The New Cyberspace Truth Sheriffs

The battle over what is worthy news—fake, truthful or the whole gray area in-between—has ratcheted up into an outright war between established media outlets and up-and-coming disrupters.

As someone who has watched countless industries topple and fall with Silicon Valley technology’s each new iteration, I am both fascinated and dismayed at the recent turn of entrants into the media field: the “Truth Sheriffs”.

While I appreciate their stated goals of ferreting out outright lies from the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the reality is that journalism (the old-fashioned word for media) has always had bias, and for a reason.

Freedom of speech is our primary Constitutional right to guarantee that the opinion of each and every one of us is considered in the national debate. The freedom of the press builds upon that right, and allows anyone to publicly state and distribute opinions without interference from the government, even when it is critical of said government, OR when it is critical of any member of the press. The definition of harmful speech has been specifically adjudicated, as in the case of libel or imminent danger, such as crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Certainly, ostensibly extreme opinions, once given due consideration, may end up in dismissal, and may represent a minority viewpoint for decades to come. However, to the extent that an American citizen has an unpopular belief and votes for an issue or candidate in an election as a result, that perspective has an immediate impact on all of us.

Once unpopular and mocked beliefs, such as women’s suffrage, racial integration of our military, and gay marriage, are now considered as fundamental as our right to free speech. It is only by allowing a full, public discourse of ideas, no matter how radical or despicable, to continue our nation’s role as the world’s leader of freedom. And public discourse in this century means tolerating, if not outright embracing, the wide spectrum of views and public comments on the internet, television, radio, and via the more traditional printed press.

Reaching consensus is not easy, as any politician will confirm. Stifling free speech doesn’t eradicate hate, it simply sends it underground. Stomping roughshod over a small part of the population, or mocking their opinions, or deciding that certain people are too stupid to differentiate truth from fiction is bound to fail. America’s founding fathers had an unshakable belief in the common sense of its citizens to discern truth from hyperbole, the fake from the real.

So why do the new Truth Sheriffs claim to be the final arbiters of facts? Money.

Current-day journalism makes its money through advertising, not by writing superbly accurate stories. As the dominant players in the so-called mainstream media—Facebook, TV networks, venerable newspapers—have been caught up in scandalous or at least unpopular decisions, the large advertisers are seeking a better use for their investment to reach existing and potential customers. So in ride the new Truth Sheriffs, claiming to be able to narrow the number of sites that are “worthy” of billions of advertising dollars. And for a small percentage cut of those funds, they will vet that the news offered is valid, in essence putting themselves between you and the entire flow of opinion that our thriving democracy relies on.

These new sheriffs have their opinions, too, as do all human beings. For example, one ratings service already demonstrates clear bias in its ratings: citations to support their conclusions often are one-sided news sources themselves. Is it any surprise that the NY Times would have an article scoffing at Gateway Pundit’s veracity? Or that Harvard University and Politico would agree? Does Fox News agree? Or the Washington Times?

In another example, a cautionary label of conservative is lavishly sprinkled throughout, yet the word liberal is missing. Business owners of a website or news source are identified as conservative, but apparently liberal owners or donors do not need to be called out for their political views. In too many cases, so-called fake news is correlated to conservative issues or people, not to liberal issues or people.

Why is that? At what point do the Truth Sheriffs simply descend back into the circular argument of each side sanctioning itself and condemning the other? And who’s vetting and policing the Truth Sheriffs, who themselves are backed by those same mainstream media organizations, scrambling to maintain their lock on what message is the correct one for the average American to hear?

Vetting facts is a fool’s errand. Vetting the style, writer, and presentation is not. And to accomplish that, critical thinking is needed, something you can do for yourself.

Trust in your own judgment, but also verify the key information. Simply ask, “What’s right with the picture? What’s wrong with the picture?”

For instance, are both sides of an issue presented on a news site? Are links provided to source material so the reader can decide for himself? Is the entire political spectrum covered? Is politics even the only fake news, or does political bias creep in on a supposedly non-political site?

Like America’s founders, I have a profound respect for humans to sense when they are being lied to, conned, or mocked. Too many intellectuals and so-called journalists have fallen in love with their own ideas and words under their protective mantle of freedom of the press, and have lost sight of what is truly important—freedom of ideas, of expression, and speech.

Without it, our nation is surely doomed.

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