The more we know, the less informed we seem

The more we know, the less informed we seem

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Information is available today like never before. Newspapers may be dying but the Internet has provided the public with instant news 24/7. The public recognizes faces quicker than they comprehend the issues with which individuals are associated; yet most people lack understanding of the seriousness and scope of these subjects.

Part of this problem is also caused by a media which is engaged in a “gotcha” syndrome. From reporters to bloggers to paparazzi, all seek to invade privacy and imply or draw conclusions without any certitude as to truth. No longer are they looking for facts. The providers want to win, to score. Except for the elites, the public is less informed than ever.

For example, everyone has an opinion on what Goldman Sachs did wrong and who should be punished. They watch the ongoing circus on Capitol Hill, hear the Securities and Exchange Commission allegations, and see reports on the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s investigation.

And yet few people understand what exactly Goldman is alleged to have done, or how typical it might or might not be of the behavior of other financial institutions. They don’t grasp the national and global implications of these investigations. Part of that is the fault of media who prefer the “gotcha” over sober analysis of the issues. But the public shares the blame: While the answers to these questions certainly are available in the written press and on the Internet, very few people who are not directly involved in the Wall Street community make the effort to understand it. They take the time for hardly more than perhaps a daily “sound bite” of background or analysis.

In reporting about authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes from Iran and China to Saudi Arabia and Sudan, the media often allow political correctness to override plain facts. For a columnist who has consistently championed women’s rights and forthrightly attacked her own Church’s failures to confront the pedophile epidemic, Maureen Dowd has been exceedingly tempered and mild-mannered when it comes to assessing Saudi Arabia. In her columns on the kingdom for The New York Times, she virtually danced around the miniscule progress that the regime is making to address modernity.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is poised to cause serious environmental and economic consequences to the South, and the deaths of the 11 men who were working on the rig is certainly a tragedy. The media should look closely at the government’s response.  But they should beware of making cheap and inaccurate comparisons between the spill and Hurricane Katrina. The public is not served when the media are not able or willing to explain the differences, not just the similarities, between an act of nature and a man-made catastrophe,  an unimaginably vast disaster and an unfolding event whose magnitude is not yet known.

The Israeli media is overloaded with similar failures. As in Europe and throughout the world, Israeli media are far more closely tied to a political party or ideology.  Not only is the editorial slant consistent with this direction, but so are the reporting, headlines, and news placement.  Most Israeli media take a very negative view of the religious community, especially the fervently Orthodox, consistently reporting the news through their own respective ideological prisms.

A few weeks ago, during the intense tension between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, Ma’ariv caused a stir with a bizarre report that  the United States was withholding visas for Israeli nuclear physicists affiliated with the Israeli reactor in Dimona. The story whipped around the blogs and wire services, reported as more proof of the administration’s antagonism toward Israel. It was subsequently determined — after the scientists at Dimona were actually queried — that there had been no changes whatsoever since travel regulations were tightened soon after 9/11. The scrutiny by U.S. officials may be annoying, but it has been routine since George W. Bush authorized the changes. The right-leaning Ma’ariv used a questionably sourced story to further fuel hostility with the Obama administration. 

Israeli newspapers also regularly run stories disclosing information about high-level, “secret” negotiations on a myriad of national security issues. The politicians who leak these stories score points with sympathetic journalists, allowing them to manipulate and spin the news. The media scores points for getting the leak first, which for them is far more important than confirming the stories or acknowledging the ways they are being used; or more importantly, holding a story so as not to upset “perhaps” sensitive negotiations.

Wherever you turn, the public is less informed, and receives information that is distorted and, all too frequently, intentionally biased. We are fed inadequate  information, and thus develop an exceedingly unsophisticated understanding of the world around us.

Saddest of all, it appears only to be getting worse.

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