2009/02/07

The National Press Herd

The following are comments on the Feb. 6, 2009, Bill Moyers interview of Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald:
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Humans are herd animals. They try to figure out where their herd is going and then position themselves somewhere in the middle for safety. Leaders seem charismatic only as long as they don't look too much like us, so, unable to agree on a leader from among the herd, people adopt the herd itself as its leader. However, there is no wisdom in numbers. Whenever too many people agree too easily they are probably wrong. The so-called "wisdom of crowds" only appears for specialized questions in selected situations.

The challenge for everyone is to learn how to perceive what herds we have become a part of and to overcome the bounds of herd mentality. "Thinking outside the box" needs to become not just a slogan but a habit -- and not just another orthodoxy.

Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald have become involved in their own orthodoxies in focusing on Washington, DC, and the mainstream media. Herd thinking is not just a problem in those areas, but in every level and branch of government, every profession and organization, every religion or school of thought. We have seen it within financial institutions and how it yielded the meltdown. It is especially dangerous in legal practice and the legal profession, where demands for strict constitutional compliance are dismissed out of hand as unrealistic or unworthy of acknowledgment.

It doesn't work to demand of those who are captured by the herd to break out of it and make needed change. We have to open it to disruptive outsiders. The Internet has enabled outsiders to become publishers, journalists, and lobbyists, but we still need to enable outsider intervention in administrative and judicial processes, public and private. The established institutions for that are the trial jury and the grand jury, but we have allowed judicial practice to disable their effectiveness. We will not reform those processes until we enable trial juries to review the legal decisions of the bench by hearing all arguments of law, and enable grand juries to hear complaints from any citizen, investigate any public or private institution or practice, and report on its findings, perhaps with an indictment authorizing a private citizen to prosecute. Citizens must not be denied standing to privately prosecute public rights, or to issue writs of quo warranto to challenge the authority of officials, public or private, to do what they propose to do. The presumption of nonauthority needs to be established as the bedrock of our institutions.

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