Rory O’Connor’s timing couldn’t be much better. We’re in the midst of a presidential campaign where the very notion of Truth-with-a-capital-T seems to be at risk: think Barack Obama’s alleged Muslim-ness or Sarah Palin’s alleged rejection of the Bridge to Nowhere. And now O’Connor — the veteran journalist and media critic and alum of the Phoenix, the Real Paper, Boston magazine, the Globe, WGBH, and WCVB — has returned to Boston from New York for a fellowship at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, where he’ll be pondering the future of journalistic truth and trust. An edited excerpt of his recent conversation with the Phoenix follows; for a fuller version, visit the “Don’t Quote Me” blog.
What is the goal of your study at Harvard?
How do we know that what we see and hear is really true? That goes both ways. There’s a high level of distrust between the citizenry and the professional journalism priesthood, whether they’re on the right or the left. And the professionals are up in arms, too. They don’t trust citizen journalism at all; they’re afraid of people getting their news and information from viral e-mails; they know things are changing rapidly throughout the mainstream media; they feel, quite rightly, like they’re under assault. What I’m going to be looking at is trust, journalism, and social networks, and the role they can play in enabling people to get news and information they can trust. Obviously, that’s really vital to having a fully functioning democracy. And one could argue we don’t have one at the moment, or that we’re right on the edge of not having one.
So are John McCain and the GOP being savvy in telling people, “don't get your information from the media because they’re not trustworthy”?
Attacking the media hasn’t worked so well in the past, but I think it's working better now because of personalization — my Yahoo, my news, my Republican Party, my Democratic friends. And as people move away from mainstream transition belts, everything becomes media. You’re getting pushed directly from the campaign, or seeing their information on YouTube — that’s media. You’re mashing it up and making something new: photoshopping and putting Sarah Palin’s head on top of somebody in a red, white, and blue bikini, holding a giant gun, which also wasn’t true. That’s media. The other thing I want to look at is the mainstream media playing in fields of Facebook and MySpace. What are they doing? YouTube just partnered with the Pulitzer Center; CNN has a new thing going with Digg; Reuters built a bureau in Second Life. Nobody knows if any of this stuff’s going to work, but they know something’s happening.
Are we approaching a point, in the media and across the broader culture, where the notion of truth is in trouble? Is this a point of peril?
I think it’s a big point of peril. But I also think that social networks are potentially the answer to that and the antidote to that.