Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What hath God wrought?

...and that quote was about the telegraph.

I am not one who thinks the Internet, social media, smartphones and Twitter are the root of all evil. But one would be ignoring reality to claim the so-called "new media" haven't also brought with them a new set of problems, issues, ethical concerns, and long-term implications.

First of all, our attention spans -- dwindled by decades of television and trivia -- have been reduced to about eight seconds. Ominously, so, too, has the news cycle.

Errors in reporting in the aftermath of a catastrophic event are nothing new. Look up on YouTube the telecasts of  early reporting following JFK's assassination as but one example.

What has changed, though, is how quickly the errors can spread.

Sometimes it's personal. I learned in a span of 30 minutes a couple of Mondays ago that my dear friend and mentor Marvin West had died, came back from the dead, and -- ultimately -- was the "victim" of mistaken identity. Marvin laughed about it. He made me chuckle when I heard his voice, but I had to get the water out of my eyes first.

TV writer/producer/critic/cool cat Ken Levine found out what happens when a blog post goes viral. You could chalk it off to much ado about nothing until you stop to think about what transpired.

Ken was labeled a "hater" for daring to express an opinion about actor Zach Braff's decision to solicit funding for a movie project. He received a dramatic bump in visits to his blog. With them came the comments, which are to be expected, but also bring up a couple of points.

1. Why all this commotion about an actor while real problems remain in every community around the world? In community newspapering, we call it the "five people show up to discuss high-school curriculum but the place will be packed if you cancel prom" syndrome.

2. Debate and discussion have been replaced by cacophony often created by cowards who spew forth venom or worse from the safety of an anonymous online profile.

Agree, disagree, that's great. But turning it into mean, nasty, name-calling nonsense? Nah. Ken put his name on his piece. So should anyone who wants to comment. If you're going to make a fool out of yourself, have the guts (or the gall) to identify yourself.

Maybe things have been this way for a long time. Maybe it only seems like it's worse now because we have more access to it. But that line of defense smells suspiciously like the tail wagging the dog.

I cherish the relatively rare moments in which I have engaged in discussion with others -- about politics, religion, the infield fly rule, all the important things in life -- that didn't devolve into shouting contests in which everyone is trying to have the last word. Sadly, I can count such moments on one hand. OK, maybe one hand and two or three fingers.

People keep telling me that newspapers are dead, along with radio, nightly TV newscasts in the Cronkite sense, common sense, and several other things I adore.

I don't think that's quite true, but if it is, we've got some issues that should have been addressed yesterday.

If you get your news solely from a viewpoint with which you agree, you're simply reenforcing what you already believe. If you watch those Comedy Central late-night shows and think you're getting news, that's even scarier. Those places can be starting points or sources of pure entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that if you recognize it.

CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley delivered a thoughtful speech recently while accepting the 20th annual Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from the Quinnipiac University School of Communications.

Pelley admitted mistakes in his and his network's own reporting, which is honest, honorable, awesome.

And he said this: 

"Twitter and Facebook are not journalism, they are gossip. Journalism was invented as an antidote to gossip."

Recently, we've learned that the U.S. Department of Justice obtained the telephone records of Associated Press reporters in the aftermath of an AP story last year about a CIA-thwarted terrorism plot based in Yemen to bomb an airliner. We have also learned that the Internal Revenue Service targeted various groups with names that include words like "Patriot" and "Constitution" while reviewing 501(c)4 applications. Questions linger over the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

Meanwhile, folks are up in arms over Zach Braff's film fundraiser and a blogger's opinion about it.

See what I mean?

We've done this to ourselves, y'all, or at least fiddled while Rome burned.

 Oh, by the way, does the name Fred Friendly ring a bell? If not, look him up. He resigned from CBS News because the network chose to air an "I Love Lucy" rerun rather than the first Senate hearings examining the U.S.'s entry into the Vietnam War.

That was in 1966.

Watch Colbert and Stewart if you want. Watch FOX News or MSNBC or MTV or, God help you, the Kardashians.

But, please consider using more than one source (that goes for both media outlets and for consumers), think before you tweet, and be mindful of what used to be the No. 1 rule in Journalism 101. It applies to much in life.

"Trust, but verify."


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