Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Anonymous Sources and the Media Landscape

This post by Benjamin Wittes, explaining how to interpret anonymous sourcing in news stories, is very helpful, and it reminds me of something I've long believed. The gap between an "ordinary" consumer of the news and an educated reader is vast, and in between are countless layers of sophistication and pseudo-sophistication. In many ways we are living in different worlds and have no way to understand each other.

And there's really no way around this. We can do better and worse, but the vast majority of people simply aren't equipped to navigate the media without guidance. This leads to various pathologies, and it's sort of pick your poison. Once upon a time, people got their information from network news and local newspapers, and it was fairly trustworthy but also slanted in certain ways, and laughably inaccurate in some areas. Now the filters have largely been removed, and people get news from everywhere. It is not nearly as trustworthy overall, but its ideological slant has been scrambled, and certain truths are easier to find now.

A key point is that the effect has not been the same across different levels of education and intelligence. For smart, reasonable people, it's now very easy to get information from dozens of excellent sources. Twitter, especially, gives people remarkable insight into how journalism is done, if you are paying attention. I wouldn't say recent developments are unambiguously good for smart, educated people, but it's close.

For people at the other end of the spectrum, everything is hugely dependent on what they happen to see and whom they happen to trust. Someone who simply listens to NPR while driving to and from work every day is going to do okay. Someone who tunes into Fox News or (God forbid) gets news from conservative Facebook or Twitter sources is going to be inundated with endless tendentious crap.

And that's pretty much the whole game. Just as alcohol producers make the vast majority of their revenue from people who drink too much alcohol, ideological news organizations make their biggest inroads among people who lack the tools to assess what they are reading/seeing. Probably the vast majority of news consumers can't even be bothered to think about journalistic sourcing at all, much less with the degree of sophistication that Wittes suggests. The propaganda on Fox News, which seems laughably inept to anyone who knows what is going on, is in fact terrifyingly effective. The point has never been to reel in smart people. They are not swing voters.

So as with so many things, it's increasingly a two-track world, with the "elites" going one way and the masses going another. And the distances are vast.