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Maybe information does want to be free

In his book The Free Press, recently republished, Hilaire Belloc gives a memorable explanation why the mass media make people stupid:

Instead of an organic impression formed at leisure in the comparison of many human sources, the reader obtains a mechanical one. At the same moment myriads of other men receive the same impression. Their adherence to it corroborates his own. Even therefore when the disseminator of the news, that is, the owner of the newspaper, has no special motive for lying, the message is conveyed in a vitiated and inhuman form. Where he has a motive for lying (as he usually has) his lie can outdo any merely spoken or written truth…

If this be true of news and of its vitiation through the Press, it is still truer of opinions and suggested ideas.

Opinions, above all, we judge by the personalities of those who deliver them: by voice, tone, expression and known character. The Press eliminates three-quarters of all by which opinion may be judged. And yet it presents the opinion with the more force. The idea is presented in a sort of impersonal manner that impresses with peculiar power because it bears a sort of detachment, and though it came from an authority too secure and superior to be questioned. It is suddenly communicated to thousands. It goes unchallenged…

New media like talk radio and the internet make it much easier for people to escape from the pit of mental and spiritual paralysis Belloc describes. People complain the new media aren’t professional, but that’s the point. There can’t possibly be a profession in charge of knowledge and opinion about the world in general. Claims to the contrary are obviously self-serving and fraudulent. So it’s good news that people are getting more news from the internet, and that CBS and The New York Times are becoming ever-more-visibly what they are, two special interests among others.

(An interesting technical innovation: it’s now possible to have news and opinion sources like Turnabout and the blogs I run in the right-hand column appear on your Yahoo page just by filling out an online form.)