the Internet is that there are more voices than ever before—theoretically, a good thing—but we’ve lost news that is collectively recognized as authoritative, which is proving to be a very bad thing. A babble of opinion, spin and outright fabrication has replaced what used to be called the “iron core”—reliable information that has been fact-checked and authenticated.

It is one thing to draw different conclusions from a reported set of facts; it is quite another to deny the existence of the facts themselves.

On the one hand, the Internet has empowered many more government watchdogs; on the other, it has facilitated the rise of innumerable conspiracy theorists, fringe groups, special interests and outright liars. The result is that someone who prefers to believe, say, that global climate change is a hoax or that President Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya can readily find sources that confirm those suspicions.

The days when everyone listened to—and trusted the veracity of—reporting by Walter Cronkite and his counterparts in the mainstream media are long gone. (Indeed, there is a persuasive argument to be made that there is no longer such a thing as “mainstream” media.) Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  Today, thanks to incredibly shrinking newsrooms and proliferating propagandists, people are choosing their own facts, and increasingly living in alternate realities that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. When thoughtful Americans aren’t sure what news they can trust, and ideologically rigid Americans—left and right—are living in information bubbles of their own choosing, the lack of constructive dialogue and institutional trust shouldn’t surprise us.

In a world that is changing as rapidly and dramatically as ours, the importance of real journalism—not “infotainment,” not talking heads, not bloggers, not columnists, not “he-said, she-said” stenographers, but actual fact-checked, verified news in context—becomes immeasurably more important.

Without a shared reality, we can’t build trust. Without accurate civics education and an authoritative journalism of verification, we can’t share a reality.

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TMI

I have been working on an upcoming speech on government accountability, and I have been mulling over a seeming contradiction. In our public management courses here at SPEA, we stress the importance of transparency–and the reason for the First Amendment’s specific grant of freedom to the press/media. It stands to reason that journalists need to watch government officials and activities, investigate possible wrongdoing, and then report what they find to the voters. Journalists–whatever their warts–were considered essential to accountability, because they supplied the information needed to keep citizens informed and government agencies accountable.

Today, we have more information available than ever before–and less accountability. Why? I think it is because we have lost what Clay Shirkey has called “the journalism of verification.” Yes, there are mountains, oceans of information available to us. But we have no uniformly trusted source to verify its accuracy. Between the journalism of distraction–who slept with whom, how to groom your pet, who celebrity X is dating now, etc. etc.–and ‘news’ that is really just political propaganda, the sheer volume of sources competing for our eyes and ears has drowned out the news that is both verified and necessary to our ability to hold government accountable.

As Shirkey also noted,  “the transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of ‘news’–and each with its own set of ‘truths’–will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed upon set of facts.” Daniel Moynahan famously said that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Evidently, he was wrong.

TMI–too much information.  And much too much misinformation.

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Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?

The title of this post is the title of the textbook I plan to use in the fall, in my class on Media and Public Affairs. Unfortunately, the message it conveys–traditional media is dying–gets truer every day.

Yesterday, the Indianapolis Star announced that 60 employees were being let go. This is in addition to prior downsizing that has already resulted in a newspaper hardly worth the name.

Of course, the Star is not alone; its parent company, Gannett, has cut jobs across the board (while awarding its CEO a bonus of 1.25 million and doubling his salary just last March).

Without going into my usual rant about corporate ownership of the media, and the huge, unnecessary debt acquired during those acquisitions, let me simply share a personal anecdote that illustrates what’s wrong with trying to “save” newspapers by cutting staff.

A couple of weeks ago, I went online, and finally stopped my subscription to the Star. Someone from the sales office called, and offered me a discounted price if I would continue my subscription (clearly, they need to be able to show advertisers numbers–they’d probably have given it to me free if I’d asked). I said thanks but no thanks, at which point the salesperson asked why I was discontinuing the paper after so many years. I explained that I no longer found much worth reading in it–the paper was thinner every day, the proportion of actual news to “human interest” and “how to” stories was unacceptably low, and coverage of local and state government had become totally inadequate. With respect to national news, by the time the Star ran the few items that still made it into the paper, I’d already heard or seen them.

In short, there is no longer any “there” there.

Cutting staff will simply exacerbate this vicious downward cycle, and hasten the day that the newspaper simply ceases publication. When that day comes, I am pained to admit that there will be little of value left to lose.

The bigger question is: what will take its place? How can we rejuvenate journalism? There are more and more outlets–web sites, blogs, cable TV, radio–offering various kinds of information of widely varying quality, but there is on balance more noise, more celebrity gossip, more emphasis on sex and scandal, and less and less actual news. The question–to which we seemingly have no answer–is “who will watch local, state and national governments? Who will tell us the things we truly need to know if we are to be informed citizens?

What will happen when the last reporter turns out the lights?

