Wednesday, May 18, 2005

One of the reasons I enjoyed reading Orhan Pamuk's Snow a few months ago was that so many of its more contextualized conversations were nonetheless relevant to contemporary affairs at large.

For example, consider the following quote by Pamuk's character Sedar Bey, the owner of Kars' sole local newspaper:

All over the world -- even in America -- newspapers tailor the news to their readers' tastes. And if your readers want nothing but lies from you, who in the world is going to sell papers that tell the truth? If the truth could raise my paper's circulation, why wouldn't I write the truth?

The more I read about the current Newsweek imbroglio, I can't help but think back to this passage.

On the one hand, there are Newsweek's readers themselves, who tend to be well-educated and middle- to upper-class. While those readers may not have wanted the Koran story to be true per se, I imagine they would confess -- if they were truly honest with themselves -- that they read the magazine at least in part because it will deliver to them stories that confirm their suspicions about inherently dogmatic institutions like the American military.

On the other hand, there's the readership which, for a variety of reasons, has eagerly soaked up coverage of the Newsweek mistake. My guess is that these readers too, if they also were truly honest with themselves, would confess that they've followed the story at least in part because it confirms to them the untrustworthy (dare I say 'liberal'?) nature of a major news organization.

Finally, the reason I've raised these points is not to demonstrate that when it comes to the news, we are all guilty of paying for the stories and facts we want to hear rather than paying for the stories and facts as they actually are. As true as that statement may be, it's also a mere platitude in itself -- and worse, tends to lead toward some woefully casuistic conclusions regarding the press as a whole or even the very possibility of truth.

Rather, I've raised those points to demonstrate (hopefully) that some sincere introspection is called for. Very few people would admit that they prefer the media to pander to their preconceptions of the world rather than inform them of the world as it actually is. Even fewer would ever stop to consider whether they can in fact tell the difference. And yet that is exactly what is needed: rather than focusing on the particulars of the Newsweek story, what the national debate should currently be centered on is the criteria with which we judge media reliability. Until some common ground is found in regard to those criteria, then on this issue both sides are only going to continue speaking past each other ad nauseam.


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