Has the Internet Hampered Rational Discussion?

Scurrilous and unsubstantiated arguments seem to be more and more prevalent. Is the internet responsible?

Flipping through the TV channels this morning, I came upon an interview with an elderly gentleman with intelligent eyes who voiced his concern about the decline of mutually respectful civil discourse. He was a retired editor of a major newspaper. He joked about the waning influence of the printed word and said that an appropriate question a journalism grad seeking a job at a newspaper and an editor might ask each other might be "What are we doing here"?However, as newspapers decline in readership, there is another decline that bothered the former editor even more: a crude and generally ignorant tone that characterizes many comments on the editorial pages. Scurrilous and unsubstantiated accusations have become more and more common there. The man's words brought me back in time to when one of our grade school assignments was to read the editorial pages to familiarize ourselves with intelligent argument. I remember discovering Sydney Harris's column there and becoming one of his regular readers, his wit and style drawing me in. Come to think of it, I recall that when I was in high school I sent a letter to the editor of the Chicago Daily News and it was published. In those days you did not have to have your name published, and I doubt I would have sent the letter in if I had thought my identity would be revealed. Yet scurrilous and unsubstantiated commentary was pretty much nonexistent.When the former editor spoke of his editorial pages of yore, it was with great pride. He felt quite sure that it was the Internet that was and is responsible for the decline of civil discourse we see in print and all around us. Maybe the elderly gentleman with the intelligent eyes has a point. What do you think?

