Marshall McLuhan once defined “news” as events that we know about even though they don’t directly affect us. His construction highlights an important aspect of the form: because you learn about news from reports and not from observed phenomena, the credibility of the reporter becomes paramount. Basically, unreliable reporter is to news as schizo-affective disorder is to lived experience. It so happens that the growth of the internet combines vastly more news outlets with vastly reduced reliability, so that getting your news from the web is the equivalent of either having a crystal ball the lets you see into every corner of the world or of staring into your aquarium and believing it is a crystal ball that et cetera etc. You just don’t know. Thus is internet news particularly at the mercy of its reporters’ ethics, and by extension particularly vulnerable to insane, slanderous conspiracy theories. Just ask Atlantic reporter Conor Friedersdorf.
Mad props to The Cure for the link. Also, please power through the first 500 words of Friedersdorf’s missive, in which he unwisely deploys a series of professional comparisons and moderate bona fides before telling us why they’re relevant. As much as we love the phrase “first of all” as a comic device around here, it is not good organizational strategy. Anywhom, last Friday Friedersdorf went to interview moviegoers at a midnight opening of The Undefeated, the documentary about Sarah Palin, and found himself confronted with an empty theater. Apparently, all the fantasts went to see Harry Potter instead.
To Palin fans, the report on this experience was another mainstream media attack on their heroine, and Friedersdorf went on to become the subject of a bizarre conspiracy theory: that in fact, the 12:01 showing of The Undefeated at AMC Orange County never occurred, and F-dorf either went to a private screening or made the whole thing up. Shortly after the Atlantic piece appeared, the conservative commentator William Collier claimed that the 12:01 showing was never advertised. When Friedersdorf emailed him (and various fact-checkers) an image of the LA Times listing for that showtime, Collier replied that it only demonstrated “how elaborate such a setup could be.”
Here, of course, is the identifying feature of the conspiracy theory: it can evolve to accommodate any contradicting evidence. Having alleged that Friedersdorf arranged an unpublicized showing of a feature film in order to falsify a news story, Collier then interpreted the advertisement for that showing in a national newspaper as proof of Friedersdorf’s manipulative powers. What can you do with such a person? If you’re Andrew Breitbart, you republish his ideas on your own news site, along with the implication that F-dorf made sexual overtures toward a couple of teenage girls.
As he has for much of his career, Breitbart enjoys the sociopath’s advantage in this situation. The internet is chock full of made-up stories. Indeed, the unreliability of internet news is an acknowledged premise of Collier’s narrative, since he claims that not only Friedersdorf’s report but the very screening it describes were made up. Breitbart and Collier are the ones lying, here, but that does not deprive them of their advantage. The truism “people make up stories on the internet” actually helps Collier’s made-up story, because it allows him to declare that any evidence disproving his narrative is itself made up.
So now it’s just a race to tell as many people as possible. A quick read of Friedersdorf’s prose—which includes links and documentary evidence and does not lean heavily on mocking people’s names—suggests to the discerning reader which party takes truth more seriously. But how much of the internet is discerning readers?
There is no way to know—which is probably good, since the only responsible answer to the question is “as many as we can make.” The work of the journalist is not to determine how much clear thinking his audience demands but to help them think as clearly as possible. The difference between a writer and a demagogue is that the writer wants people to think about stuff and the demagogue wants them to think right. If you already know the correct opinion about everything, you can go about instilling it in others by whatever means necessary.
So the internet is chock full of people who intend to lie to you for your own good. Many of them are successful journalists. The question is what we can do about them. On an individual basis, we can expose them as liars to the people they haven’t reached already, but that is a local solution to a systemic problem. The larger question—now that we can all talk to one another, what do we do about liars?—remains unanswered. I submit that it is the most important question facing society today.