Seeking validation, not illumination

I got an email yesterday from a woman -- I think she's an East Coast real estate agent -- who's just furious at the Associated Press for daring to fact-check some speakers at the Republican convention in St. Paul. "It makes me so mad to see the media pick apart the candidates -- all for their own selfish purpose," she wrote. "I am an independent voter and have not yet decided who will win my vote, and articles like this infuriate me!"

I looked at the story she cited, and as far as I can tell the fact-checking is 100 percent on-target (although she clearly thinks otherwise). Among other things, she's convinced that Barack Obama didn't author any legislation. She says he "just worked with Republicans to have it done" and "Even an everyday citizen could have done that!"

I suppose that it's true an everyday citizen could do it, provided that the everyday citizen managed to get elected to the Senate and, once there, build the support necessary to get a bill through the swampland of committees and subcommittees.

And I don't want to get into a debate over whether a "sponsor" is an "author." Most legislation is drafted and edited by paid staff. Some seems to come straight from lobbyists. But the line Gov. Sarah Palin's speechwriters fed her -- "this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform" -- was moose poop.

The AP story makes oblique reference to the Lugar-Obama Cooperative Proliferation Detection, Interdiction Assistance, and Conventional Threat Reduction Act of 2006, which is certainly a major piece of legislation, but my favorite is the Coburn-Obama Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which mandated the creation of, an online database that tells you exactly where our money's been going.

Go there and try it out. Just for fun, take a peek at the federally funded spending trend for Alaska.

John McCain signed on as a cosponsor of that bill. As it gained momentum, a total of 43 signed on as cosponsors. One who did not was Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, who put a "secret block" on the bill in an attempt to kill it.

But I'm not trying to get into the politics of it. I'm personally more interested in what all this says about how and why people consume media.

Underlying this interaction is an unpleasant truth of human nature. We don't seek information and illumination as much as we seek validation.

Dissonant information -- anything that conflicts with what we think we know, and/or want to believe, is initially rejected. Information that reinforces our world view feels much better.

This phenomenon actually drives a lot of media consumption.

Here's an example: A suburban homeowner may read city crimes stories with special interest, even though they have no real bearing on the homeowner's life. But that homeowner made a decision to locate in the suburbs -- and perhaps endure a daily 50-minute commute. Stories about "inner city" horrors help validate that decision.

This explains why we watch Jon Stewart, cheer, and laugh. And why else would we read sports pages? We already know who won.

You may notice my use of the word "we." I mean that. Journalists are no less entangled with this desire for validation and reinforcement than everybody else.

As evidence, I point to today's Roy Greenslade blog at the Guardian, in which Greenslade is being taken to task by journalist-readers for being a "doom-monger" for daring to speak truth about the inevitable decline of ink-on-paper journalism.

On the Guardian site and at HoldTheFrontPage, print journalists are making it clear they don't like it one bit.

One admonishes Greenslade (who teaches at City University): "Is it not a bit like a First Wold War general to earn your living training young people and sending them out into a a career with an extremely uncertain future and little prospect of earning a decent living?" Another asks: "Why can't we have a cheerleader for newspapers? If we ever need one, it's now."



You nailed it.