Sunday, May 11, 2008

True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo

Americans and other earthlings are divided by more than opinions these days. We do not even sense the same reality. There are few facts to which everyone agrees, no matter how much evidence can be produced and disseminated. Diverse portions of our population believes that NASA faked the moon landings, that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks, and that anyone who wants a good paying job can get one easily. Modern communication technology is supposed to supply news and information to bring us to common understanding, but it has failed. According to Salon staff writer Farhad Manjoo in his new book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, there is too much information and much of it is manipulated for partisan purposes.

Four or five decades ago, we got our news from a handful of mainline sources, as many people watched network news every evening. With cable television and the Internet widely available, people now choice other sources that have more "point of view" and less objectivity. Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Larry King, Bill O'Reilly, and other media stars have more influence on public opinion than most politicians. Most people only check news sources that will tell them what they already believe. When mainline and liberal channels carried refutations of the Swift Boat Veterans claim that John Kerry acted cowardly in the Vietnam War, conservatives who believed the story did not even notice.

Manjoo rebukes many local television stations for the use of video news releases or VNRs. Many political, professional, and industrial interest groups send slick videos to the stations, which may air them on their local news programs without any verification of the content. The stations are more interested in advertising revenues than the veracity of the news and are happy to reduce the cost of news gathering. Tobacco companies, the oil industry, and pharmaceutical firms often get their viewpoints reported as facts.

The manipulators do not always get their way. I found the most encouraging story was how tobacco companies ultimately failed to stop much of the regulation of the use of their products. Big tobacco counted on its customers to stand up for them, not realizing that addicts do not really love their pushers. Wanting help to break their habits, many smokers actually favor regulation . Tobacco killing over 400,000 people per year is a "fact" that just can not be glossed over anymore.

True Enough is a lively and engaging look at "truthiness" which should be in more public libraries (institutions devoted to the presentation and dissemination of all viewpoints).

Manjoo, Farhad. True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. John Wiley & Sons, 2008. ISBN 9780470050101

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