I've observed that the average person has a lot of trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. I've seen people read newspaper ads - the full-page variety that many advocacy groups take out - as if they were articles. People read novels written in the first person and don't understand that the narrator is not the author. Basically anything printed between two covers is assumed to be fact, and any author assumed to be an authority.
These people aren't dumb. They aren't well educated, which makes them like most Americans. And they're not rare.
This is why the increasingly blurry line between news and entertainment - and there are so many examples, I can't begin to name just a few - is so dangerous. This is why the disinformation put out by the government, whether through CNN or the CDC (condoms don't protect against STDs! abortion causes breast cancer!) is not only unethical. It's dangerous.
An Op-Ed in today's New York Times speaks to this.
The Interactive TruthIn this respect, the internet is a double-edged sword. Obviously it's been an incredible boon to those of us trying to counterbalance the avalanche of lies, to keep each other educated, to organize the resistance. I shudder to think where we'd be without it. I truly believe our use of the internet is forestalling the rise of fascism in the United States.
By Stacy Shiff
It used to be that the longest unprotected border in the world was that between the United States and Canada. Today it's the one between fact and fiction. If the two cozy up any closer together The National Enquirer will be out of business.
More than 60 percent of the American people don't trust the press. Why should they? They've been reading "The Da Vinci Code" and marveling at its historical insights. I have nothing against a fine thriller, especially one that claims the highest of literary honors: it's a movie on the page. But "The Da Vinci Code" is not a work of nonfiction. If one more person talks to me about Dan Brown's crackerjack research I'm shooting on sight.
The novel's success does point up something critical. We're happier to swallow a half-baked Renaissance religious conspiracy theory than to examine the historical fiction we're living (and dying for) today. And not only is it remarkably easy to believe what we want to believe.
. . .
This week The Los Angeles Times announced its intention to exile the square and stodgy voice of authority farther yet. The paper will launch an interactive editorial page. "We'll have some editorials where you can go online and edit an editorial to your satisfaction," the page's editor says. "It's the ultimate in reader participation," explains his boss, Michael Kinsley. Let's hope the interactive editorial will lead directly to the interactive tax return. On the other hand, I hope we might stop short before we get to structural engineering and brain surgery. Some of us like our truth the way we like our martinis: dry and straight up.
Kinsley takes as his model Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, and which grows by accretion and consensus. Relatedly, it takes as its premise the idea that "facts" belong between quotation marks. It's a winning formula; Wikipedia is one of the Web's most popular sites. I asked a teenager if he understood that it carries a disclaimer; Wikipedia "can't guarantee the validity of the information found here." "That's just so that no one will sue them," he shrugged. As to the content: "It's all true, mostly."
What if we all vote on the truth? We don't need to, because we will be overruled by what becomes a legend most: entertainment. Twenty-one percent of young Americans get their news from comedy shows. Journalism once counted as the first draft of history. Today that would be screenwriting. As Frank Rich reminds us, the enduring line from Watergate - "Follow the money" - was not Deep Throat's. It was William Goldman's. And "Show me the money" was Cameron Crowe, not President Bush.
But any crackpot - and any government flak disguised as a journalist or blogger - can have a website. It's fashionable to sneer at the word "credentials". I don't care about credentials like a journalism degree or a media pass. But credibility is something we can't live without. We're not all authorities. All sources are not equally valid. There's a difference between a belief and a fact.
Stacy Shiff reminds us of the Big Lie that too many Americans still believe: "One in three Americans still believes there were W.M.D.'s in Iraq."
Read her essay here.