Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Fighting Back: Responses to the Mainstream Media

[This is part 7 of an article on the power of right-wing think tanks. See also part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six.]

Unlike the conservative media, it does not appear the national media is intentionally partisan. But it exists in a very specific structural context. A recent study found that two-thirds of journalists thought bottom-line pressure was “seriously hurting the quality of news coverage” while around half reported their newsrooms had been cut. 75% of print and 85% of broadcast journalists agreed that “too little attention is paid to complex issues.” When you’re short on staff and stories are shallow, reporters become even more dependent on outside sources — and the right-wing think tanks are more than willing to help out, while further pulling coverage to the right.

But one obvious solution — creating a matching set of left-wing think tanks — while perhaps helpful in balancing the debate, will not solve the problem. Media norms of balance mean that even qualified experts will always be presented as “just one side of the story,” balanced directly against inaccurate conservatives — recall how the handful of corporate-funded global warming deniers are still balanced against the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Ideally, viewers would be able to hear both perspectives and decide which they thought was accurate. But since, as the journalists conceded, so little time is spent explaining complex issues, in practice very little information is presented that can help the viewer decide who’s correct. So they’re left to decide based on their existing ideological preferences, further splitting the country into two alternate realities.

Figuring out what is true — especially when it’s so obvious, as in the examples above — is precisely what the mainstream media should be doing. Partisan pundits would be replaced with thoughtful scholars. Non-peer-reviewed books would be ignored, not endlessly promoted. Scientific facts would be given precedence over political arguments. Political commentary would be replaced by factual education.

Don’t hold your breath. Six major companies own nearly 90% of all media outlets. And they — and their advertisers — don’t mind how things are going. Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom (Paramount, CBS, Blockbuster, MTV, Comedy Central, etc.), told a group of CEOs that “I look at the election from what’s good for Viacom. I vote for what’s good for Viacom.” And, “from a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal. Because the Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on.” Better news reporting wouldn’t just be more expensive, it would threaten these business interests.

To get the straight story, it’s necessary to turn to independent and community sources which don’t have such conflicts of interest. One possibility is the daily news show Democracy Now!, hosted by Amy Goodman, which is funded only by viewers and foundations. Broadcast on 150 radio stations, 150 television stations, and the Internet, the show presents stories from activists, journalists, authors, and public interest organizations from around the world.

When outlets from ABC to the New York Times began claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Democracy Now! was one of the few sources to take a contrary view. It presented the testimony of Iraq’s top weapons official, who defected to the US and explained that all the weapons had been destroyed. (Other stations, ironically, parroted the Bush administration in promoting the information he presented about the weapons Iraq had, without mentioning they had been destroyed.)

And when US soldiers kidnapped Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically-elected president of Haiti, and flew him to the Central African Republic where they locked him in a hotel room, he managed to quietly phone out while armed guards stood outside his door. Democracy Now! was alone in airing his incredible story. When Aristide was finally freed, he insisted on returning to his country and again Amy Goodman was the only US television journalist who dared to accompany him back.

Still, Democracy Now!’s audience is rather small compared to that of the mainstream media. But stories from overseas hint at what could happen if enough people begun paying attention to such sources. In South Korea, the country with the highest rate of broadband adoption, politics has been turned upside down by OhmyNews, a five-year-old website. Founded by Oh Yeon Ho, OhymyNews has a feature unlike any other paper: more than 85% of its stories are contributed by readers.

Almost anyone can write for OhmyNews: the site posts 70% of all stories that are submitted, over 15,000 citizen-reporters have published stories. OhmyNews copyedits their work but tries to leave their differing styles intact. The citizen-reporters write about things they know about and that interest them, together they end up covering most of the traditional spectrum. Yet their new voices end up providing coverage on things which typically get ignored by the mainstream media.

This is most evident in their political coverage. Before OhmyNews, conservatives controlled 80% of Korea’s newspaper circulation. Then OhmyNews gave a voice to progressives, inspiring massive nationwide protests against the government. The protests, in turn, led to the election of reformist Roh Moo Hyun, now known as “the first Internet president.” The furious conservative National Assembly responded by voting to impeach Roh on technical grounds. OhmyNews readers again organized and overthrew the Assembly in the next election, reinstating Roh. There’s no reason why what happened in South Korea can’t happen here. Overcoming the tide of misinformation is hard work, but working together committed citizens can make amazing progress, even when up against the most powerful interests. Out society has an extraordinary level of freedom and openness. Whether we use that freedom to seek out the truth or remain content with conventional platitudes is up to us.

Note to readers: Citations have been added to the previous articles in the series.

You should follow me on twitter here.

