Our founding fathers placed freedom of the press in the first amendment of the US Constitution, because democracy requires it. Citizens need information to make decisions, and a free press is crucial to its flow. Two centuries later the Fairness Doctrine was established in law, and although the legal doctrine was dismantled in the Reagan years, the notion of “equal time” remains enshrined in Americans’ sense of justice and fair play.
But not every “side” is right or true; opinions sometimes express ill-informed beliefs, not reliable knowledge. As we’ve seen throughout this book, some “sides” represent deliberate disinformation spread by well-organized and well-funded vested interests, or ideologically driven denial of the facts. Even honest people with good intentions may be confused or mistaken about an issue. When every voice is given equal time — and equal weight — the result does not necessarily serve us well. Writing in Democracy in American long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville lamented the cacophony that passed for serious debate in the young republic: “A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once.”
That was two hundred years ago; today the problem is much worse. With the rise of radio, television, and now the internet, it sometimes seems that anyone can have their opinion heard, quoted, and repeated, whether it is true or false, sensible or ridiculous, fair-minded or malicious. The internet has created an information hall of mirrors, where any claim, no matter how preposterous, can be multiplied indefinitely. And on the internet, disinformation never dies. “Electronic barbarism” one commentator has call it — an environment that is all sail and no anchor. Pluralism run amok.
The result is plain to see. A third of all Americans think that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on September 11. Nearly a quarter still think that there’s no solid evidence that smoking kills. And as recently as 2007, 40 percent of Americans believed that scientific experts were still arguing about the reality of global warming. Who can blame us? Everywhere we turn someone is questioning something, and many of the important issues of our day are reduced to he said/she said/who knows? Any person could be forgiven for being confused.
—Naomi Oreskes & Eric M Conway
Merchants of Doubt