Ill Legitimacy

A while back I had the chance to attend a round-table talk presided over by media critic (and New York University professor) Mark Crispin Miller, who was discussing the concentration of media outlets in the hands of a diminishing number of owners, the subject of an article he'd written for The Nation ("National Entertainment State:" http://www.thenation.com/issue/960603/960603.htm).Here we are with cable lines under us, satellite waves above us, and radio, television, books, magazines, and newspapers all around us -- and somehow Miller has come to the conclusion that "there's just not as many choices out there as there used to be.""What about the Internet?" I asked. Certainly there is no shortage of news online. You have to watch what you read on the Internet, Miller warned, furrowing his brow even more than usual. There are a lot of unreliable sources out there. Thanks Crispy, I'll add that to my bag of hard-won homilies: Don't take mescaline before running a lawn mower. Don't eat the yellow snow. Don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Gotcha.The legitimacy of the information on the Net is becoming a big issue. Consider Matt Drudge and his Drudge Report (http://www.drudge-report.com), which broke the Monica Lewinsky story. Here is this untrained former gift-shop clerk who doesn't bother to check the tips he gets before posting them, and he breaks this national story -- prompting a chorus of sneers from the "legitimate" media. "The Internet beat TV and print to this story ... for one simple reason: lower standards." Michael Kinsley wrote in Time."I wouldn't call what [Drudge] does reporting," media critic Larry Sabato piped up in the same magazine. What makes traditional news outlets more trustworthy is that stories are reviewed by an editor, who ostensibly applies a critical eye and assures that all sides are fairly represented (from that outlet's vantage point, anyway). As "Nightline" host Ted Koppel commented in a show about Drudge, "Anyone can say anything with the authority of print [online]. I mean, there it is, it's in black and white. It looks as good as anything that you may write in The Washington Post."I agree that Drudge's methods pose a problem, but only up to a point. Whenever the subject comes up, I think of Natural Born Losers (http://www.pchorsepower.com/shock/nbl.html). A few years back I was tasked with finding the area's best Web site for a publication. One of the more outrageous pages I ran across was Natural Born Losers, a set of photos of a large decapitated corpse captured in various poses with the couple (pictured nude) who supposedly offed it, at least according to the hokey story line accompanying the photos.It all seemed to be in good sick fun in the John Waters mode, and it certainly required a lot more work to pull off than most sites, so I considered nominating it. I assumed it wasn't real -- after all, there was no blood anywhere. But then I started thinking, could this be a real corpse? I began to contemplate how difficult or easy it would be to fake those shots. I thought about what law enforcement would do with real snuff photos and how anonymously pictures like this move about on the Internet. I thought about the publication's responsibilities to its readers. I thought about a lot of stuff that I wouldn't have thought about otherwise. I didn't give the best-of to Natural Born Losers, on the off chance that the photos are real. And note the shift in my thinking: In the end I wasn't wondering, could the photos be fake? But rather, what are the chances they're real?This is how you inevitably learn to surf the Web. It's called thinking critically. Evaluate the information: What are the sources? How does the info mesh with what else you've learned? Who wrote it? What's the bias? What are the real-world implications? What are the criticisms? It's not fool-proof, but it works.While some news sources might be considered "trusted," the days of assuming one outlet has the whole story are long past. The New York Times might be more diligent in presenting The Truth than whoever does Natural Born Losers, but The Times' version is no less subject to mitigating factors -- and maybe more so. Once we entrust people with handling The Truth, we tend to watch them less critically. After all, there might be many scams on the Internet, but none of them won a Pulitzer Prize, as did The Washington Post's fabricated 1980 story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.And what about the huge media conglomerates that influence the content of their holdings? As Miller says in his Nation article, "ABC News will never again do an expose of Disney's practices." Why not? Because Disney owns Koppel's ABC.What amazes me is how the press assumes its audience doesn't think critically. And maybe it doesn't. But wouldn't something that forces it to do so be a good thing?The truth is that even the smartest among us don't get their news only from newspapers. They get it from everything and everyone around them. Even lies hold valuable lessons. From these people, we can learn something.

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