What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism

June 9, 2011

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you for joining us this afternoon.

Our speaker is former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. This afternoon he will be discussing the business of news, helping us to understand its dwindling readership and what we can do about it. We are delighted to welcome this veteran journalist, Jack Fuller, to our program.

By now, most of you have heard that the newspaper industry is in danger. Rocked by declining print circulation, loss of advertising revenues, and facing competition from a variety of new players, newspapers, the traditional bedrock of American journalism, appear to be facing a do-or-die scenario.

Many explanations have been given as to why this is happening now. Mr. Fuller posits that the information environment we are living in has changed. While shifts in reading habits are certainly factors that have contributed to the demise of the news business, there is another factor that our guest considers. In What Is Happening to News, Mr. Fuller looks to neuroscience to help find the answers to solve this problem. By exploring recent discoveries in this field, he finds reasons to explain why traditional journalism no longer meets the needs of contemporary audiences. He writes about how the information overload of contemporary times creates a situation where our brains are drawn to more emotional presentation of information, in contrast to the objective, detached voice of journalism in the past.

The challenge is for modern journalism to reshape the reporting of the moment and adjust it to the way our minds actually function.

How the newspaper business can reengage with a modern audience so that independent reporting can continue to thrive is the question of the day. But where does one begin? Mr. Fuller stresses that we first need to know the landscape of where we are now.

To guide us, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a special guest, Jack Fuller.

Thank you for coming.

Remarks

JACK FULLER: Thank you very much.

I'm going to be talking to you today about a number of changes in news that pose ethical challenges to journalists committed—as all journalists should be—to the goal of providing information that people need to make good political and other decisions. I'll be talking about news, not newspapers. I won't be talking about certain aspects of the newspapers' situation that you have probably read a lot about. The changes I'll be discussing require journalists to revise and refine a number of aspects of the model of professionalism that they operate by. This model dates back more than a century.

In order to understand what needs to be done, we have to begin by understanding what is actually happening to news. Let's start with this basic question: Why are people increasingly choosing professionally undisciplined news reports over those that, for all their human failures, at least try to be accurate, complete, and intellectually honest?

There are lots of other questions about the future of journalism and the challenge of how to provide a day-to-day civic education, and newspapers and traditional news organizations have concentrated, for obvious reasons, on the business-model question, because the business model has been overwhelmed by the onslaught of new competition.

But the change in behavior in the audience is most critical over the long haul. The reason I say that is because in the end we are going to get the news that we choose, and so the way we behave as an audience is going to be determinative.

A Sunday ago, the public editor of The New York Times questioned why his newspaper was paying so much more attention than before to such things as vampires, werewolves, and the mental breakdown of Charlie Sheen. There's a painfully simple answer to that question. It's because the Times knows that its readers are paying more attention to those things.

You might also ask why the Times news coverage, once great, gray, and proudly dullish, has increasingly departed from strict political neutrality. For those of you who object to that characterization of the Times, I'll put it a different way: Why have the shrill commentators on Fox News and CNBC so thoroughly beaten the more traditional journalists on CNN?

To understand why, we have to look beyond the changes in the news environment and focus on changes in the information environment as a whole. A half-century ago, when television was on the rise, some saw a vast wasteland spreading across the nation, parching our souls. Others thrilled at the prospect of a medium that would get transmitted instantaneously from coast to coast, in effect closing the last great frontier.

As we now understand what effect television really had, we understand that its effect on politics was to destroy the traditional political parties and replace face-to-face contact with broadcast imagery as the key to election success. We also understand that, on the nonpolitical side, one of the deepest consequences of television was to reduce communication within families, as an impersonal device commanded attention the way a charming, loquacious uncle at the kitchen table might once have done.

Marshall McLuhan said a lot of stupid things and a lot of inscrutable things, but he was right about this: The very nature of a medium is much more powerful than the content that flows through it.

Have you seen the television ad, which begins with a police officer getting ready to break down a door? Before he does, he turns to look out through the screen at you, the audience, and says, "Hey, Marcel, watch this." Then a basketball player gets ready to fire a three-pointer, but before he does, he calls out, "Marcel, watch this." Eventually a frustrated weatherwoman leans in our direction and just cries out, "Marcel!"

