For People Who Think

September 1, 2010

The New Credibility Gap by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 7:17 pm

My first city editor was an elegant, white-haired guy named Nicholas O’D. Lederer. He dropped dead at a company dinner, breaking the hearts of everybody who’d known him.

From Nick, and early on, I learned about the difficulties in presenting people with the best available version of the truth. That is, after all, journalism’s prime objective.

The difficulty is that too few people really want the truth. Nick, who was in his late 50s when I worked for him, had figured that out a long time before I’d ever entered his newsroom. He was constantly instructing young reporters with little homilies about the limits of human comprehension. I still recall many of those.

“People will believe anything if you whisper it,” Nick once said to me. “Never underestimate the power of stupidity in human affairs.”

He also taught me that everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for that rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge. That’s invariably screwed up in some particular, large or small.

“Any newspaper story about an error,” Nick once intoned, “is absolutely certain to contain at least one error.”

I bring up the long-dead Nick Lederer because the Pew Research Center poll recently revealed that 18 percent of respondents believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Two Americans in five and are unsure exactly what religion he practices. When you break it down by political party or liberal/conservative leaning, it gets even worse. More than one in three Republicans thinks that Obama is a Muslim.

The Democrats have their own nutty beliefs, too. A variety of polls have shown that as many as 42% of Democrats believe that President George W. Bush either ordered the 9/11 attack or, with prior knowledge that it was coming, allowed it to happen so he would have an excuse to invade Iraq.

Bottom line: the hardliners on both the right and the left and in both parties desperately need a shot of truth serum. The problem is that there’s really no place for them to get it.

Are Americans dumber now than we were a few decades ago? We shouldn’t be. With more of us attending college, we’re supposed to be smarter. But higher education rates and easier access to information have been undermined by the decline of the establishment press and by a pervasive, pernicious mindset in which rumors – especially those spread on the Internet – are routinely accepted as truth by nearly half the country’s population.

The late U. S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to like to argue that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts. If that was once true, it’s generally no longer so. In the minds of far too many people, opinion has become fact, and anybody who insists on verifiable truth has to be on the other side of the political divide – or one of those reviled elitists who thinks that everybody else is a moron. Too many of us now see truth, or even the effort to present truth, as just another dastardly scheme to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Facts that challenge belief systems are ignored. Conservatives see the facts as liberal. Progressives, as liberals now call themselves, see facts as conservative.

So, we now live in a democracy where rational debate is fading away, whether the topic is global warming, foreign policy, the economy or evolution or taxes. (That was another of Nick’s homilies, by the way – that taxes are rarely levied for the benefit of the taxed.)

The Internet is a marvelous development on the road of human progress. Whatever else it does, the Internet constantly offers almost limitless information. The quantity is staggering. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing problem with the way many people process that information. They’re overwhelmed by the volume of information, and they lose the ability to discriminate to the point where any alleged fact is just as good as any other, regardless of the source.

So, when you learn that the vast numbers of Americans doesn’t know what religion our president practices or believe that George W. Bush ordered the 9/11 attacks, what are you supposed to conclude? My conclusion is that, ironically, the development of the Internet may be ushering in a new Dark Age in which belief and conviction outweigh rational analysis and in which truth is what you choose to believe rather than what can be proven and authenticated.

Moreover, this is more than a problem for just Americans. A poll taken by World Public Opinion, a collaborative project of research centers in various countries managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, polled 16,063 people in 17 foreign nations outside the United States during the summer of 2008. They found that majorities in only nine of the 17 countries believe that Al Qaeda carried out the attacks.

A total of 46 percent of those surveyed said Al Qaeda was responsible, 15 percent said the U.S. government was responsible. Seven percent said Israel had done it, and seven percent said that 9/11 had been the works of some other perpetrator. One in four people didn’t know who’d been behind the attacks. In other words, three in four of these people were dead certain in their beliefs, and fewer than half accepted or understood the truth.

Part of what created this problem has been the slow, steady decline in the volume and quality of real news coverage and the growing cynicism of so many people toward establishment news sources. Before the Internet, you already had too many people discounting news reports that presented facts that challenged their beliefs. When the Internet came along, they no longer had to confront those facts. Instead, they could find information that confirmed their beliefs and found, to their delight, that they could ignore any information that failed to conform to their biases and prejudices.

If you’re not worried about this, you ought to be. Any democracy in which various factions are unable to agree on basic facts is a democracy in trouble. Sooner or later, one side or the other is likely to pick up guns in an effort to win an argument in which the facts no longer matter. You can ask Abraham Lincoln about that.

Years ago, Nick Lederer told me that democracy’s best friend was a reliable establishment press and that the greatest danger to a democracy was the people’s rejection of the best available version of truth.

“A credibility gap almost always leads to a gullibility fill,” he said.

In a world in which people are willing to believe absolutely anything, absolutely anything is likely to happen.

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