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We all use Wikipedia, if for no other reason than convenience, but it’s understood that Wikipedia is not a “credible” source of information. Teachers, professors, editors, and readers do not look kindly on citing Wiki pages as evidence. It’s seen as lazy and unprofessional. Mentioning that you read something on Wikipedia never wins you an argument. Ask yourself, though, how often have you read something on a Wikipedia page that you later discovered was false, or unrepresentative of the information known at the time? For my own part, I cannot recall that ever happening. When Wiki pages are occasionally “vandalized” (their term) with inappropriate or inaccurate information, they are typically corrected within minutes, or flagged with a warning at the top.
The experience of consuming mainstream media coverage, by contrast, only to later discover that the information in it was completely inaccurate, even based on what was known at the time, has become a depressingly common occurrence. And yet, mainstream press articles are considered credible sources to be cited in most contexts. When was the last time you read a news article prefaced with a banner warning the reader that this entry has problems with it? Our conception of credible information is not merit-based — it’s credential-based. But that’s changing, and not entirely for the good.
Wikipedia’s decentralized open-source format makes it more responsive than any traditional publication with a limited staff of highly-credentialed professionals could ever be, but it opens Wikipedia up to shortcomings these outlets often don’t have. Wikipedia is what’s both wonderful and flawed with “new” media. It is not technically a source of new information — it does no reporting and conducts no original studies or research. It is merely an aggregator and repackager. It takes information already produced by traditional institutions, and weaves it into entries, citing them in footnotes. This is why new media can never — and must never — replace old media. New media is sometimes more accurate, interesting, or insightful, but it requires piggybacking off of preexisting reporting and research. The information landscape is richer for this interplay of old and new, and that’s why the wars between them are so disastrous.
Let’s pause for a moment to define some terms. “New media” (also called independent or alternative media) includes blogs, newsletters, podcasts, YouTube channels, social media, and open-source information aggregators. “Old media” (also called mainstream or legacy media) consists of television, print, and radio news, along with their digital versions, plus all-digital news outlets that have similar structures and editorial practices. Unwilling to fully cede the new frontier to the renegades, old media has established many outposts of their own. Television news companies have YouTube channels. Major press publications have podcasts. Many mainstream journalists have newsletters. But it’s not the same. An establishment organ with a tendril in no-man’s-land isn’t the same thing as pirate radio.
And these two factions rarely miss an opportunity to snipe at one another. New media disembowels the mainstream press over its biases, orthodoxies, conflicts of interest, unresponsiveness, and inaccuracies (I’ve joined in myself). And the mainstream media constantly hammers the drum beat that new media is a dangerous and unreliable haven of conspiracism, pseudoscience, fringe ideas, extremism, racism, and bigotry that they implicate in damn-near everything that goes wrong in society.
It makes perfect sense that legacy media hates bloggers and podcasters, because they’re circling the drain, and they see new media as competition. There are many valid points to be made — lack of editorial standards, inability to do firsthand reporting, catering to niche audiences, etc. But make no mistake, the primary current pulsing beneath the criticism of alternative media is rivalry, not quality. Legacy media is being outcompeted, and they don’t appreciate it. It’s also understandable why independent media bashes mainstream outlets, because offering an alternative to something long-established first requires making the case that the old product is shoddy and the new one is better.
Each side is operating on rational incentives, but the end result is a postmodernist information abyss that makes the current state of affairs look like a MENSA conference by comparison. If old media’s decline ever reaches the point where time of death is called, what will we be left with? New media must remain mindful that they rely upon legacy media for material. Without the information, coverage, and commentary reported or produced by mainstream institutions, independent media’s fodder for content would be instantly reduced to a sliver of what it is now. It would be little more than an infinite regress of commentary on commentary, soon devolving into glorified flame wars and internet feuds. This is Idiocracy territory.
Old media is not similarly dependent on alternative media, but their hostility is misplaced. The failures of legacy media made new media inevitable. If you can’t rein in your biases, if you refuse to give voice to a diversity of thought, or represent the sensibilities of the majority of the country on certain controversial topics; if you commit errors and hypocrisies with increasing and shameless frequency, you will drive your audience away. Now, you could continue to piss and moan about how awful Substack is, or how much Joe Rogan sucks — or you could, and hear me out here, do better. If you want to denude new media of its growing audience, influence, and relevance, and restore balance to the Force, you must direct your ire, not at bloggers and podcasters, but into the uttermost depths of a mirror. That is the only way to break this cycle.
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