Thursday, April 10, 2003

I think I’ve finally figured out what bothers me about the flood of media criticism these days, especially on the web, where news and pseudo-news proliferates like mad.

Everybody, it seems, is casting a critical eye on what they see and read in the media. The phenomenon is hardly limited to the bogging intelligentsia: Polls show that confidence in mainstream media has steadily eroded in recent years as a wider range of outlets (24-hour cable news and the Internet) become available. Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum cite countless instances of bias in big media.

On the face of it, this would seem like a wonderful thing. One should, after all, question authority, and it’s good to encourage critical thinking among news consumers. But more and more, it’s looking a lot like the anecdote (not original, though I don’t know where I heard it) about the Jew and the Arab living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. In the old days, they both got all their news from local sources, say, The New York Times. This was seen as a bad thing: conventional wisdom says that dependence on one or a few news outlets is dangerous, and that a wider plurality of viewpoints will lead to healthier public debate and a better society. And indeed, one can argue that the Times is a terribly biased news source -- all the worse because it shrouds its bias in a veil of objectivity.

But consider today’s alternative: Both the Brooklyn Arab and the Brooklyn Jew go online to get their news. The first gets all his news from Al Jazeera’s web site. The second gets all his news from the online Jerusalem Post. They may live next door to one another, but in terms of their exposure to world events, they’re further apart than ever. They have almost no common ground. Despite the proliferation of news sources, both are in fact getting a narrower (and more biased) range of viewpoints than before.

Now consider two people divided by politics -- one on the right and another on the left. Both are increasingly conditioned not to trust what they see on TV or read in the papers. Witness the latest rash of BBC-bashing from hawkish media critics dismayed at the skeptical tone of the Beeb’s war reporting (shoutouts to crosstown blogger Steve Hercher). All the while, I'm forced to defend the BBC from the opposite side when a Czech friend (anti-war, and an editor for a major Czech daily) complains that their reporting is biased in favor of the coalition.

The alternative? Conservatives now gets their“news” from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or AndrewSullivan.com. Liberals, meanwhile, gets their “news” from Michael Moore and left-wing chat groups. You can see where this is going: Browsers will soon come equipped with news filters that screen out whatever doesn’t fit your own dogma.

UPDATE: Pragueblog reponds!


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