At a party the other day, a young woman was railing against the media, saying they were corrupt and nothing they said on television, in the newspapers, or in magazines could be trusted. She was asked if she read a daily newspaper. She vehemently said she would never read a daily newspaper. What about TV news? Wouldn't turn it on. What about magazines? Wouldn't think of reading such trash. So where do you get your information? I just know things. People tell me things. I listen and I know.
As writer Kurt Anderson succinctly put it in a recent New Yorker article, we are living in proliferating parallel universes, one where traditional information and opinion are provided by mass circulation magazines, wire services, radio, television, and newspapers, and another where pseudo facts, gossip, opinion, and outright fantasy come rushing in. Anderson talks about my-facts-areas-good-as-your-facts skepticism, about paranoid versions of reality, about the ongoing spew of digital information delivered instantaneously and studded with chunks of fake information, and about the vast promiscuous commingling of facts with fabrications.
More and more people are ignoring responsible conduits of information and instead relying on electronic bulletin boards and in-person chats over coffee that feed popular fantasies and conspiracies. The germ of the idea may have been hatched in a fleeting glance at a TV newscast or entertainment show, a segment of "The X-Files," a headline in the National Enquirer, a quip by Rosie O'Donnell or Jay Leno, a comment by a local minister or neighbor. But the bearer of these bad tidings is convinced the information is true and that the mainstream press has ignored it because of a cover-up or conspiracy.
As Anderson points out, there are plenty of real news events that have no satisfactory resolution that help fuel the fire. Who planted the pipe bomb at the Atlanta Olympics? Why did TWA Flight 800 blow up? Who is responsible for burning black churches? Did O.J. Simpson murder his wife? Most people want closure, and honestly reported news stories by their very nature prevent this.
So whom do you believe? If you won't trust traditional print and electronic sources, where do you turn for information? If your source is anyone who gets on the Internet, how do you determine if that account is true? As Anderson concludes, anyone with a computer and a phone line is now his or her own publisher-commentator-reporter-anchor, dispatching to everyone everywhere credible-seeming opinion and fact.
Any time information is not available in a clear, coherent, and accurate manner, superstition, mistrust, paranoia, and conspiracy flourish. It is not surprising that so many Americans have a dissorted view of their universe when many treat the media as enemies of the people. Mistrust of the media is often based on a misunderstanding of its role and exaggeration of some of the media's flaws. …