2005 June 21 Tuesday
Does Proliferation Of News Media Improve Quality Of Governance?

Tim Hanrahan and Jason Fry argue that the proliferation of news and entertainment delivery mechanisms are not making people more ignorant.

Moreover, while it's certainly true that the Internet fits perfectly with an age in which our attention is divided into more and more multitasking slivers, the Net also rewards some more-positive traits. Curiosity, for instance: If you need or just want to know something right now and have a Net connection, you can no need to wait for the evening news or tomorrow's paper. And your hunger for more information is limited only by the amount of time you have Cronkite was great, but he didn't have time to explain the history of Vietnam or what China, the Soviet Union, France and the U.S. wanted out of the region. And if you were interested then, too bad: The library was closed.

But people by and large aren't curious, you object. True but then most people never have been; at least today those who are have the tools to have their curiosity rewarded. But what about all the junk that passes for news these days? Also nothing new today's runaway brides and rumored celebrity pairings are on the same one-way trip down the memory hole, to be remembered by virtually no one a generation hence. (It is possible that Google results from, say, 2045 will be littered with badly designed Omigod-Tom-and-Katie sites and abandoned blogs whose last entry is about same, but it's hard to see this crumbling the republic.)

I agree with the general thrust of the argument. Ignorant, dumb, and uncurious people have ever been such. The dumbing down of the public due to changes in the press is exaggerated.

I do see one problem though: A lot of people find it increasingly easy to follow only celebrity gossip or duck hunting news or other news which does not exactly enhance a person's ability to make wise voting decisions or otherwise good public citizens. Cocooning into subcultural niches is enabled by media streams that are increasingly tunable to the interests of each citizen (or of each illegal alien who can't speak Englsh for that matter).

Back in the days of Walter Cronkite if one had the desire to watch news one had to find out something about the big political news stories of the day. Today one can avoid that stuff and still sate a desire for information. The problem is that some people want to sate their desire for information with junk information the way they sate their desire for food with junk food. The decline in consumption of milk and the increase in consumption of sugary high acid soda drinks surely has a media parallel with at least a portion of the population watching Entertainment Tonight rather than reading a newspaper or watching a news show. Even a lot of people watching news channels pig out on stuff like celebrity trials and scandals.

Still, the internet seems a huge net plus. Got an interest in, say, the demographics and economics of aging? You can find a blog that has a category archive entitled "Economics Demographic" or some Ph.D. economist who links to all the major reports on the subject (and I don't happen to know which econ blog is best at this or I'd tell you). Want to go back to before the Iraq invasion and find out what was known and what has come out since then about the Bush Administration's decision making process to decide whether to invade? (which, parentheticaly can be summed up as "We want to invade Iraq and now 9/11 has given us the conditions to cook up an excuse for doing so")? Well, again, you can find out. Tons of news articles and blogs linking to groups of news articles can be found on this subject if you want to spend some hours doing searches on Google.

I get calls from family and friends who know I'm adept at web searches asking me to find out some fact or other. Sometimes the questions are like "Who played such and such part in the XYZ movie in the late 1940s". But other times the questions are about issues which matter for the good health of the commonwealth. C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb says the level of knowledge of viewers who call in on C-SPAN political talk shows has improved greatly since 10 or 15 years ago. While this is just one indicator my guess is that people who follow political issues have, on average, better quality information on those issues than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

My question is this: Does the increase in the quality and quantity of information consumed by the smarter and more politically informed yield a net benefit in terms of quality of governance that cancels out the ability of less well informed people to shift their attention toward even less politically relevant junk news? I think the net result is positive in part because I find it a lot easier personally to figure out when I'm being lied to by politicians. Also, I find it much easier to find the best minds on any given issue and read what they have to say about it. But I'm open to contrary arguments.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 June 21 11:36 AM  Media Critique

crush41 said at June 21, 2005 8:22 PM:

It seems to me that this phenomenon is in line with what Murray and Herrnstein predicted in The Bell Curve: a growing gap between the most and least intelligent fueled by technology. The brightest have a world of information at their fingertips, while the dullest can now watch MTV 24/7. Just two decades ago, everyone was watching one of the big three, with a mix of entertainment and news and reading Time magazine. There was no other option. Now there are too many choices.

In regards to finding the truth: Again it's a mixed bag. How many "Rathergates" have gone unnoticed in the past? Now, there are billions of potential critics whose voices will be heard if something tendentious is reported. On the other hand, half the world has access to the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion--and most of the providers claim that it is a true document.

John S Bolton said at June 22, 2005 3:36 PM:

It makes it much more difficult to maintain an omerta through regulated media and public educational systems, on important ideas and facts, the knowledge of which, tends to prevent the establishment of tyranny. The effect may be greatest on the middle and upper middle groups, who are not few enough in number to be bullied into maintaining an omerta, on such a question as whether socialism is mass murder in its fulfillment, for example. A lot of ideas that had been essentially sent to Coventry by power seeking officials and scholars, now are breaking through the omerta that was upon them. Internet commentors are vastly much less likely to be silenced by castroite leftists who call them racists, nazis, etc.

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