The Rabbit Hole
Following the election last week, I had to admit that I had become addicted to enticing articles, flashy images, and straight-up click-baits. Like Alice, I found myself becoming smaller and smaller, in a world of miss-information. I had fallen down the rabbit hole and I was disappearing amidst the dissonance created by runaway social media, and specifically Facebook. I needed to find some peace and my way out of the rabbit hole. I deleted the Facebook App from my phone and forbade myself access to Facebook in any form for two days. On the third day, I let myself sign-on via my laptop and committed to doing so only once a day, for an unspecified period going forward.
Your Monday Briefing
To satiate my Expat need for news of the United States of America, I signed up for online access to the New York Times (NYTimes). This morning, as I swiped open my morning online NYTimes, I was greeted by the Europe Edition of “Your Monday Briefing.” For the most part my “briefing” fell into the category of par for the course, but then I came to this: “Facebook’s executives held meetings with staff members and the company’s policy team to try to assuage concerns that misinformation and fake news articles shared on the platform had influenced the election’s outcome.” Hallelujah! Amen. It’s about time. I stopped reading here and hopped out of bed. I was ready to face the day eyes wide open, knowing that somewhere, someone important is actually concerned with our sanity, and with the dissonance created by social media and its ability to impact our lives and our world.
After getting my kids to school and to the nursery, I headed out for a run to clear my mind and honor my body. At the end of my workout, I decided to enjoy the sun and clear skies by taking the opportunity to meditate on a bench overlooking the lake at Parc de Castillon, where I had just completed my run. While I tried to focus on my breath, I found my mind intent on reviewing the past week, but eventually it came around, and I found a few moments of peace. While I was gazing calmly at the lake, a few ducks took flight and the water on the lake became slightly disturbed muddling the reflections that a moment before had been so clear.
The word “muddled” brought my mind abruptly back to the Facebook announcement on the NYTimes site. The idea of reflecting water, especially in meditation, is often used as a metaphor for a true snapshot of reality – calm water doesn’t lie – it simply reports back an accurate reflection of reality. This is what news should do. Of course, the news is reported by humans, and each of us has our own biases and backgrounds, but historically (say, before 1980 – ok, maybe 2000), journalists acknowledged their existing biases, and did a relatively decent job of providing consistent and accurate reporting of local, national and world events. Indeed, the press has long been called the Fourth Estate, the fourth check to balance and hold accountable the three official branches of the US government.
Unfortunately, water disturbed by playful ducks or turbulent weather loses its ability to reflect. First, the image becomes muddled, and then it is lost in its entirety. This is what has happened to our news. Not only has our government become weighted down by bureaucracy and our politicians bought by Wall Street, but our press has gone to the ducks. The internet has been called the great equalizer because the freedom of access to information has the potential to provide clarity, to provide accurate reflections from numerous points of access, to share knowledge in places and in corners of the world that were previously dark. Some online news sites have indeed achieved this goal with relative consistency, and online courses, such as the MOOCs provided through EdX are changing access to education and knowledge. Unfortunately, journalism, as it was once known, has for the most part been lost in the swamp of social media. Real newsgroups chasing dollar signs have become blurred with individual bloggers or and so-called pop-up “newsgroups.” All of them have run away with hidden agendas and often indiscernible biases to create, to bait and to launch storms of misinformation.
A few years ago there was concern that our online consumption and media consumption of news had become a little muddled, but traditional sources of news still provided reporting in a relatively consistent manner and we could rely on historically acknowledged reporting biases. No one expected that an article from Forbes would be anything but fiscally conservative. And even the Huffington Post, new type of media, had a clearly known liberal bias. And then the waters got dirty, dollar signs and greed further weekend traditional newsrooms, shutting them down and canceling budgets for true investigative journalists. Facebook made it possible to share articles and it started suggesting “similar pieces that we might like,” with zero accountability of fact checking or even judging the authenticity of the site that published the “news.” Bloggers and anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection, now suddenly had access to the public. And, in the fight for click-through dollars the Washington Post (now the WashPo), Forbes and just about everyone else loosened their publishing guidelines. Discretely at first, and then in sudden, frightening waves, the opinions of biased bloggers plugging real agendas started to fly across our Facebook feeds, discretely claiming authenticity because they had been published on the Forbes or the Washington Post weblog sites. To make matters worse, our TV news and everyone else joined the game, quoting, misquoting, distributing without fact checking. Our journalists have fallen overboard, and the public is caught down the rabbit hole, while the queen shouts “off with her head!”
I may have turned off Facebook to find my way up the rabbit hole, but I signed up for a paid version of the New York Times, to prevent the drowning of yet another bastion of journalists. I will confess that I have long been a critic of NYTimes paid access – I was once a paid print subscriber and then an early online convert — swearing to never read them after they blocked my free access. The New York Times may have a progressive bias, but it is a known bias and they have publicly made an effort to post conservative editorials over the years, to create balance and highlight their bias. The New York Times is indeed an outlier in a world of misinformation, and for me, they are also part of the path back to sanity and calm clear water. We need to find a way to separate our social media and opinion bloggers, from those that report the news. Social media is indeed vital to our freedom as a people and it is our right to express our opinions; however, when a lake reflects back the trees or mountains on her banks, she does not add her opinion or try to change their color from green to purple. Journalism needs to be water reflecting.
To help clear our muddled waters, my contribution, to start is this coming series on finding our Common Ground. I will be trying to publish several posts each week, so please excuse any grammatical or technical errors, with three small ones and a traveling spouse, if I got caught in a quest for perfection, I’ll never publish a word!