Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why this matters

Caught up in the sturm und drang of contemporary newspaper economics, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger issues at play in our struggle.

Here's an example: the inventor of the World Wide Web is worried nowadays about the "bad things" that could emerge as misinformation and "undemocratic forces" multiple on the net.

Says Tim Berners-Lee:

If we don't have the ability to understand the web as it's now emerging, we will end up with things that are very bad … Certain undemocratic things could emerge and misinformation will start spreading over the web.

Well, no shit.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Great Britain, a Guardian journalist writes of the despair he feels about the deepening pool of conspiracy and irrationality he encounters on the internet (and elsewhere in daily life.) In concluding that "We rationalists are the oppressed minority," he describes having posted on a website that argues Bush and Zionists were behind the 9-11 attacks:

I feel battered by the relentlessness of their insults. "I'm not going back there again. Horrible, patronising, codeword-using anti-semitic bastards," I eventually think. "They're so irrational. They sit behind their computers all day, pontificating away, getting their 'facts' from YouTube. They probably all look like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons."

It's a peculiar post and I can't tell where the columnist is headed, but his central point is plain to any of us who has been flamed for an editor's blog entry, cursed on the phone by a pro-or-anti abortion crusader or backed into a corner at some cocktail party by a conspiracy theorist.

His solution is public assertion of rationality (apparently extending all the way to militant atheism). Mine is to cling ever-more tenaciously to the principles of journalism that have animated our profession.

We're in the verification business. What we do is so much more important than simply passing along information or factoids. Go back and reread Jack Fuller's description of "the truth discipline" in News Values. What we do isn't the same as what people do in chat rooms, or on most opinion blogs.

What we do matters. And that's why it's worth all our best efforts to keep doing it, even in hard times like these.
–Howard Weaver

(For more on the question of conspiracy in public affairs, see the post that provoked this at SacredFacts, a blog by Richard Sambrook of the BBC.)

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