Now showing: “every utterance, every court filing, every public transaction, every burp, every miscue.”

In an interesting read, Jack Shafer wonders about the state of our politics “now that we have dirt on everyone.” While some debate the power of the Internet to democratize even the most authoritarian regimes, we should consider its role in making our politics dirtier than ever. Shafer describes the shift by comparing a campaign’s opposition research to mining for gold:

The past no longer matters to the political present the way it once did, because we have such better access to it today. Just 15 years ago, investigations of politicians and opposition research were largely limited to professionals with access to Lexis-Nexis or those who knew how to conduct a document search at the county courthouse. Digging dirt back then was like mining gold in the 1800s: labor intensive, and requiring both expertise and expensive tools. Widespread digitization and cheap information technologies haven’t eliminated the professionals from political dirt digging, only lowered the barriers to entry.

Leaping over those low barriers this cycle is Andrew Kaczynski, a 22-year-old history major at St. John’s University, who quarried C-SPAN archives for political gotchas and posted more than 160 of them on his YouTube channel, alerting the press to the best, he tells me.

It isn’t just the dirt. We’re also awash in data or dirt masquerading as data. The information costs of a wold-be knowledgeable citizen are skyrocketing!

David Weinberger takes on this question from a scientific perspective in a book with a great title, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. He points to a scientist’s lament from 1963. That scientist, Bernard K. Forscher, titled his famous letter “Chaos in the Brickyard” and complained that science was churning out too many bricks (facts) without the ability “to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks.” Weinberger explains the problem today is much larger than Forscher could have imagined. Our brickyards are networked!

He offers three reasons today’s brickyards are galactic in scope and they’re worth considering in the context of political dirt. I’ll list them here but recommend visiting Weinberger’s post on The Atlantic for a more detailed discussion.

  1. The economics of deletion. Little data is ever discarded now that massive amounts of storage are easy and inexpensive.
  2. The economics of sharing. It’s easier than ever to share everything. From the 160 hours of video on YouTube mentioned earlier to terabytes of data.
  3. Computers are smarter. The processing power of the average desktop has increased exponentially.

For science, this means the data grows more and more distant from hypothesis-testing and model-building. Data is made accessible in the hope that someone will eventually make it usable. For political life, this creates a chasm between news that matters and news that’s entertaining. You want news you can use? Well, that’s your problem.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed while trying to sift through fact and fiction to find the information that makes a difference in vote choice, policy expectations or even the decision to get involved. If journalists once dug for gold to help their audiences navigate these turbulence, they’ve sacrificed that role as they’ve competed to throw bricks, to throw lots of them and to throw them before anyone else does.

A flurry of web activity demonstrates just how little help one can expect from the press. In a recent post to the New York Times Public Editor’s Journal, Arthur Brisbane asked, “should the Times be a truth vigilante?

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

The earliest comments on the site hit along the same theme… how could this even be a question? If the Times isn’t a truth vigilante, what else could it be? Perhaps our media outlets have considered themselves to be purveyors of petty insults and meaningless drivel this whole time. Jay Rosen, a NYU journalism professor, has relentlessly called out the media for their “view from nowhere” and offers an excellent analysis of this latest installment.

There are many reasons to expect this deluge of dirt and date to only get worse. I hope this all hits home the next time you see a headline lampooning what little information American voters know. Too many of us enjoy the chuckle and assure ourselves we’re different. There’s an important follow up questions we should require… how the hell are we supposed to know anything? And what news are we missing because this headline was funny?


*** A future post will look at how to ditch dumb headlines and demand better. If you have a strategy that works for you, please share it by commenting on this post.