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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Trusting the Source

Sarah talks about something similar to what I was getting at here. The Over There show admits it is fiction, but it claims to be realistic fiction. The events and people are not real, but we are clearly meant to think they could be. It's not like Gettysburg, which is clearly a "what might have been" story, but more like The Killer Angels. Of course, neither Over There nor The Killer Angels (and especially not Gettysburg) are meant to provide the reader/viewer with a historical education about the wars they protray. What these works do is give us an impression of what these wars are like. What did it feel like to be a soldier in the Civil War? What is it like to be on the ground in Iraq?

There may be errors in the historical accuracy of the Civil War novels. They might even be of the "that would never, ever happen" variety that Sarah's husband pointed out in the TV show. There are two important differences though, that make the TV one more worrying than any faults in the books.

The first, of course, is that the Civil War is over; it's outcome is decided. No one, after reading Gettysburg, is going to say "I think we ought to have let the South secede." Or certainly not "'I think we ought to reinstate slavery as a legal option." Factual errors, or even deliberate misleading statements can color our view of the past, but cannot change what happened. In that sense, the power anyone might gain by distorting the truth in these novels is very limited. On the other hand, if a misleading, negative impression is continually thrust upon the public about the war we are currently in, that could lead to significant societal and political pressures to change our policy. Potentially devastating actions are possible if someone with a deliberate anti-US agenda and enough talent were to undertake the job of systematically feeding the public lies about the war. (I'm not saying the makers of Over There are trying to mislead, merely explaining why they come under more scrutiny than the writers of historical fiction).

The other reason we should be more concerned about errors in the TV programs is that the events are still taking place. We obviously don't know everything that is happening, or how things will turn out. Quite possibly, historians in the future looking at the events of these years, will discover that many things that appeared good at the time turned out to be bad and vice versa. On the other hand, there is quite a bit of study already done about the Civil War. There is so much material out there already that it would be extremely difficult to convincingly pass off something about that time period unless it was grossly true. You might be able to conceal small changes, or skew things in a certain direction, but certainly, no one would be able to suggest that Gettysburg was a more accurate portrayal than Killer Angels.

It is far easier for the Iraq war to be mischaracterized as a "war for oil" or "American imperialism", or "imposing American ideas of democracy on people who don't want it". It is also easier for people to malign our troops as bloodthirsty, amoral, war criminals because the theater of war is so far away that most people only do get to see the troops as the media portrays them. Hence, it is doubly important that we keep a close watch on what those portrayals are, and correct the errors when we find them.

Which brings me back to a point I made in my earlier post - how do we know we are being misled? If you aren't intimately involved in the war in Iraq, either being there or knowing well someone who is, how do you even begin to theorize that the media portrayal of our troops is a distorted image? How do we know when the source of our information can be trusted?

I talked about blogs having accountability because of the ability to directly link to the source material. Still, I think blogs will suffer the same fate the traditional news media did, and become institutionalized, even mainstream, if you will. I admit to not always bothering to read the linked article on a blog, if I trust the author to generally be honest with what he reports. As blog readership increases, and bloggers get their information from more widespread sources, the job of editorial fact-checking becomes ever harder, and will need to be either delegated or subordinated to other tasks. At that point, it becomes a lot easier for an untrue story to slip under the radar and be given publicity it doesn't deserve.

Imagine if every subscriber of the New York Times read your blog. Imagine the quantity of content you would need to put out before this becomes a possibility. Imagine the nightmare of scrupulously fact-checking every piece of interesting news/information you come across before you mention it on your blog when putting out this enormous quantity of information every day. How do ensure that you as a news source remain trustworthy and only publish accurate information?

I don't really have an answer to that question. Maybe blogs will never grow into giant media entities like the newspapers and networks. Maybe everyone will have his or her own little piece of internet expertise where (s)he writes only about things (s)he has verified. I don't have a crystal ball. All I have is a fortune cookie that says "all is not yet lost..."


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