As Glenn Reynolds wrote back in 2004 when Dan Rather cooked the books at CBS, “all fun aside, I think there are some important lessons for Big Media — and for everyone else — in the rise of the blogosphere. They stem from the fact that bloggers operate on the Internet, where arguments from authority are difficult since nobody knows whether you’re a dog”:
In short, it’s the difference between high-trust and low-trust environments.
The world of Big Media used to be a high-trust environment. You read something in the paper, or heard something from Dan Rather, and you figured it was probably true. You didn’t ask to hear all the background, because it wouldn’t fit in a newspaper story, much less in the highly truncated TV-news format anyway, and because you assumed that they had done the necessary legwork. (Had they? I’m not sure. It’s not clear whether standards have fallen since, or whether the curtain has simply been pulled open on the Mighty Oz. But they had names, and familiar faces, so you usually believed them even when you had your doubts.)
The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.
That’s because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren’t linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that’s impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.
(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in — nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that’s been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress — except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).
You can also refine your arguments, updating — and even abandoning them — in realtime as new facts or arguments appear. It’s part of the deal.
This also means admitting when you’re wrong. And that’s another difference. When you’re a blogger, you present ideas and arguments, and see how they do. You have a reputation, and it matters, but the reputation is for playing it straight with the facts you present, not necessarily the conclusions you reach. And a big part of the reputation’s component involves being willing to admit you’re wrong when you present wrong facts, and to make a quick and prominent correction.
When you’re a news anchor, you’re not just putting your arguments on the line — you’re putting yourself on the line. Dan Rather has a problem with that. For journalists of his generation, admitting an error means admitting that you’ve violated people’s trust. For bloggers, admitting an error means you’ve missed something, and now you’re going to set it right.
What people in the legacy media need to ask themselves is, which approach is more likely to retain credibility over time? I think I know the answer. I think Dan Rather does, too.
My advice for consumers of journalism has always been to flip the Gipper’s advice on its head — “verify and only then trust,” and even then, as the above examples highlight, don’t trust too much.
Fortunately, based on a 2010 poll from Gallup, the public agreed:
Americans continue to express near-record-low confidence in newspapers and television news — with no more than 25% of Americans saying they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in either. These views have hardly budged since falling more than 10 percentage points from 2003-2007.
To bring things back to 2013, this fall, once the healthcare cancellation notices began going out, we became aware that NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN were lying to us in 2009 and 2010, along with the president, whom Barbara Walters of ABC admitted this week that she and the rest of old media considered “the next messiah,” when they attempted to sell us on the joys of Obamacare. And now that the jig is up, and the charade is visible for everyone to see, Bill Whittle in his latest Afterburner video notes that for Obama and his minions, it’s the end of the beginning — and no thanks to the MSM, Bill adds:
Many more examples of the “objective” media claiming that either slanting stories to one side, or advocating outright lying rounded up here.