Al-Jazeera gets a lot of crap. (I think most of this crap is pretty undeserved, but hey, they’re clearly and unflinchingly Arab nationalist.) Fox News also gets a lot of crap. (I tend to think much of this crap is deserved, but that’s just me.) But while each of these news sources has their vociferous detractors, each also has a loyal following of millions of consumers. I was having a discussion with my business partner a few weeks ago and I was lamenting that independent news sources were a dying breed and that, with the emergence of Fox News, each outlet appeared to be withdrawing into their respective political corners. I felt that this was somewhat dangerous as it tended to give viewers of this content a somewhat skewed version of reality. I mean, it is news, right? Isn’t it supposed to be a reporting of the facts, raw and unbiased in all their factual selves?
But Jason (my business partner) brought up a good point. Relatively neutral sources of news do still exist. The News Hour with Jim Lehr, for example. Jim seems to stay pretty focused on the events at hand without injecting personal opinion. Sure they have moderated discussions, but I would be hard pressed to find someone who felt these discussions somehow favored one point-of-view over the other. I mean, I think these guys recuse themselves from elections to maintain neutrality, for chrissake. Can you see Sean Hannity refusing to vote for Bush because it might make him appear biased?
Anyway, the point is that while these neutral news sources exist, people just aren’t really watching them like they used to. As Jason put it, “they’re voting with their feet.” News Hour just isn’t as exciting as Fox News. People seem to want to hear other people’s opinions about current events mixed in with the reporting of those events (screw waiting for Crossfire, just give me the bottom line). Maybe this helps viewers form stronger opinions. Maybe coming to these conclusions alone is too difficult. Maybe people just like to hear other from people who think like them, spoon feeding them the world with a utensil they’re comfortable with. Who knows… but the bottom line is, people like this stuff, and they’re watching it more than poor old Jim.
This continued to bother me until I began to look at things a little differently. Choice is one of the most fundamental characteristics of citizen’s media. One of the primary goals of citizen’s media is to give everyone a voice to go along with those ears. It is impossible to rail against the monolithic dictatorship that exists in today’s media market, and at the same time fight for a “neutral” monolithic source for information on current events.
The fact remains, myriad perspectives on any given topic may not yield to a consensus, but it will create a lively discussion and everyone will be more informed as a result. We’d need to provide a stage for every perspective, no matter how crazy or divorced from reality. We need to invite every person to participate, no matter how unorthodox their opinions. Let the marketplace decide which perspective is valuable and which is destructive. But most importantly, give every voice a microphone.
Now, this will indeed result in the further fracturing of society into micro communities. It will harden some people’s opinion and cause others to fully retreat into their own little reality (whether it is actually real or not.) But this process has always occurred in society. People have always gravitated towards those with similar perspectives and ideas. This existing predilection will just become fully expressed as the people actually begin to contribute to the discussion. Over time, these communities (unbound by location) will either grow or die based upon the strength of their beliefs (as with all cultural memes). What is important is that there are no limits to what can be expressed, no ideas too crazy to reach an audience, no opinion too extreme to yield a loyal following.
In the marketplace of ideas, two-way communication is essential and freedom of expression paramount. Let the war of ideas really commence; I’m confident that we’ll emerge from the other end with a more robust understanding of events and their impact on our society than at any other point in our short history.