Rory O'Connor on trust and truth


This week's Phoenix included a short excerpt of a Q-and-A I did with Rory O'Connor, the media critic and author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio. Here--finally!--is a full transcript of my chat with O'Connor, who recently returned to Boston as a fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy. 

Q. Why come to the Shorenstein Center at this particular point in time?

A. Very specifically, to look into what I think is one of the key issues in journalism right now, which is the issue of trust, or accountability, or credibility--i.e., how do we know that what we see and hear is really true? Obviously, that goes both ways. As you know, there’s a high level of distrust between the citizenry and the professional priesthood, whether on the right or on the left. On the right it’s the drive-by media, on the left it’s the corporate media, but they share some sort of distrust, if not a critique. And of course the professionals are very up in arms: they don’t trust the citizen journalism at all; they’re afraid of people getting their news and information from viral emails; but at the same time, they also know things are changing rapidly. Particularly in the newspaper business, but throughout the mainstream media, they feel--and they’re quite right--like they’re under assault. Something new is happening; they don’t know what it is; they’re trying to figure it out. This goes all the way back to the question whose heart we can’t seem to drive a stake through: can bloggers be journalists? I think it’s all the same issue. So this is an opportunity for me to come here and really try to dig down into it.

What I’m going to be looking at, quite simply, is trust, journalism, and social networks, and the role that they are playing and that they can play in enabling people to get news and information that they can trust--because obviously, that’s really vital to having a fully functioning democracy. And one could argue we don’t have one at the moment, or that we’re right on the edge of not having one. I think it’s a really central issue for media, but it’s also a central issue for democracy, and my interest lies at the convergance of media and democracy.

Q.--So how, in a best case scenario, do you envision social networks being used to get people trustworthy information?

A.--I already know how I’m beginning my research paper, and it’s anecdotally. There were two emails that almost everybody got in the first week of September; I got them, I’m sure you got them. One was from a woman named Anne Kilkenny in Wasilla, Alaska. And it was very good information--if true--about Sarah Palin from somebody who knew her and had worked with her. Wasn’t a screed, wasn’t angry. And I said Wow, if this is true--and I’ll have to check it out--this is better information than I’ve seen from the 15,000 journalists that are in St. Paul for the Republican National Convention [laughs]. Subsequently, not only did it check out, but then it became very meta, because the mainstream media started reporting on the Internet phenomenon and all that.

Three days later, another email arrived; it was a list of the books that Sarah Palin banned. Completely untrue. So this, in a nutshell, is what I’m looking at. Because if you look at the provenance of the emails, the information came through entirely new distribution channels, through social networks. I got the emails five or six times, each time from someone I knew well, so it was a trusted social network. One really good bit of information, one completely scurrilous bit of information about the same person. And I just thought those encapsulated everything I’m talking about, which is new mechanisms of getting news and information.

If you look at the Pew Survey from January, the rate is doubling, like every two years, of people getting their information from nontraditional sources. Obviously, the lower you go down in age, the higher the acceptance is. So, 18 to 24 year olds are getting 30 percent, as of January 2008, of their information first from social networks. People in the 50 to 60 category, the overall number was much less--but the rate was the same; it was essentially doubling every two years. Just project that out.

Q.--So are John McCain and the GOP being savvy in telling people: Don’t get your information from the media because they’re not trustworthy. Get it from the social network we’re going to provide for you?

A.--We know attacking the media is a time-honored tradition, and it hasn’t worked so well in the past. But I think it's working better now because of personalization — my Yahoo, my news, my Republican Party, my Democratic friends. And as people move away from the mainstream transition belts, everything becomes media. You’re getting pushed directly from the campaign, or seeing their information on YouTube — that’s media. You’re mashing it up and making something new: photoshopping and putting Sarah Palin’s head on top of somebody in a red, white, and blue bikini, holding a giant gun, which also wasn’t true. That’s media.

The other thing I want to look at is the mainstream media playing in fields of Facebook and MySpace. What are they doing? YouTube just partnered with the Pulitzer Center; CNN has a new thing going with Digg; everybody and their mother is on Facebook trying out things; Reuters built a bureau in Second Life. Nobody knows what if any of this stuff’s going to work, but they know something’s happening.

