Reviewers now commonly issue a SPOILER ALERT if they are about to spoil a movie, play, or book by revealing the ending. Knowing the surprise of the ending is about to be ruined, we can choose not to read further. It's a great idea--and I'd like to extend it to political writing and offer a plea to all major media. I want a WINGNUT ALERT. And I'd be happy for a MOONBAT ALERT too, please. I'm betting I'm not the only person out there who is sick and tired of wasting time thinking about extreme accusations from unreliable and unsubstantiated sources that, we later find out, have little or no credibility or even evidence in the first place. We wasted time believing (or disbelieving) something that turns out to be unfounded or even an outrageous lie when we have better things to be concerned about in this world. If we had such a Wingnut and Moonbat alert system, we could choose not to waste our time by reading, viewing, or listening to unsubstantiated rumors, innuendos, or just plain falsehoods.
As a researcher dedicated to understanding and improving the civility (or its lack) on the Internet, I and my colleagues spend a good deal of time worrying about credibility. In a Web 2.0 world, where anyone can post a blog or a comment about anything without the filter of a credible, honorable news institution to adjudicate the credibility of remarks, who will maintain standards of accuracy and reliability? I try to teach my students what it means to be a responsible participant in online culture where exchange is unmoderated. We aren't very good at teaching kids or adults how to be responsible participants in digital collaboration, in the exchange of ideas, where a productive outcome depends on all parties working toward a common goal.
The myth is that our major news agencies do provide a filter of responsible judgment that the "here comes everybody" form of the open and egalitarian Internet does not. But I don't think this is true anymore. At least not last time I looked. Lately it is the Wingnuts (a derogatory term for right wing pundits) who seem to be quoted and given remarkable amounts of air time for unsubstantiated rumors that turn out, in the end, to be ridiculous and a waste of everyone's time and mental energy. This week's Wingnut controversy was the protest against the President speaking to school children. The President, it was said, should keep government out of public schools (really?) and not be indoctrinating school children into being socialist, leftist extremists. It turns out that the President wanted to kick off a new year inspiring kids to work hard, do their homework, and not give up and to urge their parents to be responsible too. But the Wingnut who urged parents to keep their children home from school to protect them from the socialist mind-takeover scheme plotted by the nation's President took up three minutes of airtime on CNN before a White House spokesman denied the charge that the President planned anything like an indoctrination session devoted to health care and other extremist reform measures. The whole thing became a distracting non-event but not before we all wasted three minutes listening to foolishness and a good half day exercised over the three minutes wasted. You could list your own Wingnut favorites: death panels for Granny, false accounts that a majority of protestors (rather than a few vocal ones, some toting guns) at health care town hall meetings are against any reform, the President isn't really a U.S.-born citizen and has never shown his birth certificate or, if he has, it wasn't the real one (give me a break, please), the President is a Muslim. Etcetera. Fox News seems to specialize in producing Wingnuts who pontificate on just about anything without a shred of empirical evidence.
Where, exactly, is the filter of credibility that conventional news media is supposed to provide, that those of us who champion the form of participatory collaboration on the Internet set as the standard against which we should be judged?
The noise from the Wingnuts is loudest right now because a Democrat did, after all, win the Presidency by a substantial margin of votes. But, every day, the Moonbats (a derogatory term for left wing pundits) contribute to the level of noise in the mainstream media too.
How many times have I read in the New York Times, in the news section as well as in op ed pages, that the President is caving in to pressure from the GOP on this or that key issue, only to find out that he hasn't issued any new statements, hasn't changed his mind, hasn't really done anything new at all. Apparently Times reporters and opinion makers read tea leaves or crystal balls or the position of the stars to know what really goes on in the deep, waffling, ever-moderating and turncoat heart of a President who promised his voters change but who is, at base, deeply against change. (He probably doesn't really even like hope either, for that matter.) For a while I kept a count of the number of headlines on the front page of the Times that warned of yet another devious capitulation to the GOP only to find that the story itself didn't come close to supporting that headlined proclamation.
If surveys show that Jon Stewart on Comedy Central is the Walter Cronkite of this generation--America's Most Trusted News Figure--it may be that he is one of the few people in the traditional media (if Comedy Central is traditional media) who can be counted on to not just refute some accusation by the Wingnuts and the Moonbats but to actually ferret out the truth. His best gambit is to put some politician or pundits words on one day side-by-side with that same person's quite different words on another. He doesn't have to refute or deny. He lets hypocrisy--and truth--speak for itself. There isn't an accusation and then someone's defensive response. There is truth. And there are lies.
So, please, you traditional print and television and radio journalists out there, all of you in conventional media who are fighting for your survival against the Evil Internet, if you want to have any credibility at all, please stop the he said/she said blather of this moment and return to sorting out what does and doesn't hold any water before you print or broadcast it. Remember, that is supposed to be what distinguishes traditional media from the open form of the Internet. And, if you cannot resist the incendiary fabrication and fantasy that, you believe, will capture the public's attention and save you from extinction, then please begin any piece that relies on unsubstantiated allegations with a WINGNUT ALERT! or a MOONBAT ALERT! Or maybe just a one-size-fits all FANTASY ALERT! If I see that, I will stop paying attention to non-news and spend my time contemplating real and important issues instead.