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Bad Monkey

I’m writing this before the November 2d elections, knowing that it won’t see print until the election results are known. The timing won’t keep me from making a prediction: voters will reward sleazy tactics, outright liars and buffoons of all political persuasions.

That’s because the election season that will (mercifully) be over when you read this has been dominated by two parties—not Republicans and Democrats, but those I’ll dub “denialists” and “enablers.”

Denialists have a variety of motives, but essentially, they are fleeing the complexity and ambiguity of modern life. They span a spectrum from the outright delusional—the so-called “birthers” who have convinced themselves that President Obama was born in Kenya, and the one in five Americans who believe he’s a secret Muslim—to the various groups of creationists, climate change deniers and others who are suspicious of science and empirical evidence and looking for any opportunity to reject findings that do not confirm their own beliefs or serve their own interests. They include the revisionists who cling to carefully selected and edited versions of America’s history and constitution.

There have always been denialists on the fringes of American political life. What is different today is that they are being enabled by the emergence of a media landscape in which the time-honored function of genuine journalism—truth-telling—has been pushed aside in favor of what sells, and telling people what they want to hear is a sure winner.  The fact that paying talking heads to spout uninformed—occasionally deranged—opinions is so much less expensive than paying journalists to do actual reporting is just icing on the cake.

In this intellectually dishonest, morally distasteful environment, can we really be surprised that candidates of both parties have participated in a content-free, ugly exchange of untruths and half-truths?

In the run-up to November 2d, it has been impossible to avoid the hammering of negative, misleading ads. I am supposed to be outraged over the “government takeover” of Medicare (and too stupid to know that Medicare is a government program). I am supposed to believe that a candidate for prosecutor who once represented a defendant accused of child molestation is thereby disqualified for office (and to ignore the profoundly unethical conduct of a candidate who would make such a charge). Presumably, I am supposed to listen to the out-of-context charges and counter-charges, the grainy photographs and gloomy atmospherics and make my candidate selection based purely on my emotional response.

No wonder Jon Stewart held a rally for sanity. If the antics of this electoral season are any indication, it’s in short supply.

Actually, it was Stewart who came up with the best description of our current politics. In an interview, Terry Gross of NPR asked him about his focus on politicians and the media, and who was most culpable. Stewart said “Politicians are politicians. If you go to the zoo and monkeys are throwing feces, well—that’s what monkeys do. But you’d like to have the zoo-keeper there saying ‘Bad Monkey.’”

Journalism’s Responsibility?

In a recent blog post at Political Animal, Steve Benen addressed the decision of the Washington Post to run an op-ed on climate change written (okay, probably ghost-written, since she’s given no hint that she’s familiar with the English language) by Sarah Palin.

The problem isn’t just that the paper published another right-wing piece from someone who’s obviously clueless — note, the WaPo published a similarly foolish Palin op-ed in July — it’s that the piece is factually wrong. The paper has a responsibility to publish content that informs its readers. Obviously, with “opinion” pieces, the standards are slightly different, but that does not give the editors license to run claims that are patently, demonstrably false.

Marc Ambinder had a very strong post, reviewing Palin’s claims, point by point, which is worth checking out. But also don’t miss Media Matters’ piece, which notes that the Palin op-ed even contradicts the Washington Post‘s own reporting.

This assertion raises an issue that is becoming increasingly important: what is the obligation of so-called “mainstream” journalists to fact-check what they print? On the one hand, as Benen acknowledges, this is an opinion piece, and clearly labeled as such. On the other hand, one of the concerns voiced about the imminent demise of newspapers is that readers will be deprived of genuine journalism, which is expensive to produce in large part because journalists are expected to engage in fact-checking and verification of claims they publish.

The Washington Post regularly runs columns by George Will–who clearly does not choose to believe the science of climate change–that contain demonstrably false factual claims. On rare occasion–VERY rare–they’ve later apologized. (Generally, only after the outcry from the scientific community was deafening.) 

I write op-eds, and I would be indignant if my editor (who virtually always disagrees with me about policy choices) changed my columns. On the other hand, I make strenuous efforts to ensure the accuracy of factual assertions, and to be clear about what parts of my columns are based on evidence and which parts are my opinions.

The fractured nature of our media environment makes it much too easy to dismiss ALL news sources as unreliable or biased. The most important argument for “real” journalism–i.e., not talk radio, not shock jocks, not panderers/water-carriers like Fox News and the rightwing/leftwing blogs–is that they are the best source of objective information. (Objectivity, by the way, is different from “balance.” If 99 percent of observers agree that the object before them is a cup, balance requires finding the one delusional individual who insists it is a plate. Objectivity requires the reporter to call it a cup.) If we can’t depend upon the mainstream media to fact-check what they print, what becomes of that argument?

Thoughts?