It's a perfect metaphor for the information environment in which we live. Significantly, the tagline is, "In the network there are no hard choices." Why? Because you can watch four things at once with this cable service that's being advertised.

What is so new about the information environment in which we now live is that it has immersed us in constant, unrelenting messages, many of which call out to us by name. TV doesn't call to us by name yet, but we face a barrage of emails demanding immediate attention; offers to buy things from vendors who know we will probably want them because they know what we have bought in the past, because we have let them know; telephone solicitations from nonprofits to which we have exposed our generosity; and on and on.

What has this immersion done to us, and how has that affected our behavior at a deep level? The key to this is to be found in affective neuroscience—the physiology and functionality of emotion. Contrary to what you might once have been taught, we do not only use 10 to 20 percent of our brains; we use it all. Processing power is a scarce resource, and emotion can preempt other demands on this resource and devote it to something of importance to us. Emotion commands our attention. That's what it's for. In the simplest evolutionary terms, this means that we tend to be drawn, for example, to that which is dangerous to us or that which offers us the opportunity to procreate. Another way of putting that is, sex sells, which we all know.

The new information environment broke down most barriers to competition for our attention, which is why we are immersed in messages like never before, why it is so hard for anybody to get Marcel to watch. So competitors use emotion to get our attention.

If you watch the National Geographic Channel or Wild Kingdom, you will have noticed that a huge proportion of the shows on those channels involve predators, particularly predators of humans, and sometimes human predators of humans. This is not a coincidence.

The remarkable thing is not that message senders in a highly competitive environment use emotion, or try to, to attract us. They have been doing that since people started telling stories and trying to get other people's attention. The remarkable thing is that we are increasingly drawn to this kind of appeal.

Here is the reason: Neuroscientists have learned that certain kinds of cognitive challenges—think of them as intellectual challenges, thinking challenges—produce emotional arousal. By emotional arousal, I don't mean any particular emotion, like love or sadness. A brain teaser is not what most anybody thinks of as a love potion. What I'm talking about when I say emotional arousal is a kind of general mental rheostat. At its highest setting, you can think of emotional arousal as stress.

Some folks find it a little hard to accept that cognitive challenge produces emotion, because we have been taught for millennia that reason and emotion are quite separate, with reason being the important part of our minds and emotion a lower order of brain work. Plato would have been appalled to think that any kind of intellectual stimulation provoked our emotions. But some kinds do it every time.

Here's what works. In fact, it works so well that it's one way neuroscientists arouse the brains of experimental subjects so that they can study them in an emotional state. Give a person a very difficult cognitive task, like a mind-bending anagram or a seven-digit into 13-digit long division problem. That itself will cause some arousal. But to turn up the rheostat, make a person do another task at the same time, even a simple one. Have her push a button indicating whether a red light or a green light on the desk has just lighted up, for example. This turns the rheostat up significantly. Then provide a lot of information to the subject, some of it relevant, some of it utterly irrelevant. Up the rheostat goes. Set a time limit. Up it goes again. Then—the most powerful of all arousers—repeatedly interrupt her as she tries to do her task. Now she's in the red zone.

One fundamental characteristic of an emotionally aroused brain is that it is drawn to emotionally hot stimuli. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it in evolutionary terms. Imagine one of our very distant ancestors on the African savannah. The sounds of rustling in the brush have gotten his attention, but there are a lot of other things going on. There are wildebeests leaping. There are garish birds flocking overhead. Distant elephants are trumpeting. It would not be helpful for this brain to be drawn to these stimuli as much as to the glimpse of a lion in the brush. And his brain isn't drawn to them rather than to the lion. It focuses on the lion, which is, by the way, why he's our ancestor.

The information-immersed environment in which we live is precisely the kind of place that presents us with the very kinds of cognitive challenges that produce emotional arousal—multitasking, too much information, constant interruption, time pressure. That is why even the readers of The New York Times are increasingly drawn to things like watching a middling actor fall to pieces before our very eyes, and the National Geographic Channel viewers still watch another show about poisonous snakes or spiders.