June 15, 2006


FYI: Many of the citation URLs on this page are infested with space characters.

posted by Mike Sierra on June 15, 2006 #

keep up the good work. if you haven’t read joshua treviño on “the overton window”, you should: http://joshua.trevino.at/?p=114 yours in the struggle.

posted by vlorbik on June 15, 2006 #

I just thought something funny.

What if, whenever the mainstream media (msm) where presented, we would “balance” their work by taking The National Inquirer[1] equally serious. Would they consider that “fair” reporting?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_National_Inquirer

posted by gmlk on June 15, 2006 #

Two things strike me overall. First, the varying treatment given to the problems of Social Security and global warming. The former is a made-up crisis that doesn’t require immediate action, while the latter is a genuine and pressing concern. But is the information on which to base a response to potential anthropogenic warming more complete than it is for SS?

Second, your series is based on the idea that an issue can become obscured after the terms of debate are shifted. I agree. Around the time of Bush’s second inaugural, there was much bold talk of private retirement accounts and the “ownership society” as a superior alternative to Social Security. After that, the debate shifted to whether SS could be accurately characterized as being in “crisis,” how far in the future it would become insolvent, whether it would continue to pay out the expected level of benefits even then, and what combination of increased payroll taxes and reduced benefits would be required to keep the system in place. What happened? The debate shifted from what was best for people hoping to retire comfortably to what was the best way to sustain Social Security.

posted by Mike Sierra on June 15, 2006 #

But is the information on which to base a response to potential anthropogenic warming more complete than it is for SS?

Let’s say the information for social security is more complete. Then we can use that information to decide that SS isn’t in crisis.

There’s a difference between a debate shifting because of partisan strategy and one shifting because of facts.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 15, 2006 #

I think Aaron is on to something here. I cannot rely on the media for important information anymore … not life or death kind of stuff. And relying on the blogosphere is not that much better … it tends to just magnify the mud slinging. I think what we need is a new process to get at what really matters. Maybe something like: blogosphere + rules of engagement -> consensus truth ? I don’t know … but reading both sides of the Global Warming contraversy is producing nasuea. No wonder the media has shunned it in favor of simpler issues.

posted by Seth Russell on June 15, 2006 #

I’m very interested in the possibility of the internet spawning the type of tool that Seth is mentioning—a site which can facilitate argument in a rational, piecemeal manner. However, the best-functioning means we have for rational argument are peer-reviewed scientific journals, and that mechanism seems tough to beat, despite its flaws. For instance, Noam Chomsky would say “the most respected journals” have it all wrong regarding some important issues of foreign policy, and I tend to believe him.

My hope of Wikipedia being the savior is probably not going to pan out, but I still view it optimistically, at least as a way of giving voice to those who would be silenced by corporate conflict of interest. I would like to see Wikipedia create a more structured talk/discussion page for resolving disputes on articles, but I only have an inkling for how it could be structured. Hard to believe so many disputes can be resolved by just editing freeform text!


posted by Scott Teresi on June 15, 2006 #

“Let’s say the information for social security is more complete. Then we can use that information to decide that SS isn’t in crisis.” That’s a perfectly acceptable outcome. But that would mean the state of knowledge surrounding GW is correspondingly poor, validating skepticism over policy recommendations.

“There’s a difference between a debate shifting because of partisan strategy and one shifting because of facts.” It would be a false choice to imply they’re exclusive of each other. Do you mean to say that the shift in debate over SS was not driven by partisan strategy?

posted by Mike Sierra on June 15, 2006 #

Scott, i agree, peer-review is about the best alternative we have going; but it has problems too. I’m not trying to save the world … just trying to reach some kind of personal consensus of thought. Doing that in today’s media/blogosphere is getting to be almost impossible because of all the polorizing static. We need some kind of culture that adds some kind of rules to the discourse … it should be obvious when someone is speaking according to the rules, then we can factor their thinking in … when people don’t follow the rules, they can be easily ignored. Peer review does that … but it is slow and as you can see it can be compromised by the bottom line and edited by politicians. What we have now is not working. Maybe somebody with some smarts can come up with something more effective.

posted by Seth Russell on June 15, 2006 #

This wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion for me. This same series could have been written ten years ago, and in many places it was. We had the same problems then, and the same vague “take back the media” solutions were proposed. Now we all have blogs, and we have wikipedia, and we have podcasts. Yet the problem remains. The problem is systemic in scope, but it’s perpetuated by individuals. Every time we trade accuracy for convenience, refusing to think critically, we contribute to the problem.

