Informedness as a variable

One of the things that I’ve found interesting as I think about the way that I consume news info and how that affects how I think (yeah, meta, I know) is how I’ve sorta come full-circle on source credibility.

I’m fanatical about looking up authors of pieces that I read and knowing about their previous positions. It astounds me that people can consume media, especially about important topics, and not have that same obsessive desire to know the prognosticator’s track record. For me, the first check of a political pundit is their stance on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And I move on from there.

When I first started doing political reading at a high volume (two or three years ago, by my guess), I figured anyone who trusted a political pundit (or even more so, a politician) was an idiot. Source credibility is important, sure, but only fools are willing to let an argument stand on the reputation of its promoter. I trusted pretty much no one that I read. I clicked on just about every hyperlink in a piece. At this point, I didn’t know a tenth of the online websites of which I’m now aware, so that pathological need to fact-check my every source wasn’t quite as daunting as it might sound, but still, I did a lot of work. To this day, to say that I read critically is an understatement.

That attitude changed as I encountered sites where people would curse and harshly criticize the political establishment and do other stuff that jibed with me. As I read those sites (it was a lot of Greenwald, some TPM, getting into Balloon-Juice, laughing at Politico, etc), I started to assume that by reading an informed and persuasive polemic (yeah, usually Greenwald) I knew the entirety of every issue. This was during the watering-down and subsequent passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, which had all those shitty compromises and made me all disillusioned and pissy. I spent a buncha time reading the epic flame wars on BJ, which often ran in excess of 300 and 400 comments, trying to suss out whether the Firebaggers or Obots had the winning arguments. More often than not, I came down on the Firebagger side, which made sense, because this was the point where I was down on Obama, not just for the ACA, but also because of Guantanamo, his handling of the banks, his staffing decisions, Afghanistan, etc, etc.

Nowadays, I’m in what I’d call my third phase, which is where the title of this post comes from. I’ve come full-circle on being informed, which I am, to a higher degree than most people, but also knowing the limits of being informed.

For instance, if you read an article saying that Obama and Congress passed the ACA, a historic piece of legislation, you’d think, “Wow! Pretty good.” But then let’s say you read a well-written critique of Obama’s negotiating, replete with informative links, that takes Obama to task for not pursuing a public option, which (the argument goes) he might’ve been able to get, but didn’t because he sold you out. You’d read that and go, “Well… shit. We coulda done better.” But then let’s say you read a counter-point to the critique which argues persuasively, again with good links, that the 60 votes for the public option were never there. But then the critique author goes, “Well, with that attitude, it never woulda happened. Shouldn’t he have tried?”

And then, especially if this story were about national security, you have to keep in the back of your mind that the administration leaks info at strategic times. Is that in play? You also have to bear in mind that “the administration” is made up of several individuals, all with varying degrees of power, responsibility and influence, and that the decision may have come from ill-informed (but well-represented) advice. Was it then Obama who nixed the public option or larger stimulus or tougher rules on the banks or whatever? Or was it Rahm convincing him? Or Geithner? Or Summers? Sure, the buck stops with O, but if Rahm argued like hell for a course of action and Obama went that way, that’s a useful tidbit to know, innit?

The point of all this is that being totally informed is impossible. There are so many layers of information and rhetoric that you can only read a certain amount, which is by definition a sliver of the actual relevant info*, and make up your mind. So, having now frittered away countless hours reading arguments that go back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush tax cuts and even Ronald Reagan’s election, I’ve found a number of commentators whom, despite their faults (and we’ve all got ’em), I trust. And I generally go on that now.

*So, the contrarian asks, what’s even the point of reading, then? Shan’t we all plead Socratic ignorance and leave it alone? No. No, we shan’t. There are issues (2003 invasion being one, Bush tax cuts being another, Katrina being a third) that have so many separate, credible accounts of gobsmacking, willful ignorance, incompetence and graft that none of us overstep our bounds by calling bullshit.

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