In mid-to-late 2009, if you were paying even the slightest attention to the legislative debate over America’s messed-up system of health care, you heard again and again about “death panels.” These were the shadowy governmental bodies that opponents claimed would decide your fate if the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted just about any major shifts away from the current system. Tens of millions of Americans believed this, and many still do.
But if you were paying sufficiently close attention, you’ll came to realize that the reports of death panels were not merely inaccurate; they were outrageous lies. They’d been concocted by opponents of pretty much anything the President might propose. (It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Democrats have been known to lie to make political points, too—the Democrats’ tendency to equate taxpayer-subsidized with “free” is an ongoing abuse of language and logic—but the death panel invention was especially egregious.)
The death panels lost their power in the public mind for several reasons. Most importantly, the charge was so inflammatory that some traditional media organizations did something unusual: They stopped simply quoting “both sides” of an issue that had a true side and a false side, and reported what was true. Of course, not all media organizations did this, and some continued to promote the falsehoods. But the issue was significant enough, and the consequences alarming enough if the charges had been true, that many people spent the extra time it took to figure out what they could trust. The public, by and large, learned the truth. And the health-care debate shed at least one flagrant deception.
We need to do this more often. We have no real choice.
When we have unlimited sources of information, and when the Big Media organizations relentlessly shed their credibility and resources in the face of economic and journalistic challenges, life gets more confusing. The days when we had the easy but misguided luxury of relying on Big Media are gone.
With new tools and old principles, we’ll break away from the passive-consumption role to become active users of media: hands-on consumers and creators. This won’t only be good for society, though it certainly will be. We’ll be better off individually, too. The cliché “Information is power” is true for you and me only if we have trustworthy information.
Above all, hands-on mediactivity is satisfying, and often fun. By being mediactive, you’ll get used to gauging the reliability of what you see, pushing deeper into various topics and following the many threads of arguments to reach your own conclusions—not on everything, of course, but on the issues that you care about the most. And when you’ve made that process part of your life, you’ll have trouble waiting for the next break in your day so you can get back to to the satisfaction that it brings.