You may have heard that there’s a whooping cough epidemic in California. It is an amazing occurrence given that, as a developed country, we neither suffer from shortage of the pertussis vaccine nor the means to access it. Research suggests a link to voluntary rejection of immunization, perhaps due to the distrust of vaccines and an increasingly-held belief in their culpability in immune disorders and autism.

There have been several studies published since the “vaccines-are-evil” meme took ground that attempt to debunk the belief, but parents have not been convinced. Trust in public institutions, always a vulnerable concept, has eroded with the after-the-fact recalls of drugs, cars, and blowout preventers. Capitalism, that economic system so wonderful in theory but somewhat deleterious in practice, tends to favor the profit motive above safety, honesty, and the public good and motivate individuals to focus on the short-term bottom line. And government, made up of politicians dependent on profit-making companies and individuals to get them past the next election, can hardly be depended on to rein in corporate excesses.

What maintains the balance between good and evil in a healthy democracy is a vibrant fourth estate that is accountable only to itself. Ideally, the press is the repository of public trust, informing and educating the public, and holding institutions responsible for honesty and good governance. Instead, media today is made up of either venal, agenda-driven institutions or their silent followers, paralyzed by the speed of the new news cycle, and unable to economically justify the cost of good old-fashioned, down-in-the-trenches reporting.

The case of Shirley Sherrod, the USDA employee fired and reinstated in the space of 36 hours, typifies the media landscape today. One right-wing columnist smeared her on the Internet; her employer fired her in unseemly haste to make a potentially explosive story go away; the smear was discovered within a day; Sherrod received an apology from the Secretary of the USDA and a job offer less than 36 hours from the beginning of the saga. Nowhere was the effort made to verify the information before it was disseminated or acted upon; the potential of the scandal to raise eyebrows and eyeballs was much worth much more than its veracity. Such are the rules of the new media.

So what’s the confused consumer to do? In an age of distrust, we paradoxically return to familiar but unreliable sources—friends, family, and random blogs.  Oh, did you hear about the kayaker who swam across the gaping jaws of a humpback whale? It’s got to be true—I saw it on the Internet.

Vidya Pradhan

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