Saturday, August 12, 2006

How I deal with the Mainstream Media bias and incompetence

Continuing this series of posts dealing with the MSM, I thought it would be interesting for myself, and maybe for my readers, if I traced back the train of thought and the actions that I have followed concerning media consumption, concluding with my current position.
My point of departure is a few years ago, when I used to buy a MSM newspaper everyday and read it from front to end, like a particularly interesting book. If I had the chance I would read another one too (lots of cafĂ©’s here have a few papers lying around for general consumption). I also heard the news on the (MSM) radio, but I didn’t watch the news on TV since I didn’t have one, and still don’t (which is a different story).
As I mentioned before, there came a point when doubt started to rise in my mind about this typical Israeli habit. I started reading more closely, and wondering about what I read. My new internet connection helped me gain access to more news sites and I started to compare between them, discovering that the Israeli dailies are copying much of their material from American media (mostly from the N.Y. Times), and also from each other, without, of course, giving credit.
One day I asked myself this question: “ I’m reading a whole newspaper day after day, but what do I actually recall from what I read? Do I remember yesterday’s news? Last week’s? Does it matter that I don’t remember?” I started by answering the last question affirmatively: it does matter if I remember what I read, because if I don’t, then what am I reading it for? If I’m reading and not retaining, I said to myself, then most likely I simply am not using the information that the paper is giving me, and if I’m not using it, then what is it good for?
That lead me to another question(s) – (1)what kind of information would be useful to me in my daily life and also,(2) am I getting that information from my current sources, and finally – if not –(3) what is the nature of the information I am getting from the MSM that I currently read and listen to.
The first question took me a long time to answer. I am an extremely curious person, I love learning about new things, and knowing what’s going on in my little patch of the world called Israel. But, I said to myself, that doesn’t mean that I need to consume information indiscriminately. Actually, I thought, information is totally useless if you are not able to assign it a place in your mind and a meaning, both which turn it from an abstract news item into an important news item that affects your life in some way. Differently put – if the information I receive does not have an affect on my life – than why should I bother with it, when I could be receiving better, more relevant information? Of course there are degrees of irrelevancy, and sometimes we really cannot, at the moment, know what is useful information and what isn’t. But I said to myself that a start could be made if I decided what are the areas of information that are important to me. I decided for instance that I could do without reading the economic section – I had no knowledge of economic theory, and the bits of information were always disconnected, meaningless tidbits that made me feel important: “did you hear that Teva stocks went up 1.3 %?” sounds like a great thing to be saying (except if you’re trying to pick up a girl), but actually benefited me in no material way – I do not possess Teva shares, and don’t even trade on the stock market. What I learned from this was the importance of theory – a frame of ideas concerning a certain realm of knowledge. If I had a frame – then I could assign a place to the information and maybe even give it meaning, and vice versa – without a theory I was stuck with bits of disconnected news bytes that either vanish from my memory, or worse – give me the illusion that I actually possess meaningful knowledge.
So the next step was easy – what theories do I know I have, and in what areas of knowledge, or in other words, what are the fields of knowledge that I know enough about that I can judge if the information given to me by the MSM is meaningful to me or not, and if it is good, accurate and up to date knowledge or not. One such field was education, which I studied intensively. So, as an exercise, I started to read the education articles more carefully, and tried to match it with the knowledge I had. I found that the more I knew about the subject discussed in these newspaper articles, the more I found them to be inaccurate, misleading or biased. For instance, I remember reading a report commissioned by the European Union and then reading a news article about that report which actually turned the original conclusions on their heads. This was in the high brow Haaretz newspaper and the point obviously was to portray the Ministry of Education, lead by The Enemy of the People Du jour, then Secretary of Education Limor Livnat from the satanic right-wing Likud party, in the worst possible manner.
In any case, what was important for me was to note that if you did not read the original hundred-page report then you would not know what was actually written in it, and this was occurring in the newspaper serving the intellectual elite in Israel, in other words – the crop of the cream, in an article that was not handed in on a tight last-minute deadline. If this sort of thing happened in this case – what could I expect in other fields of knowledge that I know much less about, and if Haaretz are making those kinds of “mistakes” than what about everybody else? Judging by the constant drop in newspaper subscriptions in recent years, and the attendant rise of professional magazines, I guess many other people have gone through the same kind of reasoning process, and decided that for their professional needs they prefer other media.
Another topic of interest to me was of course politics. By then it was obvious to me that the MSM could not be relied upon to give me “the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth” about what is going on. Israel is an extremely political country, and has been since the first immigrants of the Second Aliyah arrived from Russia and started to build the institutions that would later form the building blocks of the country. In their view, health care, banking, settlements, education, production and consumption of goods, warfare, - everything was or should be connected to politics, including of course – any communications media. This attitude is still very much present in our lives, especially in the Israeli media. This means that generally speaking there never was a journalistic ethos of representing the people against the powers that be, whether governmental or economic. On the contrary, the media in Israel has always been married to and even produced and owned by political parties and economic powers usually both at the same time. As a secular leftist this never bothered me, (or any one else I knew) and I cannot say that I ever truly noticed it or what this political approach to journalism was doing to us as a nation. But when my point of view shifted I realized that relying on such a source for information regarding the country I live in is for the most part ridiculous. I knew that I could only get from the MSM the information that was thought to be both relevant and kosher from the leftist point of view, or else judged to be completely trivial and meaningless (like celebrity gossip). Differently put, I knew that the most important information I can receive from the main stream media was this: what is on the MSM agenda, what its members think the public should know about the world we live in, and what the public is supposed to think about it, and judging from what they are not covering – what they do not want the public to know. Since I grew up in the Left I already had a very good idea of what this agenda is so I did not, and still don’t, feel the need to get daily updates on this subject. I found that concerning political events, I could accurately predict what would be covered what would not be reported, to what extent, and from what angle.(this reminds me that I once met a Russian immigrant who told me he learned what was going in his country by paying attention to what the Soviet mouthpiece Pravda was not saying. Generally speaking, it is not a good sign if your country’s media resembles Pravda…). I am sure that anyone can do the same the minute you understand the agenda of the specific outlet you like to read, unless it is dedicated to ferreting out the truth in which case you may expect some surprises from time to time.
Somewhere in the beginning of this post I asked three questions: what information is important for me (politics among other things), am I getting that information from the MSM ( no) and if not what is the nature of the information I currently receiving from the MSM. I started to answer that but would like to get into it further:

