Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Do Lines Still Exist?

About a year ago I got into an online argument with a friend of a friend about whether Saddam Hussein had any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). I contented that none had been found, but this other person kept telling me they had.

I asked her for a link to a credible news source with evidence that there had, in fact, been evidence of this. What she sent me was a link to a right-wing blog which contained a long and well-crafted post that pointed to pictures of some trucks. The author looked, point-by-point at the trucks noting how he believed they were used to produce some kind of WMDs. The author hadn't seen the trucks first-hand, but only the pictures.

This, my foil told me, was a credible source. I contended it wasn't, but realized that I didn't have a good reason why not. It certainly seemed credible, just as credible as any other. My basic argument came down to the fact that if this was real evidence, and if evidence existed, it would certainly appear in a source like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post.

It also started me wondering about how to define a credible source. I've talked quite a bit about trust on this blog, but trust means different things to different people. It also leads to a fragmentation of the news.

During a speech at Brandeis by a woman who used to work for CNN in an Israeli bureau (sorry, can't remember her name), she tried to make the argument that the news reporters don't try to be pro or anti Israel, but then, a few minutes later, noted that she has become more conservative as she's grown older and found herself watching and agreeing with Fox news, pretty much abandoned her old employer. Basically, she's only listening to news that leans toward her way of thinking. I'm guilty of this myself, to a degree, by specifically avoiding Fox News, as it's too conservative for my taste.

Then there is this, today, from Reuters reporter Barry Garron about the recent West Wing episode that ran live, as if it were a true presidential debate:

In some ways, though, the biggest winner was the viewer, particularly those who have seen real presidential debates where rules are negotiated and statements are carefully crafted to stay on point, get out the message and drive home emotions through words that have been carefully tested in focus groups. This episode, though scripted, seemed more real than the actual debates. It showed what a real debate might be if candidates ever decided to risk being themselves and confronting the issues and each other. Odd as it may seem, it gives viewers a basis for comparing actual presidential debates and what is possible.

The episode, with its use of the NBC News logo and the appearance of real-life newsman Forrest Sawyer as moderator, also raised the question of the propriety of blending elements of network news with entertainment. In general, it's not a good idea to blur the two.
So here is the blurring of news and entertainment in a way that makes entertainment seem more real--a scripted show that seemed less scripted than an actual debate. We also have the blurring of media in which some sources are seen as credible, regardless of history. And we have the blurring of opinion and news, which has been going on for some time.

This puts much more pressure on the news consumer to understand the "facts" that are fed to us, but I'm not sure that most people are given these tools. I once wrote a story for a publication called Fresh Cup about a local tea shop. I went in to talk with the owner after it came out and she kept calling it an "ad," even though it was, in fact, an article. She never paid anything for it, I wrote it independently as a reporter.

If she can't distinguish between an ad and an article, how can we ask her to distinguish between fact and fiction? Have we reached the point of simply too much information?

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