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Veritocracy limits online exposure

Worrisome tool aims to 'counters media bias'

A new web tool, Veritocracy, lets consumers screen material online by grouping narrow topics in a way that “counters media bias with personalized views,” essentially insuring that they never need see an article or link that challenges their existing opinions.

Television has its own gizmo, TiVo, to perform this function, but more significantly, there are the cable news networks, talkradio and the Internet, which allow viewers to self-select for those perspectives with which they agree. The collateral damage of creating these homogenized, hermetically sealed thought-bubbles has become increasingly obvious — creating a society where opposing factions can’t even engage each other, and where traditional outlets that profess to present facts are viewed with suspicion and derision.

To paraphrase an old song, the result is a world where it’s not so funny that we can’t talk anymore.

Lost amid all the hand-wringing over the Fairness Doctrine, in this context, is the laudable goal that the measure was meant to foster: not stifling opinion, but rather stimulating robust debate by mandating divergent perspectives be represented.

That ideal remains no less admirable today, but based on the stratification of our information sources, there’s no denying that the Fairness Doctrine is antiquated.

Apprehension about the growth of an inward-looking population — what Rush Limbaugh fans call “dittoheads,” essentially, though here both on the far left and right — is hardly new, but for some it has reached alarming levels. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker recently suggested that newspapers are suffering in part because of “ignorance stoked by drive-by punditry … convincing many Americans that they don’t need newspapers.”

In a visit with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Meghan McCain — the twentysomething daughter of Republican senator John McCain — similarly lamented how abrasive political discussion has become, in the process labeling conservative firebrand Ann Coulter “offensive.”

“Unless we have dialogues, unless Republicans can come on shows like yours, unless people like you can go on Fox, we’re never going to create a dialogue and we’re never going to meet in the middle. I think there are extremes in both parties, and I hate extremes,” she said — only to be pilloried by fellow conservatives for her naivete.

The latest Pew Research Center study on the state of the news media reinforces the anecdotal evidence, finding that two-thirds of the audience watching Fox News Channel’s primetime stalwarts “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity” are self-identified conservatives, while less than 7% claim to be liberals. There wasn’t data for MSNBC counterweights Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, but one suspects the figures roughly would be flipped.

Such polarization continues along a spectrum of websites (the Drudge Report and Newsmax, Huffington Post and the Daily Kos) where story choices and spin tilt in disparate directions. Spend one day with Fox/Drudge and the next with MSNBC/HuffPo, and you’ll see two parallel but vastly different realities.

Although the committed cable-news audiences skew older (as in 60-and-up), the reality gap might be even wider among politically conscious youth, who are less attached to conventional newspapers and thus absorb more of their news from TV or the Internet.

Recently, to cite one example, I was interviewed by a college student for a school project. It soon became clear that her questions were designed less to secure my “expert” opinion than to prod me into saying things that would reinforce her preconceived notions.

Then again, everyone can plead guilty to such moments. Personally, I grappled with whether I was comfortable receiving financial advice from someone who let slip that she considered Fox News’ Glenn Beck a primary news source. Given that Beck’s on-air behavior is so bizarre that even a colleague, anchor Shepard Smith, has mocked him on air, to me this cast her judgment in a questionable light.

The unforeseen consequence of this gravitation toward narrow information platforms amid an a la carte media landscape is a widening perception gap — a modern Tower of Babel, where everyone appears to be speaking different languages. Small wonder that partisan factions are unable to get together on even a basic set of facts, if only to get the argument started.

Being a godless media type, I’m fuzzy on the details of how the biblical story ended, but I seem to recall it wasn’t a happy one.

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