Q.--Are we approaching a point, in the media and across the broader culture, where the very notion of truth is in trouble? Is this a point of peril?

A.--I think it’s a big point of peril. But I also think that social networks are potentially the answer to that and the antidote to that, which is the other reason I’m really interested in them. As you probably know, I was pretty involved in the start of the social news network NewsTrust for that very reason. And it was great for me to be able to try out some of my ideas and see what works and what doesn’t.  But that was exactly the genesis of NewsTrust, just saying that with the crazed partisan nature--that’s the other factor in the 21st century, the last 10 years, is that the partisanization of political debate has also fed into having your blinders on and only talking to people that you agree with, only getting that news, because after all [the others] are the enemy, and they couldn’t have any good ideas or information because we’ve dehumanized them, whoever it is, right or left. And I just felt like a lot of likeminded people, whether they were on the right or the left or whatever, started saying, Look, this is really bad for our democracy. It’s not working anymore. And I think we can all agree that that’s bad. We may disagree on Sarah Palin or medical marijuana or whatever the issues are. Okay; reasonable people can disagree. But we all agree that without trustworthy news and information--yeah, we’re at a point of peril.

Q.--If you get to a point where people can’t even agree on what the basic facts are, let alone to have a conversation across party lines--

A.--You really have no community, you have no comity, you have no common ground. Yeah, then the essence of what a democracy is about, the country itself.... I don’t want to overstate it. But the answer is yes, actually.

On the other hand, there are some good aspects of it, because people have recognized the problem and they’re starting to deal with it. They’re saying, Are there mechanisms that can combat this? Nobody knows the answer yet.

With NewsTrust, I went in being a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd. And now I think it’s the wisdom of the community, ironically, and the crowd is like a mob; you get this partisan bleed-in from the crowd. It’s hard to get that reptilian brain to step aside. Or people are trying their experiments on Facebook, or partnering with the Youtubes of the world.

So I also think this [Shorenstein Fellowship] will be a great launching pad to reach out to Mark Zuckerberg, for example, who started Facebook so long ago right here at Harvard. We’ve got a brown-bag lunch coming up with one of the YouTube fellows. I’m going to talk to them and see what their perspective is, and then I’m going to talk to [inaudible] at ABC News, who’s in charge of what they’re trying to do with Facebook. What are you trying to do? What does it all mean? How do the big boys think?

Because look: whether it’s Jayson Blair in the New York Times, or Matt Drudge online, or the second Sarah Palin email that came from your trusted friend--if you’re getting bad information it’s a bad thing for you; it’s a bad thing for society; it’s a bad thing for democracy. Because that’s what the whole thing is founded on. You’ve got the information; go out and exercise your choice. But people are making choices based on made-up information, sponsored columns, information dominance.

It’s all about the media now; this is what I tell people. For years Danny [Schechter, with whom O'Connor founded the Media Channel and Globalvision) have been going out talking to church groups, NGOs, unions, whatever they are, and we say look; whatever your story is, the second story, the other story, is always the media story. And if your story isn’t being covered by the media--of course the media’s important. We don’t just say that because we’re media people; we say it because it’s become absolutely central to every aspect of our lives and what we’re doing. So if you’re a union, you need to understand the media, and you need to control your own message. We’re all now media makers, we’re all media distributors, and we have these unparalleled tools--including tools that can make things appear to be as they are not very easily.

At the beginning of the Internet, the first response was, Look at all this information--this is great! And then the second wave was like, Oh my God, look at all this information; this is horrible! I’m deluged! What’s the filtering mechanism? One of the things about NewsTrust--high quality organizations like AP or Fact Check, they’re high quality because they closely monitor the content. But it doesn’t scale, because they need humans to do it. Fact Check can only fact check ten articles a day; the AP can only put out the AP and get it right. On the other hand, Digg scales because you’ve got free labor, millions of people. But what are they doing? They’re saying I like it, or I don’t like it. But there’s no quality; it’s scaleable but there’s no quality. So we’re trying to get to a middle ground where we can take “ordinary” people, people who want to be informed, give them a little bit of information, a little bit of training, a little bit of media literacy, and then have them volunteer, or do it for fun online. Rate stuff, but rate it according to the quality--not just  I like it or I don’t like it.

