Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Peeling The Onion

Yet for good or ill, the genie is out of the bottle. Before the Gutenberg printing press men knew the contents of the Bible solely through the prism of the professional clergy, who could alone afford the expensively hand copied books and who exclusively interpreted it. But when technology made books widely available, men could read the sacred texts for themselves and form their own opinions. And the world was never the same again.
--Wretchard - Belmont Club

So it was in 1436 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press that a revolution of information dissemination was spawned, and so it is today - 500+ years later - that we find ourselves in the midst of another information revolution.

Frederich Hayek, the great economist and Nobel prize winner, taught that information is a valuable commodity, it is bought and sold. Thanks to the internet revolution of the 90's information is practically given away. Today, just about all of the information (and misinformation) in the world is available and transferable to and from just about every corner of the world. Fitting that the blogfather himself, Glenn Reynolds offers this valuable insight:
But all fun aside, I think there are some important lessons for Big Media -- and for everyone else -- in the rise of the blogosphere. They stem from the fact that bloggers operate on the Internet, where arguments from authority are difficult since nobody knows whether you're a dog.

In short, it's the difference between high-trust and low-trust environments.

The world of Big Media used to be a high-trust environment. You read something in the paper, or heard something from Dan Rather, and you figured it was probably true. You didn't ask to hear all the background, because it wouldn't fit in a newspaper story, much less in the highly truncated TV-news format anyway, and because you assumed that they had done the necessary legwork. (Had they? I'm not sure. It's not clear whether standards have fallen since, or whether the curtain has simply been pulled open on the Mighty Oz. But they had names, and familiar faces, so you usually believed them even when you had your doubts.)

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.
Mainstream Media had created its momentum and cemented its reputation as a high trust authority. But because of the availability of information, blogs rose to (albeit limited) prominence accelerating the spread if information, and putting at least a measurable amount of pressure on the powers that be. How else to explain this op-ed piece from New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent headlined, Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?

his opening sentence:
"Of course it is."
When was the last time we heard an admission like this from Evan Thomas, a Newsweek editor:
There's one other base here, the media. Let's talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win and I think they're going to portray Kerry and Edwards I'm talking about the establishment media, not Fox. They're going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there's going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that's going to be worth maybe 15 points.

(More examples here.) What I'm leading up to of course is RatherGate. On 60 Minutes II Dan Rather came out with more evidence that Bush was privileged and used it to evade some of his National Guard duty. (Don't we all know that already? Hasn't that already figured into the voters calculus?) The problem was that the documents were forgeries, and it was the blogosphere that, just a few hours after they were made available on-line, cried foul.

10 years ago this story of the forged documents never would have happened. Dan Rather made a statement from authority, it would have been presumed as such. But as the LA Times, among other big newspapers, have acknowledged, "Blogs are Major Players."

While it was a handful of blogs, most notably, Powerline and Free Republic that did most of the heavy lifting, it was the aggregation of the knowledge in the blogosphere that truly give it strength. Be it a typeface designer in the 70's or ex-military guys familiar with the jargon, it was the collective knowledge of the millions of readers and bloggers, that gave this story its legs. As it stands now, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that the documents are forgeries, and all of that evidence can be found in a relatively accessible magical place called the internet. It's a brand new paradigm.

Yet, despite all this, CBS is sticking to their story. It highlights not only the arrogance of legacy media but also the manner in which their judgement is clouded. Given the fact that guys in pajamas in their living rooms were able to spot the documents as fake in a few hours, how could CBS have been duped like this? Simple. They weren't. The document experts that were used, are saying that they warned CBS that the documents were of questionable authenticity, and that CBS ignored their warnings. Yet a network that considered the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to be tabloid politics felt that the phony documents aired on 60 Minutes II were good enough.

Perhaps this is what troubles the left, they have become insulated - constantly reinforcing each others beliefs, never exiting their own cocoon. Maybe this is why I have a pretty smart friend who insists that the country is "nearly unanimous" in its opposition to the war in Iraq. (Disclaimer, I do live an artsy/hip part of Chicago, most here are Naderites at heart.) Perhaps this is why they so easily explain away Bush's convention bounce to flawed polling. Whatever it is, reality will hit them eventually, but for now it has come beckoning for Dan Rather. No longer can he feel safe in speaking soley from a position of authority, but rather must come armed with transparent sources and facts, secure in the knowledge that there are a million or so fact checkers out here waiting.

CBS has already given their statement but I haven't read it and won't until tomorrow. Until then, developing.....


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