All the Ways of Communicating
The question so memorably posed by Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman — “Hubba hubba hubba, who do you trust?” — has become of rather grave importance in recent years. With Donald Trump in the White House, the Republican war antagonism to the press, at a low boil at the best of times, has boiled over into open hostility. Just today, Trump’s hatchet man, Steve Bannon, barked at the press to “keep its mouth shut” and referred to the media as “the opposition party”. (Would that were true; they could hardly do a worse job than the Democrats.) The current attitude towards an open media is reflected in the fact that five reporters covering anti-Trump protests last week have been arrested and are facing felony charges for doing little more than being present during a news event, the sort of behavior we associate more with third-world dictatorships than our own country.
On the other side of the equation, Democrats have scarcely covered themselves in glory in terms of their own relationship with the press. Barack Obama, while he dealt with them publicly with grace and charm, was privately quite hostile towards the idea of a free press, and shared with Hillary Clinton and many other alleged liberals a deep paranoia about leaks (not entirely unjustified, as it turned out). Obama fostered a climate of opposition and punishment when it came to whistle-blowers, making them targets of the security state that he inherited from George W. Bush and greatly expanded — and the subsequent denaturing of the press is having obvious consequences now that the same spying apparatus is being handed over to Trump.
Finally, the press itself must accept a huge share of the blame for its current sorry state. Kowtowing to political figures in exchange for access has been the norm since at least the Reagan administration, and far too many journalists have begun to think of themselves as members of the elites rather than their natural opposition, hindering them from developing the adversarial relationship to power that should be the foundation of good journalism. Big money has ruined journalism as much as it has ruined politics, and media consolidation has crippled the very idea of independent reporting. The inability of news organs to compete with the internet has gutted newsrooms, lowered standards, depleted foreign bureaus and local reporting alike, crushed readability and reliability as fact-checkers, proofreaders, and editors are laid off in massive numbers. And the pursuit of eyeballs has led them to ape the worst of their competitors, degrading every outlet with clickbait, misleading headlines, useless listicles, and ‘news’ items that are frequently cribbed from other sources without the bare minimum of vetting.
So, where is someone supposed to get their news in the era of ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’? Here’s some of my suggestions.
1. Paying for journalism is a good thing. But let’s not forget that big newspapers are big business, and that big businesses are not particularly interested in calling out the bad behavior of other big businesses, or of their allies in government. The New York Times can be good, but let’s not forget that it helped the government lie us into the Iraq war. The Washington Post was once pretty reliable, but its track record has been dismal since it was taken over by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, and in the last few months, it’s had to issue a major caveat or retraction practically every week. (Its self-positioning as a vanguard against ‘fake news’ is highly ironic, since it has become a primary peddler of same.) It’s good to keep these sources on your radar, but it’s getting harder to assume they’re completely trustworthy.
2. Twitter is definitely a mixed blessing. Lots of specific accounts are just worthless garbage — the ‘alternative federal agency’ feeds that have arisen since a (now rescinded) gag order from the Trump Administration, are almost 100% fraudulent, made up of regular users with no relationship to the actual agency, that post nothing but partisan political arguments and are about as valuable as the Will McAvoy cosplay account. But Twitter is a great source for identifying bad information because of its social-swarm effect: once somebody pins down something that’s fraudulent or deceptive, word gets around quickly. As a source of news, it’s a bit dodgy, but as a source of vetting news, it’s more useful. It’s also a good way of accessing news that stands little chance of being heard elsewhere, such as foreign-language media, socialist or communists news sources, or on-the-ground citizen journalism.
3. Always pay attention to alternative and foreign media — anything that isn’t beholden to U.S. government propaganda or corporate money. You’ll find your own favored sources; I like the Intercept, Democracy Now, Poynter, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), and ProPublica. Pacifica is pretty good, as is the Independent (the Guardian has gotten cartoonishly liberal since it realized there’s money in it). RFI (Radio France International) is good, and for mainstream news, Reuters is probably the least biased of the major outlets. But one thing to keep in mind is that even these sources can have their own internal biases. Al-Jazeera usually does excellent reporting, but they too are owned by big corporate interests in Qatar, and so their Middle East reporting can be pretty evasive. Mother Jones has some fantastic investigative reporting, but under the editorship of Clara Jeffery, their political reporting has been dismal. National Public Radio has become completely denatured in recent years, pursuing an imaginary neutrality that will gain them nothing when hostile Republicans try to shut them down. So you have to take everything with a grain of salt.
4. Which brings me to my most critical point: your best source of vetting news is yourself. You have to learn, with ANY news source, to recognize bias and examine presentation. You have to ask: who owns this publication? What are their corporate interests? What kind of reporting have they done on this subject before? What are the qualifications of their reporters? Are they doing first-person reportage, or just relying on someone else’s coverage? (This is a huge problem, for example, in Syria, where we get tons of reports about what’s happening in Aleppo, but there are almost literally no western reporters actually on the ground. The result is that most reporting from the area is almost entirely government propaganda.) How much does their reporting match up with the official government or corporate line? Can their claims be verified by any other news source? How much, if any, of their claims rely on unnamed, unverified, or unidentified sources? Is there a difference between what the headline claims and what the actual article says? (This is another huge issue right now, as headlines are written to grab viewers and often don’t match up with the actual reporting — see the various claims about Russian ‘interference’ in the election, where headlines and introductory paragraphs make often-spectacular claims that the actual facts do not support.) Are their editors, publishers, reporters, or sources members of any organizations that might suggest bias? Has their own previous coverage contradicted their current reporting? Do they follow the nine basic principles of journalism?
It really, really sucks to have to do this much work just to get your daily news, especially when the term ‘fake news’, barely a year old, has already come to be a meaningless bit of jargon referring to ‘any news I don’t like’. We shouldn’t have to work this hard just to know what’s going on. But until we break up the media trusts, elect politicians who don’t think of the press as a victim to be leaned on, and help reporters, editors, and publishers grow spines again, it’s what we have to do every time we turn on the news.