MSM reporting: Empowerment or Helplessness?What kind of information do we receive from the media? I think we can divide it into a few categories:
1 – facts
2 – opinion
3 – analysis
4 – gossip
5 – speculation
6 – fictions (including lies, propaganda, and disinformation)
7 – any combination of the above.

Looking at such a list, I can now decide not only what subject matter interests me but also what kind of information I wish to receive on each subject. Maybe on some issues I would like facts (politics), maybe on others I wouldn’t mind some gossip (sports). Also, with this list I can take any body of information and break it down into the different categories. For instance in the MSM I used to read, I noticed that I am getting a large helping of speculation and opinion mixed with a marginal amount of facts. Analysis was almost non-existent and consisted mostly of opinion, mixed with a few facts, held together not by an explicit theory, but by nothing except the ego of the writer. I hate that. For me, speculation is useless. Anything can happen. What I want to know is what has already happened and why it is important that I know about it, how does it affect the world I live in. Speculation based on nothing doesn’t help. Neither does opinion, if it is not based on facts, or theory, and neither does gossip (Typical Newsflash: “Peres angry at Olmert for not passing him the watercress at emergency cabinet buffet!!”). The only kind of information that helps me understand the world I live in and deal with it effectively are facts and analysis - if it is rational. (what is rational? Talk about it another post. This one is way too long already)
What is important for me to note here is that the different kinds of news we are getting can empower us, or else make us feel helpless, turning us into human units of anger and despair knocking about in a sea of meaningless events. I think that is the most dramatic effect of the way the MSM works – it leaves us helpless, feeding us with snippets of useless information, forever tempting us with an answer, but never actually giving us any satisfaction. We get the feeling that we know something about the world or that we are close to knowing, until the next news show which feeds us a whole different, unconnected set of newsbytes. In the world of drug addicts, this kind of behavior would clearly constitute an attempt to get someone hooked, in this case on news. Like every other addict – we have a choice.
These are mine:

My personal choices:
First of all I discontinued my daily newspaper session. I stopped listening to the news on the radio. But I was more curious than ever to know what’s going on so I started reading MakorRishon, which at the time was a fledgling Hebrew language right wing weekly struggling to survive. It was big on facts and had some intelligent analyses (like Caroline Glick who also writes regularly for the Jerusalem Post). Unlike other right wing publications it had a mix of observing and secular writers, which was refreshing for me. It seemed like it was committed to a journalistic approach that deals with reality as it is and not as we would like it to be. So for a while I was satisfied. Until two things changed – high speed internet on the one hand, and an editorial switch on the other. My new internet connection gave me quick access to countless news and opinion sites in English that I never knew or even imagined that existed. The changing of editors also changed the paper I liked to read so it actually resembles, in much of its content and form, the ultra- leftist- post-modernist Haaretz, with which it is apparently trying to compete. So I switched to English and the internet. I searched for sites that know the difference between right and wrong, sites that possess, in the words of Neil Postman “a crap detector”. The sites I visit frequently are listed on the sidebar. This way I do not have to wait to get the second draft, because for me the second draft is the first one. It saves time and energy.

Further reading
The first book I read about bias in the media was the riveting Bias by Bernie Goldberg, a veteran CBS insider. One line I will never forget from that book:
In the 1970’s Dick Salant, perhaps the most revered president in all of CBS News’ long history …came back and told his top staff: “I have good news and bad news what do you want to hear first?
“give us the good news first” someone said
“the good news is that CBS News last quarter made money for the first time ever”.
“what’s the bad news?” someone else asked.
“The bad news is that CBS News made money for the first time ever”.
Read the book, it’s fascinating, and available here.
The second book that has influenced me greatly in what I think about the media is a more theoretical and frightening one called “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by the renowned cultural critic Neil Postman. He describes the effects of television on our culture, especially the mixture of news and entertainment, which is, in his view, lethal to our civilization. If this theory needs proving, and if there ever was a culture that is amusing itself to death it is the one I am living in right now – Israel. I just hope the proof won’t kill the pudding.

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