Thursday, June 28, 2012

Get it first -- we'll get it right later

For several minutes on this historic morning, viewers of Fox News and CNN believed the Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act, because that's what those networks were saying.

The problem, of course, was that Chief Justice John Roberts had just begun reading the majority decision he had written. He began by saying that, under the Commerce Clause, the mandate requiring citizens to purchase insurance was not constitutional. Up came the headlines saying the ACA had been overturned and on went pundits. Until ...

Roberts kept on reading. By this time, copies of the decision were being handed out and folks were able to jump ahead to the climax. The first tipoff should have been who made up the majority -- the court's four liberals and Roberts. Eventually, Roberts got to the main point -- that the mandate was constitutional under the taxation powers of Congress.

Oops. Mandate upheld. One of the most significant Supreme Court rulings of our generation (I argue that Citizens United may turn out to be even more important over time, but that's for another day), and Fox and CNN got it wrong for several minutes.

This may seem a minor hiccup -- the two major cable networks getting the story exactly reversed, albeit for no longer than it takes to brew a couple cups of coffee. But it provides a couldn't-be-clearer look at much of what is wrong with major media journalism nowadays: Get it first, accuracy be damned. (It wasn't long ago that CNN started its coverage of the John Edwards verdict with a headline saying he'd been found guilty.)

It's easy to shrug this off. Oh, well, it was just a few minutes, then they got it right. The problem is, it's indicative of much deeper problems. It was also amusing to watch what happened next (some of this could be my imagination, but I don't think so). As it became clear that Obama had won big, the mood turned increasingly somber at Fox, while, it seemed to me, the CNN talking heads perked up.

It's a guarantee that the talk on Fox tonight will be of all the ways the world is coming apart, while the lefties on MSNBC will be dancing a conga line around the newsroom. At CNN, Jeffrey Toobin will be trying to explain how he could have been so wrong about the Supreme Court (he had predicted it would overturn the law) and Anderson Cooper will be sanguine, unless he starts to giggle uncontrollably.

But the larger issue is that news organizations continue to forsake accuracy for speed. Locally, some newspapers and TV stations continue to report stuff right off the police scanner. This information is always incomplete and nearly always just plain wrong. That isn't journalism, or at least it's not supposed to be.

Fox and CNN didn't perform well today, and we, their consumers, should insist they do better. We should do the same of our local news media.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Roger's Law of the Internet No. 1

Before accessing the Internet, each of us should be required to read the following disclaimer:

"Warning: The Internet can be a source of much wonderful and compelling information. However, most of what you find there is either false, misleading, or simply a waste of time. If you try hard enough, there is important, reliably accurate information to be found. Unfortunately, without careful effort, you are more likely to be misled than enlightened by what you find there. Proceed with caution."

It can be compellingly argued that the Internet has reduced the amount of accurate information held in the brains of the world's people. A significant portion of the stuff on the Internet -- I've not done a thorough study, but I would put the proportion at about 99 percent -- is either wrong, misleading, out of context, incomplete or otherwise does more harm than good.

To the wary and skilled user, the Internet is a powerful tool, providing access to literature, research and other material on a scale never before imagined. To the casual user, it is a fire burning out of control that does not provide enlightenment.

Examples abound, of course, so I start with my most recent encounter. MoveOn.org, created and updated by a seemingly earnest and well-meaning group of activists, recently posted this prescient and disturbing quotations from Abraham Lincoln:
"But I see in the future a crisis approaching which fills me with anxiety. As a result of war, corporations have become enthroned, and an era of corruption will follow. The money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its rule by preying upon the prejudice of the people, until all wealth is concentrated in a few hands."

To some, this prediction foresaw our very day. There's only one problem: Lincoln never said it.

The quote is attributed to a 1931 book on Lincoln, which does not provide a primary source. The Abraham Lincoln Society, which takes this sort of thing very seriously, investigated the quote in 1999 and concluded:
"... the preponderance of evidence undermines the credibility of the quotation as originating with Abraham Lincoln. Quite simply, he never wrote it."
Bummer. It's still a terrific, provocative quote, but it has a good deal less interest if it wasn't said by Lincoln. Still, MoveOn.org keeps the quote on its web site where, at latest count, it had generated 185 comments.

Being a skeptic serves one well when engaging the Internet. If something sounds a little odd, a little too convenient, and a little to simple, a little to obvious, or is provided without any kind of context of substantiation, I assume it's almost always wrong. This position is almost always proven to be right.

This is Roger's Law of the Internet No. 1: All information is presumed wrong until shown to be otherwise. If we all follow this rule, much embarrassment, misinformation, and rhetorical fisticuffs can be avoided.

What to do? It's pretty easy, actually:
1. Start by assuming what you read is wrong.
2. Use the vast resources of the Internet to research information. Focus on reliable sources such as newspapers (make sure they are real newspapers that have, and attempt to operate under, a code of journalism ethics), a university, or other sources that are committed to high standards of research and authentication.
3. If possible, fine more than one source that verifies the information in questions.
4. While reading material from sources that take particular political positions is good, clean fun, do not consider such sources reliable if accuracy is your goal.
5. Finally, please, please, please ... don't forward or post stuff that hasn't been vetted unless you provide some disclaimer, such as: "This information is probably at least partially (but more likely mostly) bogus, but I sure had fun reading it and thought you might, too."
There, that should do it.