This is not going to abate. The continued increase in computing power and bandwidth for sending messages is going to increase the emotionally arousing aspects of our environment for a long time. This is not good news for those of us who care deeply about the civic education of the public or for those of us who write literary novels, as I try to, or books about neuroscience. But there it is.

In order to be effective civic educators, journalists are going to have to use new techniques to get and hold people's attention, a new rhetoric for news. The challenge is greatest when the subject is complicated or subtle.

But there are examples of how it can be done. Public radio's reports on the financial crisis, some of them done by the remarkable Ira Glass, managed to explain the inscrutable in a quite creative and thoroughly engaging way that departed in a number of respects significantly from the traditional model of professional journalism that I enforced and lived by all my life.

Creativity is going to be the key. But the first ethical principles for serious journalists haven't changed. They are twofold, and they are imperative: first of all, verification of the facts; and importantly in the context of the processes that I have been describing to you, it's imperative that journalists decide what is important to report first, before thinking about how to reach an audience. Deciding what will reach an audience first and only communicating is what gives us Entertainment Tonight and "Page Six" of the New York Post.

Plato saw this a long time ago, and as he put it, "The art of speech displayed by one who has gone chasing after beliefs instead of knowing the truth will be a comical sort—in fact, no art at all." His point was that you had to figure out what was right to say before deciding how to collect an audience for it.

Journalists will also have to fashion a way to think through using emotion to get information through to people. We have always done it, but serious journalists have always held back a good bit. As a consequence, we don't have a good way of thinking or talking about what is manipulative and what is not. We need to develop one, and fast.

I'm going to take a pretty quick turn from neuroscience to talk about two other powerful forces that help explain why the public is behaving the way it is today, both as consumers of media and as the electorate. By the way, the political behavior of the electorate shapes the political behavior of political actors just as surely as media-consumption patterns shape the media.

I'll treat the first force briefly. It's the intellectual climate that we inherited from the 20th century. It's a climate of profound skepticism. We seem to have lost confidence in our ability to know and communicate about reality. At its extreme, which has been reached often in academia, this means that nobody can decide whether your report of reality is more valid than my report of reality, your interpretation of a novel or a poem is more valid than my interpretation of a novel or a poem, or God forbid, your values are better than my values.

These ideas, these deeply skeptical ideas, have been presented to generations of students in college and beyond, and have insinuated themselves deeply into the thinking of people who have never heard of Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel or Jacques Derrida. It has become so commonplace that you barely even hear it when people say it anymore—"it all depends on your point of view."

Of course, in one sense, it does, but in another sense it doesn't. There are some reports of the way physical bodies relate to one another and move that are better than others. If you rely on the wrong or worse one to try to get to the moon and back you are going to fail. In other words, even the most radical skeptics, at some level, have to acknowledge that some ways of talking about reality are better than other ways. And yet, in the world that our children and their children have been immersed in, in the academic world, this idea has been eroded deeply.

I was on a BBC radio show a while back. A veteran BBC correspondent of about my age and I were being interviewed by two younger BBC journalists. One of the interviewers rather heatedly at some point demanded of the foreign correspondent, "Why do you get to decide what's significant and what's not?" something that all of us who have been in journalism have heard from time to time.

He seemed to be struggling a little with that, and so I foolishly decided I would jump in and come to his rescue. I suggested that a lifetime of making judgments about what will affect history might make you a little better at that than someone who hadn't devoted their lifetime to that task, but had devoted it to other tasks. She was absolutely not persuaded. And she was a journalist. This was a journalist who was talking to us. Is it any wonder, then, that fewer and fewer non-journalists believe that journalists' disciplines might make their reports more reliable than those of others who do not even try to be disciplined?

I turn now to one last cause of the change in the news audience. When the Internet emerged, our social history was just waiting for it. Let me explain what I mean.

At least since the run-up to the American Revolution, our history has oscillated slowly between trust in expertise and belief in the wisdom of the crowd. The revolution was mobilized and the Constitution eventually written, for the most part, by lawyers and the landed. They were students of the classics and products of the Enlightenment. Because of this, they both believed in democracy and understood its flaws. The Constitution they wrote both empowered and restrained the people.

