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Truisms and Truthiness

With all the buzz around Wikileaks this week and the recent passing of Daniel Schorr–one of the last real “newsmen” of his kind–I’ve been thinking a lot about journalism, its evolution and its role in modern culture.

I took my first news reporting class in the mid-1990s at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Email and the internet were still emerging, still dial-up based and still something of a novelty. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever reported a story by digging up information on library microfiche or sitting behind those awful monitors at the courthouse that dulled your eyeballs with a greenish glow).

I distinctly remember the ah-ha moment when my professor (a Pulitzer-Prize winner by the way) said: “Never use the attribution ‘according to the internet.’ That’s like saying ‘according to the telephone.’” He followed up with tips on how to decipher how legitimate internet sources were, much like we were taught to do with a human source.

Seems absurdly obvious now, but think back to 1996—the internet was all very new (and regrettably, still just as grammatically challenged.)

Still, then and now, there are a couple of basic logical truisms when it comes to absorbing information:

“You can’t believe everything you read” and “Consider the source.”

We live in a largely sourceless, hyper-opinion-driven climate of news dissemination. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. Exciting because for we news junkies it’s cool to have so many ways to absorb information and so many voices to consider and scary, well, for obvious reasons.

The explosion of the blogosphere, the rapid dissemination of any and all newsworthy topics, the rise of pundit status among people who’ve never had to adhere to a three-source rule, pour through the pages of a phone book trying to find an expert source, pound the pavement, develop on-background contacts—this reality makes it increasingly important and yet often difficult to check off those aforementioned truisms.

And I’m not saying anything new or clever when I use the “infotainment” moniker to dub our current media climate, but really that’s what it is–Infotainment.

Put simply, even given all the myriad outlets and information sources our current journalism climate offers, we basically like getting information from places we like. We flock to media and blogs and outlets that adhere to our highly personalized appetites and it’s easy to insulate ourselves from anything, any opinion that runs counter to our own. And it’s equally easy to perpetuate stories and blogs that align with our own ideologies. We can create our own truth around pretty much anything these days, and that’s kind of scary.

I’m not exempt from this. In full disclosure, I am a card-carrying member of the Stewart/Colbert militia. Their tongue-in-cheek, nothing-is-sacred satirical methodology appeals to me, partially because it’s so skillfully delivered and partially I admit, because their politics and ideology pretty much line up with my own.

Still, it makes me think.

If you hold to the adage that you can’t believe everything you read then does that imply the only things you might actually be able to believe are being perpetuated by people who don’t actually expect you to believe every word they write or say? Is Stephen Colbert perhaps the truest journalist of our times if you embrace the  Bizzaro World idea of journalistic truth?

Is Colbert-style  “truthiness” really the best we can hope for in our current media climate? And does it in fact offer us more actual truth than straight journalism? What is “straight journalism?  It’s an interesting conundrum to ponder, whether you are a casual reader, middling information hound or total news junkie.

To that end, I’m looking forward to having The Yes Men here at UCLA Live Oct. 14.

The tagline for The Yes Men’s documentary The Yes Men Fix the World is “Sometimes it takes a lie to expose the truth.”

The Yes Men—Andy Bichelbaum and Mike Bonanno—stretch the truth for sure, lying and posing as executives from government agencies and multinational corporations in an effort to ferret out often more-salacious untruths. Their methods are extreme and, well, fabulously funny at the same time. Still, their cunning legerdemain, however comically or altruistically motivated, hasn’t left the duo unscathed.

Whether or not you agree with The Yes Men’s tactics or motivation, you have to admit, what they do is thought-provoking.

And isn’t that essentially what any information-consumption should be about? To inspire you to think? To process…to not just swallow something whole simply because it comes from someone who looks just like you, who thinks just like you, who shares your worldview or your methods of information gathering and dissemination. What an idea. Maybe I will watch Fox News tonight. (Maybe not).

I’m sure we’ll examine the idea and phenomenon of “truthiness” a couple of times here in Royce Hall this year, first with The Yes Men and later in February with The Onion Editors.

In the meantime, don’t believe everything you read. Unless it’s good stuff about UCLA Live of course. That you can take to the bank.

Photo note: Front page of the fake New York Times The Yes Men printed and handed out. If only some of THOSE stories were true.