On Nov. 9, Jeff pondered the use of fictitious “facts” presented in the cable political arena–fictoids.
There was once a Chinese correspondent who filed a news story to his hometown newspaper, The Beijing Evening News, by copying an article from an American “newspaper.” A nice show of laziness, as he was not only plagiarizing but also taking his secret source, The Onion, too seriously and his journalistic task not seriously at all.
But you certainly don’t have to be a lazy Chinese correspondent to start spreading urban legends, and sometimes these legends have potentially much more damaging political consequences. Recall the thirty four warships that radio host Glenn Beck said were accompanying president Obama on his trip to Asia? (link) Or, heard about the re-posting of another article from The Onion on FoxNation.com last week without a clear statement from the editors that the source was the satirical paper? (See coverage of the issue at Gawker.)
Some people will say the darndest things in order to get attention, or better yet, to be of influence. Nothing new here. But with the ubiquitous political use of fictoids, one wonders to what extent the misinformation fundamentally damages our traditions of public deliberation. And those who help create and circulate fictoids around the world are often well rewarded: they get a lot of attention, potential influence, and a guarantee that many a media outlet and their guests will spend less time discussing considerably more important issues.
Will the debunking of fictoids contribute to a healthier form of discussion? As noted by earlier DC contributors, our media outlets are fragmented.(See for example Martin Plot’s Oppostion and Truth) It is helpful when Anderson Cooper deconstructs the hollow estimates of the costs of President Obama’s recent Asia trip. (link)
The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman even lauded Cooper for having done the country a favor. (link) But isn’t Cooper just preaching to the choir? If you are in the game for the attack and think that the means justify the end, you are not bothered by shame. And your friends and followers either haven’t heard of Anderson Cooper or will just laugh at him.
Obviously, Friedman still has faith in the role of the media as a watchdog. But the dog’s barking has gone on deaf ears. Is America slowly but surely becoming a consociational democracy in which society is segregated in “pillars” that are based on ideologies and religions? (See Arend Lijphart’s The Politics of Accomodation.) We should ask the Dutch and the Belgians about their experiences with a fragmented fourth estate. For many years, the political landscape and social institutions in the Netherlands have been divided between catholic, protestant, socialist and liberal blocs.
As a result, during most of the 20th Century, all Dutch protestants voted for the protestant party, attended protestant schools, exercised in protestant sport clubs, and only read and watched protestant newspapers and television broadcasts. The catholics and other groups also lived in their own isolated world. Belgians lived in a similar fragmented society, albeit made up of different groups. It will be interesting to learn something about the quality of public deliberation and the presence of fictoids in the Dutch and Belgian media. One thing is certain: no Dutch queen or Belgian king was ever accompanied by 34 warships on their tours.