Rory Litwin at Library Juice writes about Procon.org, a neutral-looking news site that claims to give you the straight dope on various controversial subjects, when in fact it’s really a deceptive effort to push certain agendas. His post begins:
Procon.org is a new set of websites claiming to promote informed citizenship by providing “both sides of the issue” in a number of topics of debate or political interest. Its pages are designed so that students will easily notice all of the indications of reliability that information literacy instructors have taught them to look for in a web page: the group’s 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status and non-partisanship is prominently located in the upper left; contact information is easy to find; it’s at a dot org domain; and it is written in cool and measured prose. And the organizing principle of the site – providing the “pros and cons” – especially invites students to trust it.
I find Procon.org’s websites dangerous for undergraduates but useful in educating librarians to be better information literacy instructors.
Spending a good chunk of time with these sites provides an object lesson in how control over the way a question is framed and control over what information gets applied to it can go a long way in determining how people answer that question. The site presents questions to students, such as “Is the United States a Christian Nation?,” provides pro- and con- statements relating to them, and lets students feel that they are answering these questions for themselves. It is what you might call “guided thinking.”
Procon.org’s claim of non-partisanship and neutrality is a deceptive strategy designed to influence students’ thinking about topics like the war in Iraq, homosexuality, the ACLU, medical marijuana, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Its presentation appears at first glance to be so neutral and harmless that I fear many librarians will be fooled by it. Certainly many students will.
Link: Library Juice – Fake Neutrality: Procon.org.
The comments to the post are worth reading as well. They demonstrate his points — many of the commenters can’t seem to tell that the site has a bias (either that or they’re just trolls trying to promote the site).
Pushing an agenda is fine, but not when you do it dishonestly to trick students and other people. The Reader’s Comments are especially disheartening (if they’re real, and sadly I think most of them are). For example,
"Thank you for your intellectual honesty and clarity. This site [Israeli-Palestinian ProCon.org] should be advertised on more traditional media so that curious members of the general public can learn. Traditional forms of news and information have let the public down by substituting salaciousness and ‘infotainment’ for facts and reasoned discourse."
"I love your simple, precise rendition of history. It’s better than going to school!"
"If the world would start looking at things like this pro/con way maybe people would learn to respect each others differences a little bit more."
"I have said so often that a perfect teacher will give no clue to a student as to his personal beliefs. ProCon.org qualifies as one such teacher."
The irony is really too much.
I’ve visited this issue a bit before in reference to SourceWatch.org, who are truly unbiased and informative (or so say I — you can judge for yourself whether it’s just my lefty tendencies speaking), in comparison to ActivistCash.com, a site that looks like straight information, but is really run by a PR firm, in a previous post: Following the Money (Or Not) – Sniffing Out Corporate PR.
Update: Kamy Akhavan from ProCon.org has posted a response here and also at Library Juice. Please read them both for another viewpoint. Perhaps I’m just too cynical for my own good. I admit I haven’t yet done much more than skim the ProCon sites, so if I was unfair I apologize.
One of the main reasons I’m suspicious is the choice of topics. There are only seven, and four are medical marijuana, gays, "under God", and the ACLU. Who besides conservatives thinks those are the most important issues facing the US today? They’re undeniably "hot button" or "wedge" issues, and maybe that’s the reason ProCon thinks it’s important to address them. But simply giving prominence to a wedge issue gives some credence to it — this is part of the political strategy. People get upset about wedge issues largely because they’re told that it’s an important controversy.
For example (as I believe Rory pointed out at Library Juice), who asks "Is the ACLU good for America?" besides conservatives? I can see now that the ACLU is a topic here because of the founder, Steven Markoff’s past involvement with them, and so it’s understandable that he’s written about it. So one suggestion I’d make for ProCon is to explain (or explain more prominently) the selection of topics.