Thursday, December 15, 2016

Librarians in the Age of Trump, Media Bias Edition

This infographic has been making the rounds in my social media bubble(s). Friends, librarians, and friends who are librarians have all shared it.

Via Vanessa Otero
I am uncomfortable with this infographic for two reasons. The first concerns political culture in the United States. The second is more library and information science (LIS) -centric.

First, the political economy, and as a result the political culture, of journalism in the United States is rife with false equivalence, which the above image reflects. Take the center gray circle, for example, helpfully labeled "Great sources of news." The Washington Post and National Public Radio have, in the past month, featured soft-focus articles on Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi white supremacist. Meanwhile, CNN, "Better than not reading news at all," routinely hosts debates that feature neo-Nazis and/or climate change deniers.

This infographic neatly shows how abhorrent and wrong views make it into mainstream discourse, often under the guise of hearing from "both sides," as if denying climate change is a valid opinion, based in the scientific method. As if racist, bigoted hate speech deserves these platforms. The above image, in showing a level playing field between left and right, normalizes the normalizers.

Yet there is something more insidious about it. The idea that Hillary Clinton is a liar comes from the late New York Times op-ed columnist William Safire, who labeled her a "congenital liar" in a 1996 opinion article.* That same paper employed Judith Miller, who for years wrote uncritically about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction the George W. Bush Administration asserted Iraq possessed as a pretext for war. And yet as presented here, it is a great source of news, well within the mainstream.** All three of the news sources discussed above, as well as the television networks within that gray bubble of great news sources, devoted countless hours to Clinton's email scandal at the expense of actual policy issues, and breathlessly shared a Russian disinformation campaign designed to do lasting damage to our country. Meanwhile, The Nation, which on occasion will challenge the corporate-owned and venture capital-backed media organizations that sit to the slight right of it, is shown as barely credible. Per Stephen Colbert, reality has a liberal bias, yet the level playing field shown here distorts as much as it illuminates. Predictably, the best critique of mainstream media, liberalism, and facts I've read comes from Jacobin, taking square aim at the center and center-left of this infographic.
In fact, liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers — who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts — relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge.
One pictures Jacobin, like The Nation, placed somewhere near that hyperpartisan liberal line, with little journalistic value. Make of that what you will.

The United States, writ large, is not the only entity with a culture that would make this infographic so popular. Librarians, of which I am one, fancy themselves as defenders of facts, of truth, and of access to information. And on our best days, we are. But the same tendencies that lead librarians to create LibGuides for all sorts of issues, and that lead us to "one-shot" hour-long information literacy sessions as solutions to problems is behind the sharing of this very flawed image. Were this infographic to be the start of a conversation — and judging by the replies to Otero and discussion elsewhere, maybe we will get there — it would be one thing. However, it's far more likely that this image will be deployed as a bandage, covering a wound, allowing us to move on. Did something happen? Here's a LibGuide. Need to impart critical thinking skills in an hour? We can do that.*** Or, at least we say we can, rather than do what needs to be done, which is a far more thorough and deep embedding into our communities. Please do not uncritically share this image. There's much more work to be done. Thank you.

* That Clinton would refuse to release transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs and obfuscate about using a private email server did her no favors here.
** I have subscriptions to both the Times and the Post, and routinely donate to WAMU, Washington, DC's local National Public Radio station.
*** Librarians and library staff along should not bear the entirety of blame for the propagation of the one-shot, which is often all the time we are granted by teachers and administration.