Expansion westward broke down the authority of these federal period elites. If you want a name for the new era, call it the period of Jacksonian democracy. If you want a sad chronicler of the time, read Henry Adams. Or you could call this period the ascendancy of Grant and Lincoln. But either way you talk about it, as Jacksonian democracy or the ascendancy of Lincoln and Grant, really misstates the phenomenon, because the large forces were not embodied in great historical figures. The real force was a diffusion of power across the landscape.

As we grew, though, over the course of the 19th century, so did the railroads and the telegraph. Eventually these created large markets that required central organization. The growth of larger and more complex institutions eventually gave rise, around the turn of the 20th century, to the Progressive Era, with its belief in professionalism, expertise, and the scientific method. Soon there was a science of business management. There was a science of public policy. There was a science of journalism. I always wondered why my degree from Northwestern was a BS, a bachelor in science, not a BA, since I didn't feel like I learned too much science in journalism school. I didn't even have a science requirement, if I remember right.

FDR
's New Deal, led largely by intellectual elites, along with World War II's great victory of central organization and hierarchy, both in the military and in the private sector, continued this momentum.

The late 1960s youth revolution looked as though it might drive the other direction, but it ended pretty much when the draft ended.

What finally powered the reversal in this cycle, which was long overdue, was the Internet. Some historians actually predicted it, not forcefully, because they didn't understand the Internet quite. But there were people who were saying, "It's time that the cycle reverses, and these message boards on computers look like an interesting systemic thing that might cause some change."

Little did they know. The Internet broke down barriers to communication, let anybody communicate to anybody at any time. It created a nearly perfect marketplace of ideas, perfect in the technical sense, and it overthrew the experts, starting with the experts in delivering a day-to-day civic education—that is, the professional journalists.

In summary, then, our deep-rooted skepticism, the way our brains work, and a resurgence of belief in the wisdom of the crowd, which we sometimes now winsomely call "the hive," has overturned the public's reliance on expertise in our public affairs. Given all that, is it any wonder that we have not developed a new Walter Cronkite? I'm afraid that in today's environment, such measured voices wouldn't get an audience, at least not the huge audience that Cronkite got. In fact, I suspect that today Cronkite on commercial television would be canceled.

The creation of our present situation is not the result of any one thing or even just the three factors that I described. It is tempting to be either nostalgic or afire with utopian hope at moments, like this, of dramatic change. I am neither. The Internet is not making us stupid, but it is making us different. We are not entering a new dark age, but neither have we found a way to wash away the flaws in human nature by the application of the technique of the wiki or social media.

I'm sure that you will all have your own views of all these changes and of the ethical challenges that they present us. It's best, in this interactive world of ours, now to thank you and turn the floor over to you.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you. William Verdone.

What is, in your opinion, the single biggest threat that we have on the media in terms of social networking?

JACK FULLER: The thing that concerns me the most is the question of how we attract a large public enough to give them a day-by-day civic education, with the kind of information that they need and that we need as a republic for them. That worries me. I think back, just to use the old media, the old newspaper of my own experience—a focus group of one—when I was the editor of the Tribune, on Sundays we reached between 35 and 40 percent of all households in the six-county metropolitan area of Chicago. That's a lot of households, and that's a wide segment of the audience. I'm under no illusion that even one person in the 40 percent of households that we reached with a big, fat newspaper on Sunday actually read it all or even read the front page, but an awful lot read part of it. Most people were exposed to something.

Today most of those people don't read a newspaper at all anymore. The newspapers that they read are much less comprehensive, at least in metro areas like Chicago. I'm not talking about the nationals, although many of them have also declined in size and scope.

So who is reaching this large body of people that used to be reached, at least in some way, by papers that were serious about what they did? [Shows his iPhone.]

Yes and no. That will give you headlines. We know people are using those a lot on the Internet. But most things that are very important—having been an old headline writer—are not easy to capture in a headline. You need a few more sentences than one to explain some of these things.

That's what I really worry about. How are we going to get the attention of people? How is a new generation of journalists going to creatively engage a large, large number of people?

