Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the Alumni Reflections series marking Columbia SIPA’s 70th Anniversary, featuring views and insights from prominent SIPA alumni out in the field.
Shortly after I graduated from SIPA in 1983, I got my first job in journalism, writing about Wall Street gossip for the newsletter division of Institutional Investor.
We used typewriters to write our stories.
About a year after I started, the typewriters were replaced with computers, but they were big and dumb. They couldn’t communicate with each other and essentially were glorified electric typewriters. The main attraction was that we no longer needed to use Wite-Out — which at the time was a popular fluid to correct typos.
Fast forward 12 years, when I was covering Bill Clinton’s White House for Newsday. In order to get a transcript of the president’s remarks, or the White House pool report, I had to walk several blocks to the White House, show my pass in order to get admitted, and then rifle through a bin of xeroxed papers to find what I needed. If I covered a congressional hearing, I had to actually go to the hearing to find out what was said.
I wrote one article a day about the president’s activities, even if I had been on the campaign trail and heard speeches in six different towns. I would spend the time to assess the most newsworthy remarks of the day, and then most of my readers would find out what the president said when they woke up the next day and read my article. (And my readers were only people who received a paper copy of the newspaper in their driveway or bought it on the newsstand.)
When I filed my stories, I would put earmuffs on the ends of the phone — a kind of primitive modem. It was a big deal when I got a beeper so my editors could signal me to locate a pay phone and call them. When I got my first cell phone, it was the size of a brick.
Okay, you get the picture. There were no newspaper websites. Cable TV was in its infancy. Readers — and even reporters — did not have instant access to transcripts. As the reporter, I decided what was important. If readers disagreed, they could write me a letter, as there was no such thing as email.
Now I write The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post, in which I vet the accuracy of claims by politicians. It’s a lot like a reverse restaurant review; someone who tells a whopper gets Four Pinocchios. We produce at least one fact check a day — a pace that would be impossible before the rise of the Internet and social media.
Via the Internet, I now have access to an amazing amount of information — from transcripts of every presidential statement and congressional hearing to every possible report produced by a think tank. When I started covering Washington, I needed to hire a messenger to go pick up a report from an agency or think tank; now such reports are available with a few clicks. White House pool reports, no longer exclusive to White House beat reporters, are distributed by email. I can download government data in an instant, producing graphic charts that used to take hours to create.
So, within minutes, I can find a suspect statement made by a politician, quickly determine the source of his or her information and then begin to determine whether it is accurate. When I post something, readers around the world immediately have access to my findings. And through emails and through social media such as Twitter and Facebook, I can hear directly from readers who are adamant that my conclusions are wrongheaded.
Expanded access to information, for both readers and reporters, has many advantages. But the technological changes also have come at a cost. Newspapers and the evening news shows used to provide Americans with a common point of reference. Now Americans are increasingly sorted in ideological cul-de-sacs, able to decide if they want their news slanted left or right.
Political reporters, meanwhile, now are expected to file stories almost instantly, and repeatedly, on every twitch of the news. Believe it or not, newspaper coverage of presidential speeches used to take three days. Day one was the speech. Day two was the reaction. And day three was the analysis. Now, a presidential speech has barely started before reporters are expected to tweet their snarky reactions.
There is thus little time for reflection and careful consideration of the facts — the sorting out of the most important information of the day. Readers have access to original sources of information — they can watch a White House briefing live, whereas none of that was televised before. But it’s become almost like a televised wrestling match, compared to the more reasoned discussion of issues that used to take place before TV cameras were permitted in the briefing room.
The key question is whether additional access to news and faster dissemination of information is better informing Americans — or making them increasingly intolerant of other points of views. News analysis, especially by pundits on television, is often facile and descends into shout-fests. Tweets, limited to 140 characters, are no substitute for reasoned discourse. In the 2016 election, people allowed their Facebook feeds to become polluted with fake news that matched their political inclinations.
Indeed, the rise of Donald Trump would not have been possible before the emergence of the Internet age. During the campaign, Trump earned an astonishing 59 Four-Pinocchio ratings for spewing false claims (compared to seven for Hillary Clinton). But that was no match for his massive Twitter following and endless cable TV coverage of his speeches. He leveraged the new media age into a platform that took him to the White House.
I certainly do not think that a media monopoly on information was a good thing. The Internet helped open a world of information and facts for Americans. But that freedom is wasted if Americans are content to only absorb facts and political analyses that match their blue or red political inclinations. We seem to have gotten richer with information — but poorer in knowledge and understanding.
For Americans who care about international issues, the Internet and social media allows them to be more engaged and up to speed about developments overseas. But I am concerned that too many Americans are content to simply not pay attention — a type of isolationism reflected in the rise of Trump. A traditional newspaper at least would have kept international issues front and center, if necessary; now Americans can simply adjust their social media feeds to ignore the world — or latch onto stereotypes about non-Americans.
Yet at the same time, the fact-checking of political claims has expanded worldwide largely because of the Internet. As of 2011, there were only four fact-checking organizations in the world, with three based in the United States. Now, in 2017, there are more than 120 fact-checking organizations, located in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. The Internet has empowered nongovernmental groups and journalistic organizations to challenge politicians — and even bring accountability and journalistic rigor to countries without much of a tradition of press freedom. These groups are able to spread their reports through social media, at a fraction of the cost of traditional, newsprint-based journalism.
From my perch as The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, I vet political claims but that also means I have to review a lot of reporting in newspapers and television, since that’s where politicians often get their facts. Media critics have a point: Too many reporters are sloppy, credulous or manipulated by interest groups and politicians. But, thanks to the Internet and social media, I can expose false claims faster than ever before.
The rise of the Internet and cable news has been accompanied by greater distrust in the news media. The challenge for reporters is to learn how to leverage the power of the Internet to regain credibility. It will require much more effort than crafting a snappy tweet.
Glenn Kessler (SIPA ’83) writes The Fact Checker for the Washington Post. He covered the State Department for The Post for nearly a decade, and has also reported on the White House, Congress and the Treasury Department.