As Truth Falls, The Internet Rises

Lots of bloggers are buzzing about the foibles and fallacies of the CNN/YouTube Republican debate. "It's a marketing ploy." "A populist sham." "A Liberal distortion of Republican politics." "A degradation of meaningful debate." They may be right, but they're all missing a profound insight about media and politics that this alliance represents. The Internet is now the most trusted medium for news.

How can I claim this? And how could it be true? Isn't the Internet the place where nothing can be trusted, where a corporate executive can creatively edit his own bio on Wikipedia, where journalist-wannabes circulate rumor as truth, where videos of stupid dog tricks live side-by-side with gripping cell-phone footage of hurricanes, kidnappings, and political bloopers?

I can say this because I've recently heard people talking about the Internet differently than they were just a few years ago. Let me back up a bit. I've been in the world of media and marketing for 25 years. In that time, I've had cause to interview a lot of people on how they feel about news, media, and their lives. Recent focus groups, as conducted by the Cognitive Anthropologist Dr. Robert Deutsch, seem to suggest that although Americans continue to doubt the veracity and intentions of traditional news media, they trust the Internet as a tool to help them make sense of the news. I've included a wide variety of quotes from average news consumers to illustrate this story.

To understand current beliefs, one has to look at the national news media over the last few decades, how it has changed, and most importantly, how it lost its grip on truth. There has been a long, steady slide of the media's perceived authority since 1970, when Cronkite, Brinkley, and Howard K. Smith ruled the airwaves. Part of the slide is numbers driven. When there were only three national sources of news -- all of which were covering the same stories with a relatively neutral bias -- then it was natural to trust what was being reported as true. This was the period of the Omniscient Truth-teller, when broadcast television was dominant and exclusive. This authority cracked with the advent of cable.

In 1980, CNN burst on the scene with 24/7 footage of events covered in a way never before seen. News became immediate and more experiential. People could watch the first Persian Gulf War, live with the reporter, from inside Baghdad. It was the right format for the right time. With globalization directly affecting the lives of Americans -- providing new growth for American companies while eliminating middle-class jobs -- people needed to see what was going on in the world for themselves, they needed to see what was coming at them. It was the period of Empirical Evidence. This is when the locus of truth began to shift. Truth was no longer embodied in the storyteller or his interpretation, it was in the media's "boots on the ground," its capability to enable viewers to witness foreign people, places, and events.

Then came Fox News, "Fair and Balanced." The Fox News franchise was built on the proposition that it was the only truth-teller. And, it consistently inoculated every story with its point of view. Regardless of the veracity of its reporting, its style of journalism caught on. It was a voice for a new political age, a reassertion of American rightness and power, the age of Subjective Certainty. This is when national news sources became more and more overtly biased to the point where people began tuning them out as nothing more than "talking heads." The myth of objectivity was shattered, and with it, the mantle of trustworthiness. As one television viewer said "Now you've got MSNBC, NBC, CNN, CNBC, and they're all on 24/7...everyone just wants to blast you with opinions."

Simultaneously arising in this period was the increasing blatancy of spin -- Bill Clinton's questioning what "the definition of 'is' is" and the Karl Rove factor, in which all aspects of public policy were driven by politics and propaganda. Lastly, with the "embedding" of journalists in Desert Storm and all the ramifications that followed, people began to perceive the government and the media as monolithic destructive forces. Consider these quotes from news consumers, "The government has changed. It's against the people. It lies to the people. You can't trust it anymore." "The media is a big machine. It's like the wizard behind the curtain. "Catastrophe is what these people [the media] live for." "The media feeds on destruction." One can almost hear public opinion hitting rock bottom.

Enter stage left, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. These Siamese twins of "Nattering Nabob" Journalism are the Phoenix rising from the ashes of political and media credibility. We need no further evidence of this than Steven Colbert's contribution of the word "truthiness" to the American lexicon (named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster according to Wikipedia). However, if you prefer numbers to words, just take a look at the "believability" and "favorability" ratings for news media in the Pew Research Center's report on "Press Values and Performance: 1985-2007." The ratings for all traditional news media have continued to drop steadily since 1985.

Distrust of the media shouldn't be confused with dislike of the media. Everyone has a favorite news source. And everyone tends to trust certain sources more than others. However, people no longer believe that the truth can be found in the media. As a loyal newspaper reader complained, "The media has an obligation to give you accurate information, tell you the whole story, and report the truth, but it doesn't." To many news-consumers, truth is illusive, hidden, un-findable, unknowable, and unspeakable. Listen to the deep skepticism in these quotes: "Who knows who's telling the truth." "There are a lot of questions. Nobody is saying anything." Lastly, "I want to know what nobody can tell me."

So, if people believe the truth is beyond their reach, how do they function, how do they live relatively normal lives? In general, they consume as much news as they can manage, form a loose understanding, and then go with their gut. As one person said "There's so much information. You can read five different papers and get five different opinions on one topic. So who's right? You're going to say 'Well, I'm leaning towards this,' and make some unconscious decision." Since people can't witness the news first-hand, and since all public officials spin the facts, and since all media distorts and exaggerates, going with their gut is the only option people have left. It is -- in fact -- the most highly adaptive approach to living in the "hall of mirrors" that mediated life has become. As one man stated "It's up to the person to make it all make sense." As another wistfully said "I have to do it for myself. I'm alone."

With the news media having lost its authority, and with truth as unknowable, how does the Internet fare in public opinion? Surprisingly, it appears that the Internet is becoming the most trusted medium for truth. In a world where you have to consult and cross-reference multiple sources to decide what's true about anything (whether it be a news event, a mutual fund, or a movie), the Internet is the best -- and only -- medium that allows one to do this. Thus, it is the Internet's utility as a research tool that makes people feel that it is working for them and on their behalf. Here are a series of quotes that illustrate the Internet's perceived value as the new uber-source for news: "I go to specific news sources for each topic. It's online. It only takes two seconds." "With online, you can go deeper, get other points of view, get more specific information, be more up to real time." The superiority of the Internet is powerfully stated by this woman, "The Internet rises above everything else because it delivers everything."

Also, the Internet -- and YouTube in particular -- is a place where people can see and hear themselves in more natural ways. People gravitate to this because they feel the traditional media are distorting their lives: "We don't get heard in this country....What we hear is what the newspapers tell us, what the television tells us, what the radio tells us. That's all we hear." User-generated content provides the perceived credibility that people seek. It suggests authenticity without agenda. It bypasses the institutional bias of politicians and reporters and returns people to what they all feel deep down, as this news consumer says: "We're the normal ones." In other words, they can only trust themselves and people like them, not news professionals. That's why the CNN/YouTube alliance happened and that's what makes it so significant to media and politics today.
There is a cliché in the Internet business now, "the consumer is in control." In terms of media and advertising consumption, it's largely true. But, in existential terms, it's never been less true. It is a difficult and disquieting task to have to navigate a world where truth is unknowable. Perhaps, this is why religious fundamentalism has made a comeback. However, in lieu of the Almighty, the rest of us have just the Internet to rely on. And, we do.