A few months ago I wrote a post about my fears for the marketplace of ideas and what that could mean to today’s free press (There’s Something Rotten in the Marketplace of Ideas
). I’m not insensible to the fact that this has been going on for a long time. Somehow we’ve allowed conspiracy theorists out of their carefully marked “whackjob” corner and into mainstream consciousness.
Today I read an article in The Washington Post (Want to Save the Republican Party? Drain the Right-Wing Media Swamp.) The author calls out many ideas that should be whackjob conspiracy theories and instead are actually believed by many in the Republican party. Things like voter fraud, that global warming is a myth perpetrated by scientists looking to make money, and the crowning achievement of the right-wing media: Birtherism.
What is so frightening about these ideas is that it is almost impossible to quash them unless you actually do purge the sources or—as the author of the Post article calls it—drain the swamp. Yet that goes against the very tenet that we must all protect above all else: Freedom of the Press. For once our press falls under government regulation, all freedoms may go along with it.
Freedom of the Press is based on the idea that misinformation will not gain footing in an enlightened society. An enlightened society will reject what is not true, thereby allowing the truth to shine through. But the conspiracy theories and misinformation are spreading, helped along by politicians who use them for political gain simply by refusing to disavow them. This sickness isn’t confined to the right wing anymore, either. Liberal websites that spread propaganda and outright lies are popping up, too.
BuzzFeed (yes, BuzzFeed, which is becoming a news service to rival AP) conducted a study of misinformation presented on Facebook as fact (Hyperpartisan Facebook Pages are Publishing False and Misleading Information at an Alarming Rate). The study found that right-wing Facebook pages were far more likely to spread rumors and lies as fact than mainstream media, but liberal, left-wing Facebook pages were not far behind.
So what does this mean? In a world where information is free and independent of government regulation, can we believe anything we read/see/hear in our Marketplace of Ideas? Thomas Jefferson said, “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” I believe he meant that every man who reads the news must be capable of distinguishing fact from fiction. In other words, we must demand the truth from our media and be willing to turn our backs on those who do not back up their information with facts. In a world where our politicians are unwilling to tell us when we’re being fed lies, we must search out the truth ourselves.
And if Thomas Jefferson thought we could do that, then for the love our country, we need to try harder. We must put the whackjobs back into the corner or risk losing the right to a free and independent media—and the truth.