Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Stanley Kurtz at the National Review is attempting to understand why CBS will not admit using forgeries as the basis of a 60 Minutes story even when overwhelming evidence of their  fraudulence is staring them in the face. His theory is that a market segment of liberals now make up the bulk of CBS's audience and it must please them at any price.

The divisions in the country are too strong. What's more, the cycle of division is self-reinforcing. First came the of the movements of the 60s. Then the media was captured by the Left. Then the conservatives started to exit, building up alternative outlets as they went. As the fundamental cultural and political issues dividing the country sharpened, more and more people started flooding to the alternative media. This self-selection process began to turn the mainstream audience into a self-consciously liberal audience. So even as complaints about liberal media bias escalated, the mainstream media was bound to become more liberal, not less liberal -- because that's what was happening to its audience. What all this means is that, given its audience, CBS News is no longer concerned about preserving it reputation for fairness. On the contrary, CBS now wants and needs to preserve its reputation for liberalism.

If Kurtz's theory is correct, then outlets like CBS are in the process of offering liberalism a cup of poison. The function of news is to provide its readership with reliable information about their own society and the events that effect it. It gives readers a way of determining effects so they can alter causes. But any information system which throws data quality checks overboard or worse, inserts fraudulent data into its stores, is creating a catastrophe for its consumers. It is axiomatic in database applications that it is better to have no data than the wrong data. By insisting on the authenticity of fraudulent documents, CBS is asserting that it is better to have wrong data than no data.

The consequences of that policy -- if Kurtz is right -- will be soon in coming. No corporation or military force can long subsist on a diet of fraudulent data because information consumers will inevitably make wrong decisions. This is traditionally what happens to dictators surrounded by toadies and sycophants. When defeat comes, they are the last to know. This danger of refusing to face the inconvenient is an equal threat to conservatives and indeed, to groups of any ideology. But conservatives have been protected from self-deception, to a certain extent, by the monumentally lucky decision to exit the Mainstream Media and create alternative outlets based on the Internet. Glenn Reynolds provides the key insight.

The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.

That's because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren't linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that's impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.

(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in -- nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that's been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress -- except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).

You can also refine your arguments, updating -- and even abandoning them -- in realtime as new facts or arguments appear. It's part of the deal.

This also means admitting when you're wrong. And that's another difference. When you're a blogger, you present ideas and arguments, and see how they do. You have a reputation, and it matters, but the reputation is for playing it straight with the facts you present, not necessarily the conclusions you reach. And a big part of the reputation's component involves being willing to admit you're wrong when you present wrong facts, and to make a quick and prominent correction.

Viewed from this angle, it is easy to see the role the alternative media has played in the conservative movement. As a "mouthpiece" or "propaganda organ" the Internet is, as Stanely Kurtz points out, still largely inferior to the Mainstream Media. But as an organ of accurately understanding the world, it is vastly superior. This has allowed conservatives to outmaneuver liberals time and again, to understand, for example, that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq were Vietnam; to see that the United Nations was a sham, among other things. In many ways the Mainstream Media is a liability to the liberal cause, a profoundly effective way of deceiving themselves. The Killian memos are fakes. "And that's part of our world."