Some millennia after the Earth spun out of nothingness and began hosting life forms, there dawned the Age of Reptiles, which gave way to the Age of Mammals.  Then came the Golden Age, the Age of Fable, the Age of Augustus, the Age of Migrations, the Dark and the Middle Ages, the Age of Absolutism and the Age of Reason, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Empire and the Industrial (or Machine) Age, the Age of Innocence and the Age of Anxiety, the Space Age, the Age of Aquarius, and the Information Age.

We are said to be still in the age of technologically enhanced accelerated information access.  Information now plays the role that gold played during the Mercantile Age.  So why do we hear the black bell toll for newspapers, of all things, in this age where information is the currency of choice—newspapers, whose content is Information itself?  Stock quotes and sporting stats (the better to bet with), corporate reports, macro- and microeconomic data, emerging technologies, political developments at all levels of government, texts of speeches and reports, legislative precedents and maneuvers, legal decisions, new wrinkles in crime, profiles of movers and shakers, read-between-the-lines interviews with national and world leaders, backgrounders on issues of the day such as immigration and religious practice, reviews of the latest cultural highs and lows in all media, gossip, advice to the lovelorn, the latest psychological theories, disasters, scandals, medical breakthroughs, health tips, horoscopes, recipes, nightlife and entertainment, fashion trends, how to throw a party, how to decorate, who just died or got married, the weather forecast, satirical cartoons . . .

Ah, they say, folks now get their news from alternative media—hip and edgy websites, Slate and Salon and The Onion, the blogosphere, Comedy Central and MTV.  No more need to take in hand an ink-stained broadside plopped onto the porch in the bleak dawn hours by an earnest, pimply paperboy.  No more Sentinels, Guardians and Beacons, Couriers and Dispatches, Chronicles, Criers and Clarions, Heralds and Tribunes, Intelligencers, Inquirers, Informers and Examiners, Mirrors and Voices, Stars, Suns, and Globes.  No more fish wrap, cage liners, paper training, canine fetchables, homemade piñatas and papier mâché; no more yellowed clipping files, rolled-up clouts, or folded printer’s caps; no more hiding your unwashed morning face behind an unfurled wall of print.

The traditional daily newspaper is definitely taking a hit in sales-and-circ.  The Newspaper Association of America reports that circulation of dailies peaked in 1984 and fell more than 13 percent over the next 20 years, with 2005 showing the steepest annual decline yet.  Many papers have shot themselves in the shoe leather by posting their front pages and features online gratis; moreover, since advertising dollars are the real source of operating revenue, dozens of free, news-digest-type tabloids have sprung up in metro areas to compete with the dailies.  Journalists vacillate between nail-biting job anxiety and contempt for a nation of boob-tube zombies, fact snackers, and willful ignoramuses.  Will newspapers die out altogether?

There will always be a market for their content, of course.  And real news, no matter what its packaging, will always have to be gathered the same way it has always been gathered—by cultivating sources, conducting investigations, eliciting leaks, following leads, harassing public servants, researching public and private records; asking the right questions and then listening; being able to conceive a story in the first place, how to play it and how to set up the lead, body, and climax; balancing the novelty of the moment with the timelessness of history—and, therefore, real news will always require real journalists to craft it.

Today, the problem is not too little information but too much; a mounting inability to process and assess the endless gushing flow of it; the ruthless truthlessness of so much of it; the tangled webs of dis- and misinformation that hem us in on every side.  What is lacking is not information but verification.  The outfit that can offer information verification on a consistent, disinterested, trustworthy basis will be the next Microsoft, Google, and eBay rolled into one.

Textual authority, like all other forms of authority, is never settled, but the World Wide Web’s creation of cyberspace complicates this perennial question in two paradoxical ways: first, by the fragility of huge amounts of information that may be lost in an instant because of a system failure, either by accident or hostile action; and second, by the eternalization of a falsehood, either mistakenly or maliciously introduced, that leaves a mark no amount of corrective action can remove, while the lazy ease of web use gives “revised” (dumbed down, politically corrected, oversimplified, sanitized, sensationalized, incomplete, partisan, or otherwise corrupted) content a free ride along the road to received wisdom.

We are awash in “anecdata.”  Our Oprahfied discourse has led directly to the rise of Stephen Colbert’s neologism truthiness, which the American Dialect Society defines as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true.”  What you are comfortable with and how you feel about something trump the “facts,” which are now viewed as a suspect concept, an oppressive invention of linear, thin-lipped males.

Written or stated with enough audacity in any medium, from talk radio to web-zines to best-selling books to advertising to the TV Guide Channel, any claim may now pass long enough to survive at least one news cycle; once it has done that, it is Out There and becomes as true, as authoritative, as any other claim in this Age of Skepticism.  Both “sides” of the American political system have learned how to hit and run with semitruths.  Then, the electorate plays its position in the game, choosing which mutually exclusive alternative reality to believe—e.g., Kerry the war hero, Kerry the coward; Bush the evil moron, Bush the Christian soldier; global warming the threat, global warming the myth; universal healthcare the solution, universal healthcare the destroyer.  Even the most venerable newspapers have been caught practicing truthy journalism, found guilty of plagiarism or of making up quotations, interviews, characters, incidents, and entire chains of events.