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Gary January 28, 2013 at 03:37 PM
The elderly gentleman with the intelligent eyes yearns for the days when he could decide what was news and what should be kept from the public. He could drive public opinion from his desk, and none of us had any say in it. People with that kind of power never want to give it up, so of course he's lamenting the new media where virtually anyone can get online and put their opinion out there, unedited by the benevolent king makers of old. Also, he seems to be forgetting the days before he and his liberal friends controlled every avenue of news.... back in the day when every big town had several competing newspapers. During those days the editors unleashed positively vicious hit pieces on people that were every bit as un-civil as anything you might read in the comments section these days... and with no more ties to fact or reality either. Your friend might have intelligent eyes, but his memory seems to be fading.
Gary January 28, 2013 at 03:49 PM
One more thing. In amongst all the name calling, misinformation, and noise in the comments section are buried grains of truth and wisdom. It is impossible to put a lie out there now because within hours the sum total of human knowledge is brought to bear on the topic and the one person who knows the truth can place a comment on any site in the world, and if it's compelling, will soon make it's way around the world and show the lie for what it is. Your friend is no longer needed because we the people are the editors, and that is how it should be.
Eric Grenier January 28, 2013 at 07:28 PM
Regardless of where we get our information, editors and journalists are very important. A reader has to take responsibility for what information he obtains - especially if it's from out of the "ether", and reliability of sources matters now more than ever. Professional editors help the discourse because they have gone to school to learn their craft including learning proper use of the language, how to collect first hand information, developing trusted sources, confirming facts, assessing context, and presenting a story in that context. They’re not always right, but they’ve gone through a process. We trust many institutions in other fields to provide us with knowledge we need - why should journalism be any different? It doesn't mean we can't challenge journalists, but at least there are standards (and contact information). Labeling news sources as "Lame Stream Media" is one way liars have increasingly held sway on the internet. While there are many great benefits to internet-sourced information (blogs, sites like Wikipedia which I love, but understand its limitations), there is a lot of crap out there cleverly disguised as truth and wisdom. This is something journalists are trained to ferret out and have, for the most part, done over the decades. Today, the craft is under threat and I have seen many, many instances where rational discussion has indeed fallen victim because of false information from unreliable sources.
june luvisi January 28, 2013 at 10:18 PM
I want to make it clear that I passionately love the countless benefits offered by the Internet. For me it has been like an oxygen tube delivering stimulation to a sometimes tired old brain. I believe there are times when reasonable criticism gives way to vitriol and unfounded assertions, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Thank you for your thoughtful comments!
Gary January 28, 2013 at 10:24 PM
That sure sounds good. I wish it were true, but it isn't. Most journalists today either spin the story to match their view of the world, which is usually the world according to the NYT, or they simply don't report stories that contradict their view of the world. They are not trying to inform people by simply reporting the truth. They are trying to change the world by using their power as journalists to re-engineer society. I'm not fooled by any of it anymore, and I have completely lost respect for the profession of journalism. I have found that media bias debates are a huge waste of time. People just don't admit that their source of news is skewed.
Eric Grenier January 29, 2013 at 04:23 AM
Gary - I find that checking multiple legitimate sources for the story can usually reveal that bias. Also, bias is pretty easy to spot anyway. A large and related problem is when non-journalists force their editors to publish sensational and/or misleading headlines to generate clicks. This also leads to a lot of what you're talking about.
Donald E. Russ January 29, 2013 at 03:33 PM
The elderly gentleman with intelligent eyes was civil. June and Gary were civil. Eric was the first in this conversation to call his perceived opponents “liars”. We are all journalists now. Here in the Patch comments I tried to notice the Lake Bluff School Board’s tax rates of recent years – a simple matter of fact – and a Mr. Timothy L. Brown responded with sarcasm and insult. http://lakeforest.patch.com/articles/lake-bluff-school-board-cuts-tax-levy-3-1-million#comments_list So we understand that there are as many standards for civility as there are authors, but still I think that taxpayers are entitled to expect a high degree of honesty from the boards who speak for taxing districts. Consider: http://65.pxxq.com/generations.html The real complaint is not with folks like Mr. Timothy L. Brown but rather the Lake Bluff School Board which should be held to a high standard but has historically failed in its duty of transparency and candor.
Eric Grenier January 29, 2013 at 06:17 PM
Point well taken regarding my use of "liars". Should I have said, "Those whose standards do not meet those of trained journalists"? That wording sounds weasel-y to me. I didn't mean to accuse, only to state a general first-hand observation. Regardless of the reason for or motive behind it, I believe false information due to lack of journalistic standards is a significant contributor to the lack of civility on the internet. Composer/satirist Peter Schickele once said, "Truth is truth. You can't have opinions about truth".
Donald E. Russ January 29, 2013 at 07:15 PM
“It’s not ‘dirty campaigning’ when you inform people about your opponent’s record. If there’s anything negative in the reporting, it is the fault of the perpetrator – not the fault of those reporting it. As the late Andrew Breitbart said: “The truth is not mean. It’s the truth.” http://watchdog.org/23118/thurber-sherrod-browns-26-year-old-abuse-charges-are-fair-game/ And when the perpetrator has a duty to tell the truth, as a school board does, and fails in that duty, the fault is great: http://65.pxxq.com/dissemblings.html
Eric Grenier January 29, 2013 at 08:56 PM
I'm trying to ignore your bait but you're not letting go. This was an enormously complex, 5-year school design and construction project that has nothing to do with this discussion. What is factual is that the school board provided to the public what we knew at the time and involved the public extensively in open concept and design meetings beginning in 2004 and continuing into 2008. Just consider that a lot of people and a lot of different entities and agencies had their cut at the project after it was approved by the community, including but not limited to: Students, parents, teachers, administrators, volunteer groups like PTO, BLDD Architects and CS2 Design Group, Village of Lake Bluff engineering, LB Zoning Board, US Green Building Council and LEED, Lake County Planning and Building Development, Lake County Board of Education, Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Dept. of Transportation, Lake Bluff Open Lands, and the Lake Bluff Park District. There were hiccups and more than a few changes to the plan along that tortuous path, but we had intended from the start that this be a triumph of community involvement and it was. You can pick the process apart, but you'd be picking on an awful lot of people.


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