This Election, I Haven’t The Foggiest Idea
While I may be a fiend for my daily campaign fix, we rarely touch upon politics here at People Are Amazing. But political journalist Adam Nagourney’s take on the “media fog” enveloping the election in yesterday’s Times raised certain apolitical implications worth discussing here. Concerning the Obama campaign’s repeated attempts to recapture the public’s attention following a week of headline-grabbing, less-than-honest shots from his opponent, Nagourney writes:
“That episode reflects what has emerged as one of the most frustrating challenges that Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama are facing going into the final weeks of this campaign: the ways in which the proliferation of communications channels, the fracturing of mass media and the relentless political competition to own each news cycle are combining to reorder the way voters follow campaigns and decide how to vote. It has reached a point where senior campaign aides say they are no longer sure what works, as they stumble through what has become a daily campaign fog, struggling to figure out what voters are paying attention to and, not incidentally, what they are even believing.”
Surely, campaign managers aren’t the only ones stumbling around. Far from isolated to politics, this disorienting fog of misinformation confounds us all, blanketing every piece of news spread via the major media, the Internet, our mobile devices, and even the kitchen table. Unable to see through the fog, all we can do is reach out our hands and grasp onto the first thing slightly resembling a fact. In the race for the White House, these alleged facts begin to comprise a distorted public portrait of the candidates, all right angles in black and white. In our day-to-day lives, we risk spreading harmless, unsubstantiated rumors like “I heard bagged spinach kills,” or “I heard BP is doing great things for the environment.” And I don’t need to tell you what happens when you repeat something long enough. Never before have we as individuals had to navigate such a hazy world; one full of so many “facts,” with such little truth to guide us.
As the historic arbiters of truth, it’s no surprise that major media has struggled to adapt to this new landscape. Once the sole authority and judge of pertinent information, outlets like the Nightly News and the local paper are drowning in a flood of new voices. But this slow attrition cannot simply be attributed to the introduction of new competition, of citizen journalism and investigative vloggers, but to a major shift in how facts are consumed by the public. If the dizzying current election has shown us anything it is the way a fuzzy mix of truth and rumor propagated by both legitimate and shady sources is allowed to pass the “truth test” for no other reason than that it exists as content for the evening newscast. Desperately trying to “set the record straight,” the campaigns have taken turns in their calls to return to “the real issues facing the American people.” But as Obama astutely pointed out last week, “[The media] cover polls, scandals, gaffes and attacks. Those are the four things they cover. And so it is very hard to get a focus on the issues.”
New media has demonstrated the power to energize such a fantasy world where our indulgent instinct to gorge ourselves on the most entertaining, self-affirming “facts” transcends our pursuit of the truth. Sarah Palin’s selection as McCain’s running-mate offered the media’s old guard the journalistic opportunity of the season. With the entire country asking one question, “Who is Sarah Palin?” they merely had to provide an objective profile of what was known. But in transitioning from information arbiters to information curators, the major media took the bridge to nowhere, lending equal attention to the fact and fiction of Internet chatter. Where they ought to have provided clarity on her political and ethical positions, they only clouded our perspectives with talk of her “hunky” husband, or “First Dude,” and her Naughty Monkey brand high heels.
But when you’re playing a game of catch in the fog, no one is to blame when the ball hits the ground. These days, we (the media included) must weigh such a bevy of conflicting information, that it’s often easiest to go with your gut and just believe, or in the media’s case report on, that which sustains you. And while I certainly don’t long for the days of hierarchical journalism, I struggle to find my bearings in the foggy new world of participatory media. Because in the absence of authority, it seems, facts have become just another opinion. But that’s just mine.