I would imagine that people in this room will find a way to educate themselves daily, or most days, in a serious way. And there will be ways to do that for people who are really set on doing it. But most people don't read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. They watch the evening news or the nightly news at 10:00-11:00 in New York, 9:00-10:00 in Chicago. And that's worthless, except they get the weather for the next day. It tells you nothing about what happened in the world. It tells you nothing about what happened in the United States. It tells you very little bit about what happened in the city where you live, except that there's another gurney coming out of another three-flat with somebody dead on it or another place has burned up—which, by the way, are the kinds of emotional things that are very attractive.

Why does that work? It works for the same reason that everybody looks when they pass an accident on the highway.

My biggest concern is that. I'm worried about the business models. I'm worried about the education. But fundamentally I'm worried about how you engage people again, the large center of the country—I don't mean the physical center or geographic center, but the large center of the country—in any serious way.

There have been some very interesting studies—I'll stop so that other people can get a question in. I'll try not to filibuster here. There have been great studies about what happened when cable television came in and the effect that that had on behavior patterns and our political process. The important thing that happened wasn't CNN. The important thing that happened was that the reruns of the I love Lucy show were an alternative to the evening news.

The three networks, which, when they were dominant, all did news at the same time—most people didn't turn off the television. They were addicted to television, so they would actually watch the news. And they learned a fair amount by watching the news, even though they weren't news seekers that were deeply engaged in it. That learning made them more likely to participate in the political process and vote. Those people were not real intense. They weren't news seekers. They weren't passionate about some cause or another. If they were, they probably were news seekers. These people were normal people, for whom the news was kind of interesting.

Once they had an alternative to Huntley-Brinkley and Cronkite and whoever it was when cable television came in, they switched away from broadcast news, and that contact learning went away.

One more little anecdote using a focus group of one. I was publisher of the Tribune as our street sale-newsstand circulation, was dropping precipitately. Home delivery was going up, but newsstand sales were going down. And they were going down for every newspaper across the country. One of our very bright young executives said, "You know, when it happened, it happened with cable. When cable penetration rose, our newsstand circulation declined."

Being brilliant myself, I said, "Look, we know how many people watch CNN in our market. It's trivial. It's even fewer than read The New York Times in our market. It doesn't matter. Cable doesn't matter."

Now I understand. It mattered enormously. People who were getting contact learning from watching Huntley-Brinkley or Cronkite just because it was on and there was nothing else on, suddenly weren't watching that anymore. People who had contact learning from time to time got interested in something. Once they got interested in something, they bought the newspaper. That's who buys newspapers on the newsstand.

They went away because they weren't getting that education anymore.

So how we provide a civic education that's serious to a large part of the country, for the health of our political process, even for civility—as long as the political debate is dominated by people who are savagely interested on one side or the other, we're going to have the kind of political process we have now.

Those are the things that make me most nervous.

What increased media choice, which is what happened when cable came in, did to voter participation, political polarization, and so forth—it's a very persuasive case by a brilliant young political scientist who is now at Princeton. It's called Post-Broadcast Democracy, if anyone wants to read it. It's not easy bedtime reading, but it's very persuasive.

Another thing is that the phenomenon that I was describing to you about the general level of emotional arousal of the population, thanks to the nature of our information environment changing, affects our response to everything, including to politicians. Intense emotional appeals to us are more likely to be successful than when we are in a less aroused state. Just for clarity, just think of this as a great big bell curve. You are talking about the whole population. Some people are so sanguine, they never get emotionally aroused, no matter what, and other people are operating in the red zone at all times. They are at the edges of the bell curve. Then there is this bulge.

What I'm talking about is not that everybody is more emotionally aroused at every moment. I'm talking about the center of that bell curve moving in the direction of greater arousal, which is making more and more people amenable to more and more emotional, hot, intense, scary kinds of appeals. That has a profound effect on our political environment. It makes people make those kinds of statements and scream at one another.

My wife Debbie and I were in the airport—this was a while ago when I was still researching this book—and we sat down at this little table which was convenient, and there was a great big television—you can't get away from television anywhere anymore. There was an ad on, and it was easy not to pay attention to it. Once we got settled, all of a sudden two men started shrieking at each other. It was impossible not to look at it, absolutely impossible. The intensity was so great. They were talking about football. But the nature of the discourse was that it had to be intense in order to have any chance of capturing and holding your attention.

