Davis Merritt: Autofill news victimized Bergdahl and nation

06/10/2014 12:00 AM

06/09/2014 6:16 PM

An old friend and writing collaborator, a philosopher by education and inclination, holds strong opinions about why public life does not always run smoothly. His expression of those opinions is articulate, often colorful and always confident.

This annoys his academic half-brothers in social science to whom anything that matters can be measured and thus quantified, and they frequently demand that he produce data to support his conclusions, fuming “How do you know that?”

His unvarying, calm response: “I sat and thought about it for a long time.”

What a concept. Maybe we should try it as a nation, given today’s autofill media environment in which any bit of news is instantly subsumed in prepackaged opinion, speculation, dire predictions and partisan argumentation. We’d certainly stand a better chance of accomplishing something more than haggling.

You’ve seen autofill and its digital cousins, such as AutoCorrect, at work in your computer: You start to Google “How do you open…” and the little bits and bytes lurking inside guess where you’re headed and fill in something like “a can of worms” or some other supposedly helpful, if cliched, suggestion.

Autofill news works the same way, but with much more insidious results. A recent and disturbing example of autofill news was the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, traded for five terrorist prisoners from Guantanamo.

Within minutes of the announcement, anybody paying attention “knew” these things and, in most cases, held firm opinions about them:

•  Bergdahl walked away from his post, likely a deserter.
•  During five years as a hostage he converted to Islam. Or he did not.
•  At least five other soldiers died trying to rescue him, or not.
•  President Obama did not clear the trade with Congress as law requires, or does it?

By early the next day, we “knew” and expressed opinions about:

•  Bergdahl’s father grew a full beard in sympathy with his son, or because he also converted to Islam, or because he hoped it would somehow help.
•  The one-for-five trade could put other soldiers at risk of being taken hostage, and you don’t negotiate with terrorists – though Israel regularly does both.
•  And dozens of other rumors, half-truths and speculations disguised as facts.

Though no one then – nor even today – could know what was true and what was false, our ignorance did not deter an acrimonious, often fact-free and loud national argument, much of it along liberal-versus-conservative lines.

The partisan division was inevitable because we are captives of a culture of autofill news whose providers, with only limited exceptions, are by design provocateurs and partisan persuaders. Rather than informing democracy, their primary goal is to drive traffic to their websites and talk shows in order to perpetuate the tragic national divide that keeps them viable.

There’s no practical way to avoid autofill news except by deciding to be wholly uninformed, an unacceptable abdication of personal responsibility.

But perhaps another of my philosopher-friend’s sayings could be helpful: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

As with Google’s computer gimmick, we can’t turn off autofill news, but we can mitigate its malign effects.

When, as in the Bergdahl case, an event occurs that requires no immediate action on our part, let’s do a lot more thinking and a lot less talking until things clarify. Sometimes judgment delayed can be judgment perfected.

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