The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Journalism Cannot Be Neutral

I was otherwise busy, but Irene had time to catch Jim Lehrer's lecture to the Journalism school this evening. (He gave a similar talk at my alma mater last month.) Lehrer upheld the conventional tenets of journalism; he is alarmed at the decay of discourse, but it seems Gore and Gingrich agree on that too.

It's an important question, how we came to this pass.

I suspect, and here Lehrer will not agree, that responsible, staid journalism like his, as practiced in America, is part of the problem. The attempt at "balance" requires some definition of the scope of acceptable opinion. As Eli taught me, the implicit limits of discourse, which oddly include Singer and exclude Lovelock, for instance, is called the Overton WIndow in some circles.

Here's an easy place to start. As Gore suggests, don't give equal time to sense and nonsense.

If the window of acceptable opinion doesn't move with the evidence, journalists aren't doing their job of presenting evidence. If they hold a misguided scruple against making judgments, the window will wander around in ways that don't have much to do with reality. That's when Mamet's principle kicks in, that's why we have lost the capacity to cope collectively, and that's why at this point all genuine optimism in America is centered around the idea of abandoning the collective altogether, which unfortunately won't work.

Jim Lehrer is a very nice man, a very smart man, a very serious man, and a very well-intentioned man. And Jim Lehrer is part of the problem.

Update: The CBC ombudsman is quoted as follows on DeSmog:
"The CBC, in its decision making process, is entitled to make its own editorial determination about what opinions are in the mainstream, and need to be reflected, and what opinions are on the margins, and can be given the editorial hook they so often deserve…"
That is pretty much the point. Journalism is not only entitled to make such decisions. It is obligated to do so, and it is obligated to do so responsibly and competently. That is what we pay our journalists for.

3 comments:

RM Reiss said...

The "window of acceptable opinion" is a lovely image.

On a related subject, came across this from the Revkin blog at the NY Times, about how best to explain climate change to the public:

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/the-porn-factor-in-the-climate-fight/

Some interesting comments too, like # 12.

Re-launching Sputnik might help.

Anonymous said...

Michael,

regarding the recent developement in global C emissions, interesting economist opinion can be found here:

http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/684

Best,
Alexander Ac

Richard said...

That economist opinion, above, *is* interesting.

In the future of fossil fuels it seems there are three outcomes -- they will all be burned (quickly), they will all be burned (at a decreasing rate, which can be somehow compensated), or we will somehow shift off them before burning every last available drop.

Perhaps suppliers should be required to create compensating carbon sinks for each unit of fossil fuel they produce. Rather than putting the carbon tax on the consumption side, tax the source. And the world of consumers would then be in equal balance, and conservation efforts in Europe would not be for naught. Not sure what international body would accomplish this, however. (To put it mildly.)

The opposite approach, as developed by Cheney and co., described here in the London Review of Books:

http://tinyurl.com/28tvzp