That's true in our political discussion as well, and it's driving people to the extremes.

QUESTION: Jim Starkman. Thank you very much for a very elucidating talk.

I am a certified news junkie. I get five paper newspapers delivered to my front door every morning.

JACK FULLER: Bless you.

QUESTIONER: The emotional involvement that you are referring to basically is embodied in tabloid journalism, and the same with the networks or cable. It's appealing to a political extreme spectrum on one side or the other. It sells, but the core of fine journalism, which you represent and your generation represents, is very worthwhile saving and still does exist. The Financial Times, which is one of my five papers, for example, covers what's going on in Uzbekistan and whatever. So it does exist if one wants to seek it out.

It's also a function of your own education and experience as to whether you are going to seek it out or not. The vast majority of people probably, in the middle of that bell curve haven't been in the habit of seeking it out. I don't know how one would really encourage it.

JACK FULLER: Here's the thing about journalism. It's very practical. It's not an art. When I sit down to write a piece of journalism, I do it in an entirely different frame of mind than when I sit down to write a poem or when I sit down to write a novel. When I write a piece of trying-to-be-literature, I am thinking of producing an art object which is in its own sake good. If I finish it and it feels like one such object that meets my objective, I have succeeded, regardless of whether anybody ever looks at it or reads it or not.

Journalism isn't that. Journalism, if it reaches no one, is worthless. It doesn't do anything. Journalism is a practice, is an enterprise that attempts to actually move large numbers of people from a state of relative ignorance to a state of relatively greater knowledge.

That means that if more and more people are not being engaged by our journalism in important ways, which you are describing, that's a problem for journalism. It's a problem with the social mission of journalism, just as severe as the problem of reduced news budgets and declining ad revenues. It is a problem that journalists themselves have to take on and solve. How to do important, good work that engages large numbers of people without doing "Page Six" of the Post is the large challenge of our time for, particularly, young journalists.

I talk with groups of them often. They more and more are recognizing this as both a little bit scary and as a huge opportunity, a fact that I try to reinforce to them. When I came up, what I was trying to do was be a little bit better than those great people who were in the generation before me at doing what they did. That's not going to be the important thing for the young generation to do. They are going to have to do something different that works extremely well.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

You touched on a couple of points that have relevance for governments and for the whole issue of civility, which is the dichotomy between the wisdom of crowds and the wisdom of elites. What I would like to ask you, with particular relevance to governments, is, how is it possible to develop governing structures, governing policies if everything is just a matter of opinion? Evolution is a matter of opinion. Who Paul Revere warned is a matter of opinion [referrring to Sarah Palin's remarks and aftermath]. If you are going to govern a society, there have to be certain expressions of the collective will that, for the sake of efficiency and rational purpose, accomplish desired ends.

If the crowd is always supposed to make the choice as to what kind of medical plan they are going to have or how their taxes are going to be spent, why have taxes at all, because the people have greater wisdom as to how the money should be spent than the government does?

How do you deal with this? It seems to me that, as a journalist, you are dealing with a fundamental lack of respect for facts that is simply endemic.

JACK FULLER: Yes, I know. It's the big problem. It's not just lack of respect for facts or this profound skepticism that anybody has a better purchase on verified fact than anybody else does. There have been all sorts of schemes suggested. We have a hard time succeeding at teaching the basic things in schools. It probably should be done, but it's a problem.

As in most things, I always felt, even in my day as a journalist, that somehow or another I had to use judo on my audience to get them to be interested in something that typically they wouldn't be. We have always needed mediating devices—the Constitution is one great bundle of mediating devices—to control the judgment of the majority. We have democratized the decision about what's accurate. We have democratized the decision about what's important.

Typically, we haven't democratized the issue of whom to see when we have been told we have cancer or we have had a heart attack. I notice that people don't usually go to the hive under those circumstances. But they will about other critical things—whether to go to war or not, what kind of health-care programs to have.

If my reading is at all right about these cycles of history—if my reading of those historians who read it that way is right—we're in for a period in which people are full of overweening confidence that nobody knows any better than anybody else and that, therefore, when most people believe something, it must be true—or even more likely, when most of the people I talk to believe in something, it's likely to be true. And I won't talk to anybody who doesn't agree with me.