Verification has become a huge problem even in the sciences.  For every fraud unmasked—e.g., the Hwang Woo-Suk cloning caper—how many are going undetected?  Technical testing has found that, since 2002, at least 25 percent of all manuscripts accepted for publication by the Journal of Cell Biology came with illustrations that “were manipulated in ways that violate the journal’s guidelines” (New York Times, January 24).

“Yet another study upends what Americans thought they knew about diet and health,” notes Science Times (February 14), referring to a huge federal study that shows “a low-fat diet might not prevent breast cancer, colon cancer or heart disease, after all.”  The article continues, “But will anyone listen?”  Well, we have only been told a thousand times by scientists that a low-fat diet prevents breast cancer, colon cancer, and heart disease.

Attempting to fill the verification vacuum, for laymen at least, are such sites as,,,, and, of course,  It has become commonplace, in response to each irresistibly maudlin or lurid e-mail you pass on, to receive the deflating reply, “I checked with Snopes, and this is false!”

But why are debunking sites any more authoritative than the stories they debunk?  Take Snopes: Named for the money-grubbing family of several William Faulkner novels, the site is run by a couple named Barbara and David Mikkelson.  Their first FAQ asks, “How do I know the information you’ve presented is accurate?”

A: We don’t expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic, which is why our site’s name indicates that it contains reference pages.  Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work.  The research materials we’ve used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves.

Snopes depends heavily on a series of books by academic folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah.  For more than a quarter-century, Brunvand has studied urban legends as “living folklore.”  His method involves collecting a story and its variants from all over the planet; following the “chains of transmission” back as far as possible to the original sources; cross-referencing the story with the existing store of human mythology, legend, literature, and both folk and official history; and examining how the literal untruth of a legend does not detract from its deeper psychological truth.  There are few better examples of rigorous documentation in such a notoriously imprecise field.

Another attempt to validate information is the online Wikipedia (b. 2001, registered in Florida), which bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”  So far, it boasts more than 940,000 entries.  Wiki is said to be Hawaiian for “quick,” as immortalized by Elvis in Blue Hawaii.  There are wikis all over the web; Aaron Swartz ( defines a wiki as

a collaboratively-edited website which many people also view as an anarchistic publishing tool.  The distinguishing feature of wikis is that they typically allow all users to edit any page, with full freedom to edit, change and delete the work of previous authors.

Like all anarchist ventures, this one squints through utopian pince-nez: “Each side [will] continue bashing the other side’s work until the page [gives] the best arguments from each side, presented in such a way that nobody could object.”  Nobody could object?  In this Age of Polarization?  In practice, bad wiki drives out good, and, as in many other areas of life, determined minorities burrow, bore, and march anonymously through the pages, making up for their tiny numbers with a vast egotism and a ravening sense of entitlement.

The anarchistic approach has led to the proliferation of “sock puppets,” users who pretend to be numerous other users in order to lace articles with their own biases, and to resort to “vandalism,” described by the Wikipedists as “a deliberate attempt to compromise the integrity of the encyclopedia.”  Integrity?  The site’s disclaimer states, in boldface, “Wikipedia Makes No Guarantee of Validity.”  It promises “no formal peer review” and plenty of “not professional advice.”

Wikipedia further claims “no responsibility for inaccurate or libelous information” and that “inappropriate changes are usually removed quickly.”  Not quickly enough.  In one recent case documented by Jay Ambrose, the journalist John Seigenthaler was implicated in the Kennedy assassinations by a contributor to Wikipedia, which led to the usual siege of hateful blogs whose poison is impossible to purge once spewed into cyberspace.

Erasures, pranks, and obscene inserts, however, are not so much the problem as the piling on of p.c. opinion disguised as information.  Most Wikipedia articles on subjects with any political content read as though they were peer-reviewed by Al Franken.

The encyclopedists of the Enlightenment understood that they needed to redefine man and society if they were to undermine the verities of the Catholic Church.  George Orwell fictionalized communism’s efforts to revise the hearts and minds of its subjects in 1984.  But how clumsy and time-consuming the memory hole and newspeak seem, compared to the chance to rewrite all of human knowledge from scratch on the internet!

In this light, Google’s willingness to toe the party line in China is a telling and ominous development.  So much for the “objective mathematical formula” Google uses to weight sites.  If the world’s richest search engine—at $80 billion in market capitalization, worth more than all newspapers combined—can accommodate the urge of the Chinese state to control the present by controlling the past, what other acts of “voluntary self-censorship” might it find (or has it already found) compatible with its motto “Don’t Be Evil”?

But no matter.  In the end, viruses may take care of the problem of too much information.  To paraphrase Stalin, “No information, no problem.”  As soon as the redraft of human history is completed, the internet may well be “punk’d” once too often, and all will vanish in a puff of glittering dust, spun back into nothingness once more.