Which is essentially what NewsTrust is doing right now.

That’s what it’s attempting to do, exactly. Some people have said it’s Digg for grownups in a way. What Digg is trying to do in some respects is very powerful. On the other hand, it’s often silly; it gets very easily gamed. You like it? Why do you like it? Because it’s good information, or because you agree?

Q.--What if anything has been disappointing about the News Trust model? Or are you totally pleased with it?

A.--I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed or pleased. It’s a learning experiment. If you try something and it doesn’t work, are you displeased? No, you learn something. What I will tell you is that I think for this thing to work, it has to work for young people, and NewsTrust still skews old. It skews old for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s very text-oriented, still, and young people want rich media. So I was pushing them to move in that direction. But there’s also a tension between the ease of use and the degree that you can get into the quality. I actually had a woman who shall remain unnamed, but who writes for the New York Times, who said, I don’t like to do it because I actually have to read the articles. Of course you do! It takes a little bit of time commitment, and we’re in this ADD culture. But quality also demands a bit of investment on the part of the user. But I think it’s not too much to ask for democracy. If you want to be a citizen, you have to be an informed citizen. That also requires a little bit of work and effort on your part.

Q.--Has the McCain campaign been less respectful of the Truth, with a capital T, than the Obama campaign?

A.--I wouldn’t want to compare the two. I will tell you what I see as being a sea change, and this is a point I heard Jack Nelson making on NPR, so I should credit him. Politicians have always fudged the truth in their ads; they want to get elected. Someday we should take a look at the fact that the qualities necessary to get elected may not be the best qualities to govern. But anyway: that’s time-honored; it’s not going to change. What has changed is, it used to be that in the past, if you fudged the truth and the press came along and said, well, not quite right, or this isn’t accurate, then you retreated. Now they just continue to repeat what’s already been judged inaccurate over and over again.

That’s the sea change on the part of the politicians, but do I blame them? No. I blame the media and the citizenry that let them get away with it. The information is out there; enough people are now saying it’s lies, it’s not even inaccuracies. As I said, people need to work; that information is available, so if you go out and get it, you can make your own judgement. This is why people need to get trustworthy news and information,  so they can make their own decisions. Now, if their decision is, the McCain camp was lying in that ad, because I saw four articles that told me this isn’t true--that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Or if they catch Obama?

This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s not a right-left issue. It’s a democracy issue. Let’s get real facts in people’s hands and let them decide. If they decide McCain’s a better president, so be it. I don’t have a problem with that as long as it’s based on good information, and not on the crazy stuff that’s out there, whether it’s coming from the McCain camp or not. There’s a lot of bad information. I don’t want people voting against Barack Hussein Obama because they got an email saying he’s a Muslim. He’s not a muslim, for God’s sakes! Remember that crazy Christian pastor of his? How can he be a Muslim who’s got a crazy Christian pastor?

Q.--You’re very eloquent on the dangers of the current media landscape. Do you ever get a little nostalgic for the era when we had Walter Cronkite giving us the voice of God, telling us what we needed to know?

A.--No, I don’t. At Global Vision, we’re all about diversity; we’re about more voices and more choices. I’m a great admirer of Mr. Cronkite; he’s been an advisor and a supporter of ours; I love the man and I love his analysis of the media. But do I long to go back to the days when there were only three networks, and you had to have your news appointment at night, and one person like Walter Cronkite had so much power? No, absolutely not.

We were fortunate in those days that the person who had that much power was Walter Cronkite. Today it’d probably be Bill O’Reilly. I don’t want that much power concentrated in one person’s hands; I don’t want it concentrated in three networks’ hands.

I am not at all nostalgic. I actually think this is one of the most exciting times to be alive and involved in the media in history. I deal with a lot of young people all the time, and that’s what I tell them. A lot of them hear the doom and the gloom: Newspapers are going out of business, don’t go into journalism, it’s all cutbacks. But in fact, it’s just changing. It’s changing rapidly; it’s very dynamic; there’s a lot going on. There are a lot of great jobs to be had, maybe not at newspapers. It’s a time of ferment, which means it’s a time of great opportunity. If we seize it.

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