Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Brian's Song

I knew I had to write about this the moment I read the title: Enough About You: We've made the media more democratic, but at what cost to our democracy? It's an editorial by Nightly News anchor Brian Williams in this week's Time. The piece is a direct criticism of the emerging culture that spawned this year's Person of the Year: You.

Or rather everyone that's contributed to the plethora of user-created content that's swamping the Internet and influencing everything else. Blogging. Wikipedia. YouTube. It is hard to overestimate their impact in how people are exchanging ideas and spreading information. But Williams thinks it's trouble brewing.
It is now possible--even common--to go about your day in America and consume only what you wish to see and hear...The problem is that there's a lot of information out there that citizens in an informed democracy need to know in our complicated world with U.S. troops on the ground along two major fronts. [Original emphasis]
There is no doubt that, in part, he is right. People can live their lives without being exposed to other ideas. Of course, they could always live their lives that way: it is very easy to not read or watch something you don't like.

What Williams is saying, though, is that he doesn't like what people are specializing in and they should turn to the "unbiased" media for the whole picture. But no one is unbiased; everyone frames or colors a story to their liking and while some are more neutral than others, no one is innocent. When anchors such as Williams insist what they report on is what matters to everyone, they not only lie by assuming an air of god-like neutrality, they arrogantly assume everyone cares about the same thing or views the world in the same way.

Because everyone knows that user-created content is biased, they are more willing to search out the other side to get the full picture. True, there are those that won't and simply consume what they like, but you can't do anything about them. They have always existed and they always will. But today it is harder to be them because it is so much easier to be challenged. Everyone knows everyone else's sources are biased so people are more likely to read up (and it is easier to do so).

And this points to the great flaw in William's article. He argues that we might miss the next great idea because we focus so much on "the same tune we already know by heart." But these great things, by definition, are for everyone and their truth appeals a mass audience. In the previous world of the narrow media, revolutionary concepts more easily fell through the cracks--only a relatively few people had to miss them. But today's wide media catches so much more. The constant spread of information makes it less likely--not more--that we will miss the next big thing. It is not that we might miss the next revolution; Williams is concerned because we might now recognize the absurdity of his selections.

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