Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Changing Minds

A surprising number of MSM voices are still in denial on the "60 Minutes" meltdown. Juan Williams on FNC's "Special Report" kept his mind closed to the forgery evidence by insisting that the question was open as the substantiation piled higher and higher. Jeff Jarvis notes that Tom Shales of the WaPo and Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair have dropped into the fever swamps of conspiracy theory to justify their anti-Bush positions. Today on "Fox and Friends" I heard the co-founder of CNN advise CBS to go after the AWOL story even harder to make people forget that "60 Minutes" made a mistake. Andy Rooney told Imus that "no one" doubts the story is true, they just haven't found the evidence yet.

Something very strange is going on here. Journalists, those hard-bitten, impartial gatherers of facts, are sounding like Birchers: "I don't have the evidence, but here is what really happened."

A few months ago I wrote a review of Changing Minds by Howard Gardner for Strategy and Leadership. He is especially pessimistic on our capacity to change our own minds. We do not, on the whole, accept new facts and revise our theories. Rather, we interpret or disregard the new information to make it fit our theories. This is not a matter of IQ or lack of education. He points out that intellectuals are "particularly susceptible" to removing cognitive dissonance by "reinterpreting" the facts.

Among the forces that exacerbate this tendency to lock-in a theory are emotional commitment, public commitment (pride makes it hard to climb down when everyone is watching), and an absolutist personality.

Knowing this, it is easy to see why "60 Minutes" was so easily outdistanced by bloggers. Further, Gardner's work suggests that the MSM will suffer more such embarrassment at the hands of new media voices.

Journalists like to say they write the first draft of history, but as noted here, they are peculiarly resistant to revising that draft. They work in a professional echo chamber where their peers agree with them on almost all the big issues and they are unaccustomed to sharing "explanation space" with dissident voices. It is a milieu that does not weed out absolutist personalities. Moreover, their work is so public that admitting mistakes is very hard. In the case of television, so much work, time, and money get invested in a story that emotional commitment is almost inevitable.

The situation in the blogosphere is completely different. While individual bloggers may be resistant to change, the sheer multiplicity of voices changes the dynamic. Moreover, the fluid nature of the medium and the lack of a captive audience makes blogging an environment more hospitable to flexible personalities and less friendly to the absolutist type.

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