But all the more reason why we really need extremely good, creative people to start tackling this question of reaching—you are not going to do it by being the authoritative source anymore. I heard an editor of one of our great newspapers say the other day to somebody, "People are always going to turn back to the authoritative source for information."

This guy is 20 years younger than I am. What world are you living in? People are rejecting authoritative sources. They are determinedly rejecting them. These shows I was talking about on public radio were fascinating because they were whip-smart reporters who didn't say, "I'm going to tell you what's happening in this thing." They began by saying, "This is really confusing, and you and I are going to try to figure it out together." They would take people through the process of learning something about what happened. It wasn't Walter Cronkite. It was you and I together.

That's just a simple, small example. But we have to recognize the forces that we can't change. These historical forces we can't change right now. The emotional arousal level we can't change right now, unless we abolish all the things that go into our information environment. We have to use judo on them.

QUESTION: Howard Lentner.

I recognize everything you're talking about, but I am not so certain as you are about the direction that things are going. Certainly there has been an erosion of authority. We're never going to have another Walter Cronkite. But there is some evidence that people working together produce some pretty good stuff. If we use the criterion of the accuracy of the reporting and facts, it's kind of interesting that Wikipedia is as accurate as the Britannica encyclopedia, and perhaps even just a smidgeon more. But they are basically in the same ballpark. And here we have this unauthoritative reference source that has been created by lots and lots of contributors—anybody can write in to it—and it doesn't really have very many errors. Personally, I think there are things that it's not so comprehensive on, but in terms of making mistakes, it's not so bad.

We still have people like you and The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other institutions that are making huge investments in getting reporters to places where they can gather information and assess it for us and present it to us in a way that makes a great deal of sense.

But, on the other hand, we also live in a world where we can see some things for ourselves. We have so many sources of information that we can go to. It seems to me, unless people have given up the idea that you don't need evidence to support a position and that sort of thing—some people have, there's no doubt about it, but on the whole, I'm not convinced that people have given up on that.

An individual has access to so much information. He can take the authoritative source, the one where there has been a lot of investment in getting facts, but also gather information from lots of other places and make a judgment about what's accurate, as long as he has this sense that you do need evidence and you do need logic and so forth.

I understand that the postmodernists, to some extent, erode that, but I don't think they do entirely. It just seems to me that there is something to be said positively about this world in which we live, in which we have so much information available to us.

JACK FULLER: Anybody who cares about free expression has to be exhilarated. My whole argument is that we have to be swept away neither by the nostalgia for what we had nor by illusions of utopia about what we're going to have in this new world, but recognize instead the ways in which it's very powerful and useful and recognize the ways in which it's not so powerful.

I keep being drawn back to that period when the Constitution was written. The people who wrote the Constitution so thoroughly wanted to have a democracy. They clearly wanted to have a government of "we, the people." But they also were very nervous about an unmediated government—in fact, they lived through it in the Articles of Confederation period.

There's one wonderful letter from George Washington. This is a guy who lived through Valley Forge and won the bloody revolution against the British. He's not a naïve man. He writes to somebody after the Articles of Confederation period, with all the excess of the legislatures of the time, "It appears we have had too high an opinion of human nature."

I always find that one of the most winsome—but they found mediating devices, and we need to, too.

It's interesting about Wikipedia, which I think is terrific. They have had to find mediating devices there, too. They have had to start to curate it, because they recognize that it just doesn't work automatically. The hive is excellent, but it has certain qualities; it does certain things.

Not to get in too deep here. It's very late. One of the things when you study the brain is that we make errors systemic. Our brains make certain kinds of errors all the time. They are predictable. We do it all the time. We are very bad at understanding statistical information, making guesses about statistical probabilities. We are horrible at it. We make the same mistake over and over and over again.

The hive will make that mistake and magnify it by the process of everybody talking to one another and reinforcing the error.

So there are reasons to be concerned. There are deep reasons to be concerned about the wisdom of the hive. On the other hand, there are reasons to be exhilarated about what we can do now with this device that we never could do before. The challenge is for people to figure out how to use it best.

JOANNE MYERS: Unfortunately, our time has come to an end. Thank you very much.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less