When does dissent become Untruth and lose the rights and respect due to "legitimate dissent"? Who decides—and how—what dissent deserves to be heard and what doesn't? When do journalists have to "protect" readers from Untruth masking itself as dissent or skepticism?
I found myself thinking about this when I came across an unexpected disjunction in the July/August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. The issue leads off with a strong, sharply worded editorial called "The Dissent Deficit." (It's not online, but it should be.) In it, the magazine, a publication of the Columbia School of Journalism—and thus a semi-official upholder of standards in the semi-official profession of journalism—argues clearly and unequivocally that allowing dissent to be heard and understood is part of a journalist's mission.
The editorial contends that doing so sometimes requires looking beyond the majority consensus as defined by the media on the basis of a few sound bites and paying extra attention to dissenting views, because they often present important challenges to conventional wisdom on urgent issues that deserve a hearing.
The editorial deplores the way that journalism has lately been failing in this mission: "Rather than engage speech that strays too far from the dangerously narrow borders of our public discourse, the gatekeepers of that discourse—our mass media—tend to effectively shout it down, marginalize it, or ignore it."
So true. The editorial offers the media's treatment of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a dissident whose views, particularly on American foreign policy's responsibility for 9/11, have gotten no more than sound-bite treatment, as an example.
I found that the editorial gave the best short summary of Wright's view of "black liberation theology," especially the concept of "transformation," and made a strong case that Wright and his views deserve attention rather than derision. He shouldn't be erased from public discourse with the excuse that we've "moved on," that we're all "post-racial" now.
The CJR editorial encourages journalists not to marginalize dissenters, however unpopular or out of step. Implicit are the notions that today's dissenters can become tomorrow's majority, that our nation was founded on dissent, that the Bill of Rights (and especially the First Amendment) was written by dissenters, for dissenters. That the journalistic profession deserves what respect it retains not for being the stenographers of the Official Truth but for conveying dissent and debate.
It was troubling, then, to find, in an article in the very same issue of CJR, an argument that seems to me to unmistakably marginalize certain kinds of dissent.
The contention appears in an article called, with deceptive blandness, "Climate Change: What's Next?" The article doesn't present itself as a marginalizer of dissent. It rather presents itself as a guide for "green journalists" on what aspects of climate change should be covered now that the Truth about "global warming"—whether it's real, and whether it's mainly caused by humans—is known.
About two-thirds of the story offers tips and warnings like "watch out for techno-optimism." Alas, the author doesn't inspire confidence that she takes her own warnings to heart. The very first paragraph of her story contains a classic of credulous "techno-optimism":
… a decade from now, Abu Dhabi hopes to have the first city in the world with zero carbon emissions. In a windswept stretch of desert, developers plan to build Masdar city, a livable environment for fifty thousand people that relies entirely on solar power and other renewable energy.
All that's missing from the breathless, real-estate-brochure prose is a plug for the 24-hour health club and the concierge service for condo owners.
But, the article tells us, the danger of "techno-optimism" pales before the perils of handling dissent.
The first problem in the evaluation of what dissent should be heard is how certain we are about the truth. If we know the truth, why allow dissent from it into journalism? But who decides when we've reached that point of certainty? In any case, as the author's Abu Dhabi effusion suggests, there's no lack of certainty about what the Official Truth is in her mind:
After several years of stumbling, mainstream science and environmental coverage has generally adopted the scientific consensus that increases in heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and tropical deforestation are changing the planet's climate, causing adverse effects even more rapidly than had been predicted.
She's correct in saying that this is the consensus, that most journalists now accept what's known as the "anthropogenic theory" of global warming: that it is our carbon footprint that is the key cause of global warming, rather than—as a few scientists still argue—changes in solar activity, slight changes in the tilt of the earth's axis, the kinds of climate change that the earth constantly experienced long before man lit the first coal-burning plant.
But here lies danger, "a danger that the subtleties of the science, and its uncertainty, might be missed by reporters unfamiliar with the territory," especially when confronted with "studies that contradict one another." Faced with conflicting studies, she tells us, "scientists look for consistency among several reports before concluding something is true." This is, frankly, a misunderstanding or misstating of the way science works.