- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2014

Sometimes even a blind hog finds an acorn, and an unlikely press critic proves this humble proposition. Bill Maher, a famous purveyor of the politically correct who usually throws spitballs at conservatives, Christians and traditional values, thinks the Internet has destroyed the American culture. He would even bring back newspapers.

The water cooler is good now only for dispensing bottled water, he says, and not for the exchange of opinions, some intelligent and some not, because “as a culture, we don’t have enough in common any more.”

He doesn’t say anything about his own contributions to the damage of that culture. The targets of his vitriol usually range from A to B, and include nearly everyone who ever gathered around a water cooler with an opinion contrary to his own. He once even made a movie mocking the religious faith of the Founders and the builders of the exceptional nation.

Nevertheless, his point is a good one, and fair, as far as he goes.

Mr. Maher rails at the decline of news literacy, of thoughtful consideration of “the news,” and the Internet’s mindless pursuit of sensation, most of it trivial, tedious and irrelevant to anyone with a life. “News” on the Internet is often not news at all, because there’s no one to monitor information, to pick and choose what’s important and what’s not.

“Do you know what I saw on Yahoo’s front page this morning?” Mr. Maher asks. “No, you don’t, because mine isn’t the same as yours. People get a news feed now that just spits back customized stories based on what we’ve clicked on in the past … . Welcome to the brave new world of micro-targeting.”

Indeed, newspapers define their reach and breadth by identifying their readers by neighborhood and even zip code, and they know every subscribing household by name. Television networks use less precise methods and they can offer only a proximate number of viewers, maybe correct and maybe not. Internet numbers are even less precise, reckoning reach by the number of times someone opens an article, or “hits” it. “Hits” are the currency of the Internet. A lot of the currency is counterfeit. News sites are tempted to recycle rants, confident that the same people who hit a rant on Tuesday will hit it again on Wednesday. Advertisers can only beware.

Facebook (which sounds like the records a putty and plaster specialist might keep of his gruesome mortuary repairs) has a new gimmick to track how users consume their “news.” The app, called “Paper,” gives you only the news you want and nothing to upset or displease. Facebook calls it “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” It isn’t a newspaper at all, of course, but “customized news” to make sure a passive reader won’t ever run into anything to contradict what he thinks he already knows. This repeals the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous reminder, when he was a Democratic pillar of the U.S. Senate, that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Mr. Maher displays a grainy photograph — in black and white! — of people sitting on a subway train in New York City, and they’re all reading a newspaper. This was once commonplace. Some readers would be reading a right-wing version of the news in Hearst’s Journal-American or the Daily Mirror, and some a left-wing version in the old New York Post, which was indeed left-wing. But everyone aborbed a little heartburn to season his pleasure.

Fashions, like the times, change. The daily newspaper, once the king of the mountain and still the most reliable purveyor of the passing scene, has given way to something that does not always pretend to be the guardian of reality. Winston Churchill once excused wartime disinformation because sometimes “the truth must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.” No doubt sometimes true — hard times will make a monkey eat red pepper — but it’s not a reassuring slogan for a news site.

The editor of a prominent Internet news site once boasted to me that “the Internet, unlike a newspaper, is self-correcting because we can always correct an error at once, before any harm is done.” He sounded silly, but sincere. “So, if someone writes that you were once caught naked with both a live boy and a dead girl, you won’t mind as long as it’s corrected.” No, he said, that’s different. It always is.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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