Democracy and participation
I was having some fun yesterday ridiculing a Canadian blogger’s post rejoicing in the death of the newspaper. The first comment on David Eaves’ post, “Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy,” suggests a further exploration of his assumptions. This is the comment:
Simply put: Democracy thrives with participation. The old media isn't participatory, but the new media is based on that very premise.
So how participatory are we prepared to be? Before the drop in advertising revenue reduced newspapers to wafer-thinness, a common complaint from readers was that they didn’t have time to get through it all. But now that we have participatory media, we apparently have endless time.
Look at the news stories on sites that permit comments — a story followed by, say, 157 comments. After the first dozen, the responses become duplicative. Cranks arrive. If the comments are not mediated, there’s an excellent chance that the “conversation” will sink into vulgar abuse and the racists and anti-Semites will crawl out into the sunlight. And that is for one story. Who is prepared to do that repeatedly through the day?*
Wikipedia advises its readers — I am not making this up — not to rely on the accuracy of its entries, but to consult the citations linked to the entries. Who is going to do that? Who is going to reproduce the research? Who has the time for that? (Of course, once the wicked, undemocratic, authoritarian, paternalistic, hegemonic newspapers go out of business and I am put out on the street, I’ll have that kind of leisure; but I’m concerned about people who will still have jobs.)
There is, of course, no dispute that the expression of multiple points of view is healthy. That is the central argument of Milton’s great defense of freedom of the press in the Areopagitica, that truth and falsehood exist intermixed in the world, that it is our task to sort them out, and that only broad freedom of expression permits us to perform that task.
The question to be determined remains how the wider participation of the Internet will permit this. Yes, bloggers have broken important news stories. And bloggers have also contributed to a cacophony of rumors, most of them unfounded. The sorting-out of truth and falsehood remains, and bald pronouncements about how participation is good for democracy don’t really address that issue.
The thing that is essential to the success of democracy is accurate information. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the opening number of The Federalist: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Accurate information is what permits “reflection and choice” and protects us from “accident and force.”
It has been the task of the newspaper to perform the functions necessary to permit such reflection and choice: investigation and reporting, selection of significant information, verification of its accuracy, and publication in a clear and compact form. And despite the sneers at our outdated 19th-century industrial model, with reporters answering to assigning editors and copy editors independently examining the texts, we can still do the job tolerably well.
Whether the print newspaper will survive at all, or it what form it might survive, remains beyond me. But I remain clear on the point that the health of democracy will be better served by the continuation of forms of organized journalism — investigation, verification and selection — than by raw participation.
* I admit to a weakness for the comments at a few sites, such as Language Log, which appears to attract knowledgeable commenters, and Elizabeth Large’s Dining @ Large site, where the comments have considerable entertainment value. Look at “Vandals hit Iron Bridge Wine Company,” where the comments veer off from foie gras to the merits of different bourbons.