Monday, June 29, 2009

The Erosion of Truth & Trust: David Rohde, the NYT and Wikipedia

I have been disturbed, having followed the news of the kidnapping of David Rohde, by the revelations that the news of the event had been suppressed and even lied about.

Back in the 1960s, as I passed through my teenage years and began to develop my consciousness of world events and news, I became aware that the news was generally manipulated, controlled and, through a variety of means, either suppressed or promoted to suit the needs of those with control over the news.

News reporting on the presidency of the United States provided me with several examples, both current and historical, at least at the time. I remember adults whispering about the indiscretions of President Kennedy, but remember reading no real news, at least to the Houston Chronicle or the Houston Post. However, I knew even then that where there is smoke there's probably a fire and suspected that Mr. Kennedy had his dalliances, but someone or some group wanted to protect him either personally or publicly. When I tried to talk to adults about it I was usually informed that there "was no truth in the matter, otherwise it would be in the papers." About the same time I started delving into the old magazine stacks in the libraries. I grew up knowing that President Roosevelt had had polio and was confined to wheelchair and, yet, looking through the magazines of the 30s I found repeated portraits of a man with no apparent infirmities. If not outright lies, then lies of omission.

The end result of these examples and many others was that I generally ceased to believe, in large part, in the accuracy of journalism in general. However, rather than to cease reading and following the news, I increased the number of sources, reading everything I could get my hands on. By eliminating inconsistencies and jaundiced reading between the lines, I discovered I could get a pretty good impression of what was really or probably happening.

Over the years, as the number of news outlets increased in the competition for the public's attention, I found that "the truth" was generally out there, but that no one outlet could be generally trusted. The news was like a free buffet... most of it was crap, but a good meal could be had if one chose carefully.

With the advent of the 60' s TV satire That Was the Week That Was and and, later, the 70' s Saturday Night Live's comedy news, journalists seem to be pushed more in the direction of actually telling the truth rather than what they personally believed should be told. In the modern era, The Daily Show and others help fulfill the role of media watchdog. I've always found it amusing that news organizations and journalists are supposed to keep our government honest and that comedy and satire help keep the journalists and journalism honest.

With the rise of Internet journalism and the exponential increase in the number of eyes on the world I have expected the news I encounter is potentially far more accurate... and, expectedly, far more inaccurate. I cannot possibly sort through all sides of the news these days, there is simply too much information to wade through. Increasingly, I am relying on certain journalism sources to help parse this information and provide me with some semblance of truth I can trust.

And then I read of the suppression of news by the New York Times of the kidnapping of David Rohde. And I find myself irritated and sad that my trust in the New York Times has been eroded. I suppose I can deal with that and it is probably a good reminder to me that I shouldn't put too much faith in any source of journalism... that I should always wonder what news I am not getting. Yes, I can live with that.

However, I have come to rely on Wikipedia for a variety of informational bits and bytes. I have come to expect a certain degree of intellectual honesty from Wikipedia. I'm not saying that it is all the truth or that it is 100% accurate, but those who try to edit and update it seemed to have a more or less honest intent. (We will ignore, for the moment, those special cases, such as Scientology, etc., were truth and accuracy has generally gone on permanent vacation.)

To discover that even the cofounder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has had a hand in editing and suppressing certain news information has compromised Wikipedia as a source, in my opinion.

Censorship, suppression of the news, silence in the face of reality has no business in the news or information sources such as Wikipedia.

My confidence in the New York Times, never very strong to begin with, has vastly lowered.

My confidence in Wikipedia has likewise been lowered.

I feel for David Rohde and his family. I understand the intent behind the actions of the New York Times. However, when they reached beyond the NYT and compromised "the truth" elsewhere, they compromised their integrity. It is always sad to see someone or an organization compromise their ethics. It is beyond sad to watch them drag down others with them.

Integrity lost is seldom regained fully. It will be quite some time, if ever, before the NYT or Wikipedia regains theirs.


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