Why the Internet is not today's CNN

Growing reliance on blogs for political news a concern

The Internet is growing as a source for political news, but with many blogs being anonymously written, that's a bit scary.

Ted Turner founded the Cable News Network in 1980. It took a few years, but CNN became a major source of news for most of the United States. According to the latest Pew Research survey, 38% of the U.S. public turns to CNN and its cable competitors for news about the current presidential campaign. That is essentially the same percent as turn to their local TV news, somewhat ahead of the percent that get their news from the nightly network news or from newspapers, and about 30% more than those who admit to getting campaign news from the Internet.

The Internet is growing in importance (up from 9% in 2000 to 24% a month ago), but is still not a dominant player. However, it still may be a dominant effecter.

The Pew survey makes for interesting reading, and contains lots of charts detailing its findings. Perhaps the most telling is the one showing the generational divide over news sources. The relative importance of the Internet and local news shows as information sources is almost reversed when you compare the over-50 population (50% local news and 15% Internet) with the18-29 population (25% local news and 42% Internet).

A lot of news is only "covered," if that is the right concept, by Internet-based blogs. For example, effectively no major print or TV news show is reporting in any detail on the vote recount going on in New Hampshire while there are a number of blogs publishing the up-to-the-minute results. But this example illustrates a basic bias and competence problem with Internet news that is likely much worse than that with most major news organizations or newspapers.

Allegations of bias are leveled against CNN and its major competitors all the time, and, from what I’ve seen, for quite good reasons. But the worst of these allegations are milk toast when compared to the vitriol and speculation in some blogs. The New Hampshire reports in the blogs are, at best, varying in their degree of believability. Too many border on supermarket tabloid quality.

At least most viewers of network news or talk shows or readers of newspapers have enough of a history with particular hosts or news editors to correct for their often obvious biases. That is not as easy to do with some blogs that appear to be well written but for which there is no way to know the background, biases or basic competence of the writer.

If the trend shown in the Pew report continues (for example, more than doubling the percent of people getting political news from the Internet in the last four years) we will soon have a generation of potential voters that get their news from an environment where no one can tell that you are a rabid dog when you write about a candidate as long as you use proper diction. That does not make me feel better about the future.

Disclaimer: I expect some folk at Harvard worried about the impact of anonymous pamphleteering during the revolutionary war; maybe the above is more of the same. In any case, the above is mine, not Harvard’s, expression of worry.

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