Recently on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program, host Kerri Miller put the question to the guests and listeners of what influence bloggers, social media, and other online information organizations have on traditional press. The two stories that drove the conversation were the WikiLeaks story and the ado stirred up by Andrew Breitbart and his BigGovernment.org online news site, regarding remarks made by former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod. Each story, in its own way, challenged the public’s information literacy level. With regard to WikiLeaks, some organizations showed an exemplary level of information literacy, while many of the rest drowned in apathy toward the whole story. In the Shirley Sherrod story, however, we saw a profound display of illiteracy coupled with a troubling demonstration of how bloggers, commentators, and social media can not just control, but hijack a news cycle.
With the Afghanistan conflict recently surpassing all others as the longest, sustained military conflict in US history, and a public increasingly skeptical of the merits of the war and the strategies being used to bring it to a close, the WikiLeaks documents were powerful in shaping many people’s views on the conflict. For some, they showed the conflict in raw form, and offered a granular, often colorful proof of what is wrong with the conflict. Others, including the White House, were dismissive, saying that while the leak of these documents harms national security, there was really nothing new, nothing to be concerned about, but that the documents should nonetheless, never have been released—a strange double standard to have for anything let alone national security.
Julian Assange, founder and editor of WikiLeaks released the database of 92,000 documents to the New York Times, Guardian UK, and Der Spiegel and gave them a month to review and digest the documents before making a story. He did this intentionally because he knew there was a story there, but also knew that he was not in a position to tell it. His organization has learned a lot, says Midmorning guest Brent Anderson of the Columbia Journalism Review, reflecting on the past history of WikiLeaks in breaking stories or artifacts that are shocking or come to dominate the news cycle. His decision to give the documents to a third party to vet them before making them public shows a maturation in his role as a source for the media, and the public. It also shows an increased sophistication as an activist.
Here is an organization with information it knows is valuable, with the means of publishing it and disrupting whatever strategy was behind keeping it closed, but instead gives it over to three of the largest media organizations in the world to let them figure out what if any perspective there is to glean from them. He admits, by not simply releasing this information, that leaking for the sake of leaking is not enough. There needs to be some context to help the public, who have neither the time nor resources to devour and digest 92,000 documents but deserve to understand what significance a leak of this magnitude has with regard to the broader issue. It is an incredible show of information literacy, and responsibility toward holding the government accountable to the people under its electorate.Indeed Assange has likely come a long way since his days as a hacker, but the mission that drives him is likely the same as it was in his youth. The hacking movement is characterized by allowing the flexibility and versatility of computers to be as unrestrained as possible. Among the virtues espoused by many hackers is the commitment to open and free information. Notable hackers include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web (to which we owe much of what we know as the Internet), who is on record recently calling for “greater openness, accountability and transparency in Government will give people greater choice and make it easier for individuals to get more directly involved in issues that matter to them.” This is certainly the sentiment under which WikiLeaks operates: that the Internet and modern technology can and should be used to proliferate public information.
With all the raw data being disseminated through services like Wolfram Alpha, Google, and others that are part of what Berners-Lee calls the “Open Data Movement,” it is more important than ever to have an increasingly sophisticated level of information literacy in our modern society. Indeed Julian Assange showed off his information aptitude through the manner in which he leaked the Afghanistan Diaries, but one need look no further than the other media outlets who gave the story short shrift to see that there remain parts of our society where information illiteracy runs rampant.Miller’s guests talked about the way other media outlets handled the story, they said that many organizations that were not given the priviliged access to the leak dismissed it, assuming there was no scoop, and thus nothing more to report. Other outlets towed the Obama administration’s line that there was no scoop at all, that these documents were nothing that was not already part of the debate. Both of these attitudes show a major failure to evaluate and digest information on the part of our news media, but in the same week the WikiLeaks documents broke came another story that illustrates a much clearer picture of the state of information literacy in our 21st century society.
Shirley Sherrod was let go from her job in the US Department of Agriculture this week on the grounds that she had not done her job fairly; she was in fact a racist. Where did this notion come from? A doctored video prepared by Andrew Breitbart at BigGovernment.org, an overtly conservative “news” organization. Breitbart used the video, which was a short, and blatantly incomplete excerpt from a speech Sherrod gave to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in an attempt to expose racism in the ranks of President Obama’s administration. The video, following the zeitgeist, went viral. Fox News commentator Bill O’Riley picked it up and called for Sherrod’s resignation on his show that night, Sean Hannity discussed the video, towing Breitbart’s argument that it showed unacceptable levels of racism in the Obama Administration, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had already asked for her resignation before O’Riley’s show aired that evening, and the NAACP denounced her “remarks” nearly immediately. Miller’s guests noted that none of the broadcast television networks touched it, and the ever inflammatory Glenn Beck even ignored it, showing some restraint toward what was clearly not the whole story.
Why did all these powerful and influential people react this way? For Hanity and O’Riley it makes sense, they wanted to advance the agenda, but what of their foes in the White House and the NAACP? They were frightened of what might happen if they did not get ahead of the story. Instead of acting responsibly and either ignoring it as a nattering inaccuracy, or better yet offering some counter-message strategy to combat the story, the Administration and the NAACP crumbled.
If any of these people had watched the video in its entirety they would have noticed that Shrrod was not simply telling about how she didn’t help a white farmer because there were black farmers to help, she was sharing her personal struggle with the concept of race. Since when does our society have a problem with people who struggled and overcame racism? All the Administration would have had to do, if they were truly worried about potential political fallout from the benign video, is put someone on one of those news programs that did pick it up with a counter message: The Obama Administration values employees who show integrity when facing difficult choices. If anyone were to watch the rest of Sherrod’s speech, they would see her dedication to serving the United States of America with a fair mind toward all Americans regardless of race, or any other personal quality. (That one’s free, feel free to hire me to fight future fires.) Instead they treated Sherrod as if she were a leper, cast her from their ranks and left her alone and abandoned.
As it happened, Sherrod eventually did go herself to show the world the full video and explained for anyone who wasn’t listening what it meant. Her appearance on a cable news show cleared up the situation, refuted Breitbart, and had the Obama Administration kissing her feet in apology. The whole situation shows a disturbing picture for American politics and the news media. We rapidly have a population willing to believe anything they read in a blog, and apparently a White House that does the same. The basic principle of information literacy is that any “fact” or datum collected should be evaluated against its accuracy and validity. This means, in this case, watching the whole video. It means when some hack with a blog posts a story claiming something as outlandish as racism in the White House, that claim should not be taken at face value. Information literacy is not just for students writing papers in high school and college, we as a public need to critically evaluate everything we are given. No person in the 21st century should get all of their information from just one source—be it a blog, a cable television program, or a radio program.
During an interview at Harvard’s Kennedy Institute, comedian Stephen Colbert was asked what he thought of people who used his program and the Daily Show as a news program. He answered that it scares him. It scares him because his program is not news, it is comedy. As it scares Colbert that people rely on his program for news, so too should it scare us all that so many in our society, especially those with the most power and influence, rely and take for granted any information posted to blogs like BigGovernment.org, and videos published on YouTube.