Ignorance Is Not Bliss
The First Amendment guarantees U.S. citizens a free press. Though a few people think the press had too much freedom these days, most Americans cherish the right to write, say and read what they want. But what’s the nature of that freedom today?
Clearly, with current technology we get access to many points of view on almost any topic. The internet, cable TV, fax machines, video and audiotape and more have made it possible to disseminate news and information rapidly. Of course, it has also made it possible to disseminate lies, distortions and mis-information instantly. We are overwhelmed with information. Everywhere we turn we are faced with someone’s message: advertising, promotions, public relations hype and news. But what do we know anymore? Do we know what we need to know to be relatively well-informed about what’s important in our lives?
Though so much more information is out there, most of us still get the bulk of our news, directly or indirectly, from mainstream media: newspapers, magazines, TV and radio. What are these traditional news media providing to us? How does it compare with what was “news” just a few years ago? The answers to these questions are important. Solid, relatively complete information, is essential to the way we try to govern ourselves and interact with the various people, political points of view, and issues that face us. It’s hard to have government of the people, by the people, for the people, if the people are ignorant.
There used to be many more daily newspapers in the United States and people read them. We now have about 1500 dailies left, and most of them are monopolies in their cities or regions. As TV and radio news cut into the economic viability of newspapers they closed all over the country. Most of the remaining papers are viable, because they have had little local competition and are generally owned by large chains that can use the economies of scale to reduce their costs and make profits.
Broadcast news people are required by license to operate in the public interest and serve the local community. Well, that hasn’t worked out very well has it? Most local radio stations are just repeaters of national talk shows with little or no local news. Local TV news has expanded, because it makes a lot of money, but much of it has become “slime and crime,” “If it bleeds, it leads,” or “flash and crash.”
The new local online sites are attempting to fill the gap with their “hyper-local” news bites, but many of them are inconsistent. Over-worked local reporters for many of these sites have no time for analysis, thought, or investigations that fulfill the “watchdog” role envisioned by the First Amendment. Yes, some online sites, usually funded by publically-minded foundations, are doing good work. And all larger news organizations have a web presence now.
Political “news” on cable has become more slanted and it’s harder to find thoughtful, solid reporting of factual information. There’s lots of loud opinion, most of it based on the mainstream news media’s work, but sorting out fact from ideology is a serious challenge. Word-of-mouth, according to a survey done by my students, remains one of the most important means of hearing about events in the world. And that’s like playing the telephone game, with each new message distorting the truth.
The misinformation hurts. Examples are many: climate change deniers, false allegations of “death panels” in the health care law, or the idea that scientific theory means things like evolution are unproven, rather than the result of much serious study, deplete public trust and erode the social glue that holds us together and permits our government to work well.
Does this all matter? Of course, it does. We can’t run a democracy without honest information. If we are ill-informed we vote blindly. The press has a role in this, but so do we. We need to take the time to be as well-informed as possible and to engage the world around us. Ignorance is, indeed, not bliss.