Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the Introduction
The Corruption of Information
Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied access to the facts. No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people.
As the possibility of invading Iraq was being debated in Washington, pollsters were busy asking Americans for their opinions. A slim majority expressed support for an invasion if President George W. Bush thought it necessary. But Americans’ willingness to go to war depended on what they believed was true of Iraq. Contrary to fact, most Americans thought Iraq was aligned with al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that had attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Some Americans even believed Iraqi pilots had flown the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
Citizens with mistaken beliefs were twice as likely as other Americans to favor an invasion of Iraq. They might also have had other reasons for wanting to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. He had repeatedly thwarted UN inspections of his weapons systems and had killed tens of thousands of his own people. Nevertheless, the notion that Hussein was aligned with al-Qaeda was pure fiction.
Fox News viewers were the most misinformed. Two-thirds of them perceived a “clear link” between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, a research finding that journalists at rival news outlets found amusing. A more sober look at the evidence would have tempered their response. Fox viewers were not the only ones with a false sense of reality. Roughly half of ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC viewers wrongly thought that Iraq and al-Qaeda were collaborators, as did two in five newspaper readers.
Warped understandings are hardly new. When fluoride was added to the nation’s water supply a half century ago, some Americans claimed it was a communist plot to poison the nation’s youth. In a seminal 1964 Harper’s Magazine article, the historian Richard Hofstadter described such thinking as “the paranoid style.” “No other word,” Hofstadter wrote, “adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
The crazed anticommunists of postwar America have their counterparts today. Can anything except the “paranoid style” explain the conspiracy theorists who claim Barack Obama funneled money to extremist Muslim groups in an effort to sabotage American interests9 or who say George W. Bush knew in advance of the September 11 terrorist plot and chose not to stop it? Yet paranoia cannot explain today’s astonishing misinformation level. As Hofstadter defined it, the “paranoid style” describes the thinking of the delusional few, whereas it is easy today to find issues on which tens of millions of Americans have far-fetched ideas. At one point in the 2009–2010 health care reform debate, for instance, half of the American public falsely believed the legislation included “death panels”—government-appointed committees with the power to deny medical treatment to old folks.
It is a short step from misinformation to mischief, as we have seen repeatedly in recent policy debates. It is nearly impossible to have sensible public deliberation when large numbers of people are out of touch with reality. Without agreement on the facts, arguments have no foundation from which to build. Recent debates on everything from foreign policy to the federal budget have fractured or sputtered because of a factual deficit.
What’s going on here? Why are Americans mired in misinformation? Several factors are at work, but changes in communication top the list. Americans have been ill-served by the intermediaries—the journalists, politicians, talk show hosts, pundits, and bloggers—that claim to be their trusted guides.
Journalists are our chief sense-makers. Journalists are other things, too, but we need them mostly to help us understand the world of public affairs beyond our direct experience. That’s not to say that journalists bear the full burden of keeping us informed. If they are to be charged with that responsibility, they will fail. They cannot make up for glaring defects in the work of others, including our educators and political leaders. Yet, as journalist Walter Lippmann noted, democracy falters “if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news.”
Journalists are failing to deliver it. A 2006 Carnegie Corporation report concluded that “the quality of journalism is losing ground in the drive for profit, diminished objectivity, and the spread of the ‘entertainment virus.’ ” The public certainly recognizes the problem. In a 2012 Gallup poll, a mere 8 percent of respondents said they had a “great deal” of confidence in the news media’s ability to report “the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” More than seven times that number—60 percent in all—said they had little or no confidence in the press. That’s a dramatic comedown from a few decades ago, when a majority of Americans trusted what the press was telling them.
Some journalists dismiss criticisms of their work, saying that the public is “shooting the messenger”—blaming the press for what’s being reported, whereas it ought to be aiming its fire at others. There’s some truth to their claim. Yet most journalists are keenly aware that they are contributing to the problem. A Pew Research Center survey found that journalists thought reporting had become “shallower,” “increasingly sloppy,” and “too timid.” A subsequent Pew survey found that 68 percent of reporters believed that “bottom-line pressure is hurting journalism,” up from 41 percent a decade earlier. Six in ten of those surveyed said that journalism is headed “in the wrong direction.”
Nevertheless, journalists are the best hope for something better. Talk show hosts, bloggers, political activists, politicians, and commentators cannot be trusted to protect the facts. Many in their ranks are conscientious and public minded, but others willfully twist the facts for partisan or personal gain. They have concocted most of the half-truths and lies foisted on the American public.
Some observers say journalists are less relevant today, given the increase in information sources and the greater ease with which people can share information. As I see it, citizens need journalists more than ever, precisely because there is so much information available, of such varying quality and relevance. The contribution of the reporter cannot be compared with that of the scholar or the policy analyst, much less that of the talk show host or blogger. Each has a place in our public life, but none of the others are equipped to do what journalists do. Journalists are in the daily business of making the unseen visible, of connecting us to the world beyond our direct experience. Public life is increasingly complex, and we need an ongoing source of timely and relevant information on the issues of the day. That’s why we need journalists.
Yet, the claim that journalists are the public’s indispensible source of information dissolves when reporters peddle hype and misinformation, which, as the first two chapters in this book will show, has too often been the case in recent years. There are plenty of conscientious journalists, but their efforts are diminished by what other reporters are doing. The costs of poor reporting are higher than many journalists might think, not only to our democracy but to their livelihoods. If the public concludes that the messages of journalists are no more valuable than those of other sources, the demand for news will go down. The shift is already under way. Surveys over the past decade show a steady rise in the number of Americans who prefer to get their information from partisan bloggers, talk show hosts, and pundits. In its 2013 “State of the News Media” report, the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that nearly a third of American adults had stopped using a news source because they believed its reporting had declined in quality.