THE READER FEEDBACK MANIFESTO
ROBERT J. LEWIS
I find with our journalism
is that it forces us to take an interest
in some fresh triviality,
whereas only three or four books in
give us anything that is of real importance.
Men are only men. That's why they lie.
They can't tell the truth, even to themselves.
from Rashômon (1950)
a man fasten his attention on a single aspect of truth
and apply himself to that alone for a long time,
the truth becomes distorted and not itself but falsehood.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
a lesson in humility, a seminar I am always happy to attend,
since it always results in my edification; when I plunge into
the passion and creative thinking that takes place in the online
reader feedback pages.
matter how brilliant and informed are our opinion makers –
Leon Wieseltier (The New Republic), Charles Krauthammer
(Washington Post), David Brooks (NYT) or the
late Christopher Hitchens (Vanity Fair) -- the feedback
or reader commentary pages, regardless of subject or controversy,
always force the same conclusion: that the writer, who believes
himself sufficiently knowledgeable on a subject to want his
readers to share his view, hasn’t thought of everything,
and indeed, as is often the case, has only very partially disclosed
the essence of matters of great importance that fall within
his expertise and presumption.
opinion makers are not lacking in vanity or ambition. Norman
Mailer, who knifed the 2nd of six wives and successfully petitioned
for the release of convicted killer Jack Abbot who killed again
only weeks after obtaining his freedom, believed he swung the
1960 presidential election in favour of John Kennedy.
of their éminence grise warrant, our opinion
makers, for whom language is the weapon of choice against everything
to which they are opposed, take positions on the major issues
of the day (to bomb or not to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities,
to intervene militarily in Syria) and in a tone of voice that
suggests they have or should have direct access to the Commander
in Chief, explain why it is self-evident their home and native
land should embark on a particular course of action and not
journalism, by its very nature, is selective in the facts and
arguments it brings to bear on an issue. But for readers who
are looking to grasp the larger picture, who are secure enough
in their social egos to willfully forgo having an opinion on
everything, for whom the disinterested pursuit of truth is its
own reward, will have already discovered that an online editorial
cannot be separated from the voluminous, and mostly illuminating,
reader feedback it inspires.
digitalization of information now allows for an opinion piece
to generate hundreds if not thousands of reader comments that
are usually posted minutes after they have been received. The
first effect of this is that the idea under consideration enjoys
an enlargement and enrichment that would have been impossible
in the analog era. The second effect concerns the shift in power
away from the opinion maker to the feedbackers, since the content
and direction of the conversation (debate) are now in the hands
of the latter. Where the net gain is available to everyone (just
a click away), we would expect the opinion maker to be the first
to profit from the multiplication of information and perspectives,
but in point of fact he rarely retreats from or even modifies
an opinion, conveniently confusing his lofty position (editorialist/syndicated
columnist) for his authority and knowledge of an issue. With
impunity, so he believes, he has already decided that reader
feedback, a product of undistinguished provenance, should be
either ignored or disdained. And when the Dag Hammarskjöld
admonition is brought to his attention, “pride is a fool’s
fortress,” he will pro forma be the first to
shout its wisdom and last to be wise.
was an analog time when newspapers and magazines, as a cost
consideration, could afford no more than a page per issue for
letters or reader commentary, and the writer could blithely
pass over contrary opinion without having to seriously consider
altering his original position. But in the digital age that
course of inaction is no longer tenable. Informed and extensive
commentary oblige the opinion maker to acknowledge that his
grasp of any issue is slight in relation to the enormity and
complexity of the whole, and when he descends into denial, willfully
shutting out facts and arguments that don’t conform to
his thesis or argument, willing the public weal to kneel to
his narrow agenda, he discredits (even disgraces) himself at
a speed and scale that we now designate as ‘going viral.’
He will be the last to suspect he is suffering from a form of
self-induced dissociative identity disorder and, on a good day,
the first to learn that “reputation is better kept than
to the insights and information generated worldwide by reader
feedback, there is every reason to believe that tomorrow’s
opinion makers will be crafting more responsible and informed
opinions. Thanks to the ubiquity of iPhones and hand-held video
devices, it’s next to impossible to promulgate and sustain
agenda-driven propaganda and damned lies.
our world is hurting bad it’s because there has been a
collective failure to recognize that pluralism (what it brings
to the table) is the best guarantor of making the best of possible
choices that bears directly on the health and well being of
the planet. What the Bush presidency (The Iraq War) taught us
the hard way is that advocacy journalism and the pursuit of
truth are divergent paths that lead to very different conclusions
with painfully real consequences.
readers under thirty now choose to get their opinion pieces
online because they know that whatever the issue or controversy
it will be significantly augmented by reader feedback. These
same readers also subscribe, if only implicitly, to the notion
that the quest for truth is a collective undertaking, and that
what allows the truth to appear and endure is the constancy
of their concern and discernment.
feedback pages, at their best, constitute a fifth column against
ignorance and hubris. They teach us that truth is multifaceted,
in constant flux, and that an idea is only as good as the number
of perspectives it engenders, and that existential truth is
essentially all quantum and no solace.
there be any doubt that the “order is rapidly changing”
(at byte-warp speed) and that the ideal of a participatory democracy
is on the near horizon?
to the Internet, reader feedbackers were dispersed and isolated.
Now they are begrudgingly identified as an informal but growing
community (a social network) of like-minded citizens of the
world whose global input poses a direct challenge to influence
wielded by the venerated opinion maker.
the forefront of this revolution in the way information is sourced
and handled is CNN’s wonderfully wise and witty Cafferty
File (CF). Recognizing the redundancy for what it is, the CF
has altogether dispensed with the opinion maker, persuaded that
the truth and complexity of any issue are better served by an
appropriate question to which viewers can weigh in on. The content
of the program is freely and solely produced by the viewer,
which might explain why CNN’s bottom liners, its chartered
accountants, are laughing all the way to the nearest off shore
makers gazing into their hand-held crystal balls should be worried
about job security, which might be reason for the world to worry