From digital broadcasts that allow TV stations to report more quickly from the scene of breaking news, to websites that can distribute information to tens of thousands of readers in mere seconds, to Facebook and Twitter and other social media that provide a “crowdsourcing” element, quickly able to detect and correct mistakes, the rise of electronic communication in all of its forms has been an undoubted boon to humanity. No longer do we have to wait for the six o’clock news or the morning paper to find out what the media gatekeepers think we need to know. The rise of “new media” and the “citizen journalist” has heralded an unprecedented age of freedom in which we have access to an unfiltered flow of information and can make up our own minds, the government and the New York Times be damned. Sixty-five years after he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell has never before looked so far off the mark.
Just ask Ryan Lanza, the 24-year-old man who massacred 20 first-grade students and six teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.
What’s that? Ryan Lanza was not the Sandy Hook shooter? Ah, but for a few hours on that Friday afternoon, he was. Even 20 days later, as I write this column, I can still find dozens of reports on news sites that identify Ryan, and not his 20-year-old brother, Adam, as the man who perpetrated the third-worst massacre in the history of the United States. This “breaking news” was never corrected, or even amended with a statement that the original report was incorrect. To do so would have taken too much effort, perhaps a minute or two of an intern’s time, and there is nothing to be gained economically by doing so.
And that shows just how much value we should place on anything we read online. If those who make such egregious errors cannot be bothered to fix them, they are telling us not simply that they are not to be trusted, but that they value their work even less than we do. Sold on the promise of the “electronic age,” we have come to equate “information” with “facts” and “facts” with “truth.” Yet the truth is that most of what we call information hardly rises to the level of fact, and that facts are only one aspect—and not the most important one—of truth.
Truth is something deeper than fact, and it requires a certain wisdom and understanding to grasp it, much less articulate it. Twenty days after the Sandy Hook shooting, we know a great many facts about what happened—including that Adam Lanza’s weapon of choice was a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, not the handguns that every news source mistakenly claimed he used—and yet we may never know the truth about that day.
And no, I do not mean any of the ridiculous conspiracy theories floating around the internet, posing as information and fact and even truth, which claim that no children actually died at Sandy Hook and that the whole thing was a “false flag” operation designed to provide Barack Obama with the political capital to allow him to take our guns, or that children did die but were killed by the Mossad in retaliation for the Obama administration’s lukewarm support of Israel in the recent unpleasantness in Gaza, or that there is a connection between Sandy Hook and the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting that runs deeper than guns in the hands of two disturbed young men and involves the Fed and the U.S. derivatives market.
I mean, instead, the truth about the deep cultural and spiritual sickness that turns young men into killers of dozens of children at home and much of the rest of the country into supporters of economic embargoes and drone strikes that kill thousands upon thousands of children abroad. And that so warps the minds and imaginations of people who think of themselves as paragons of rationality and sanity while they search for “information” and “facts” to support conspiracy theories that are as insane as the fever dreams of James Holmes and Adam Lanza.
Two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” The remark is often taken as nothing more than an indictment of the press of his time, which did not bother with any pretense to objectivity. But I suspect (based on other remarks by Jefferson about newspapers) it had at least as much to do with Jefferson’s recognition that the news is never more than ephemeral. Even the best of the media gatekeepers are simply sifting through ephemera to try to create coherent narratives that will help them increase their market share, rather than to uncover truth.
As the gatekeepers disappear, our need for those narratives does not, as the conspiracy theories themselves attest. We are left to construct narratives on our own, out of the information and misinsformation and disinformation that swirls around the World Wide Web. Few of us have the education of a Jefferson; is it any wonder that we lack his wisdom and understanding as well?