More information doesn’t make us more thoughtful, and the web doesn’t seem to demand thoughtfulness any more than Fox or the NYT do. In many ways, it just makes it easier to be mentally lazy. What are we doing to penalize individuals who regularly promote hype over substance or reward individuals who reguarly promote substance over hype? I don’t see us doing much at all. I expect more of the same.

posted by Scott Reynen on June 16, 2006 #

Let’s be honest here, the media is a fourth branch of the government (which isn’t in itself a bad idea - hence the pragmatic justification for freedom of speech). However, like with the other three branches of the government, we have a powerful check on it: we can filter what we accept and what we don’t.

I presently do not own a television, seldom visit the website of a mainstream news organization (other than local papers and generally through RSS syndication via Google or Yahoo) and listen to independent music (classical composers, electronica and independent rock bands) and use Wikipedia and college libraries over commercial encyclopedias and reference book. Of the people in my peer group (people I am with outside of work, people I went to college with) I am the most “disconnected” from the mainstream media, but at the mean time am the most informed.

The Internet is great is that it can lead people to who would otherwise be unaware of these sources of information to consider it: when one searches for a “hot button issue”, for instance, they will in the first few pages of their search results see Wikipedia entries. These Wikipedia entries are going to provide them links to scholarly articles, books, etc… to allow them to research the issues and consider opinions that may not be otherwise mentioned in the mainstream media both on political/social topics (e.g.: drug de-criminalization being the most common example, or alternatives to public schoolinng, etc..) as well as technical one (operating systems besides MS Windows, programming languages besides Java/.NET (TM) (R)).

posted by Anon again... on June 16, 2006 #

Sigh … Aaron, I love this series, but the ending bit of techno-utopianism in it was a let-down.

“Then OhmyNews gave a voice to progressives, inspiring massive nationwide protests against the government. The protests, in turn, led to the election of reformist Roh Moo Hyun, now known as “the first Internet president.” …

That’s a fantasy, annoying PR. If only it were so simple.

Basically, the very hard problem, as I see it, is trying to construct a system which values what’s true over what’s popular. The immediate consequence here is that adding more data into the mix doesn’t help - it’s just repeating the same problem over a wider set.

Peer review works well in science because there is an appeal to external reality. It doesn’t work well for, e.g. foreign policy, because avoiding reality is sometimes lavishly rewarded for policy-makers and politicians (e.g. Iraq).

Sorry I can’t be more positive. And I have an intuitive sense that any partial solution would be likely to be at least slightly unpleasant.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on June 16, 2006 #

Hey Aaron,

How does your passion for socialism go down with your mentor and benefactor Paul Graham, who dismisses socialism: http://paulgraham.com/resay.html ?

posted by Jones on June 16, 2006 #

That’s a fantasy, annoying PR. If only it were so simple.

I’d love to see a revisionist piece on OhMyNews. As I was editing this piece for publication, that bit seemed hard to believe, but I didn’t really have any other sources to look to.

Basically, the very hard problem, as I see it, is trying to construct a system

What do you mean by a system?

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 17, 2006 #

Jones: I’m not sure your description of Paul is accurate and Paul consistently has loony economic ideas, but since a couple people have asked me about this particular comment, I thought I’d respond (even though Paul is using socialism in a totally different sense than I am).

Paul’s argument is that socialism prevents people from getting rich, which discourages smart people from trying to come up with new technology, like “semiconductors or light bulbs or the plumbing of e-commerce”. Well, let’s look at those examples.

The semiconductor was invented at Bell Labs by salaried employees. William Shockley, the entrepreneur Paul is probably thinking of, did his work in the mid-1940s and didn’t quit the Labs until 1953, when he moved to Caltech, where he didn’t work at a company until a friend invited him to in 1955. So it seems hard to argue his work was motivated by wanting to get rich.

The light bulb was invented by Joseph Swan who, while a partner at chemical firm, doesn’t appear to have been especially motivated by the desire to get rich.

Finally, it’s not clear what “the plumbing of e-commerce” is, but HTTP/SSL, which allows for credit card numbers to be sent encrypted over the Web, seems a good guess. The HTTPS spec was written by Eric Rescorla who operates a small network security consultancy.

I think most people who do great work would do it no matter what they were paid (the Internet is filled with examples). The real people who ought to be paid lots are the people doing the unfun but necessary grunt work that nobody really wants to work. But these are exactly the people that socialists propose to reward! So I’m not sure what Paul’s talking about, other than himself.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 17, 2006 #

First, some of points Aaron raises (e.g.: mainstream) media ought to be listened to by everyone, including those (like myself) who reject socialism.

Second, Aaron, I have a question for you: you’re a small web enterpreneuer. Wouldn’t a socialist system, if it were fully implemented, hurt people like you (small enterpreuners, who aren’t looking to own their own private jet airplanes (although they wouldn’t object to a cesna 152), but are merely looking to ‘start a startup’ as to perhaps retire early and do what they enjoy, rather than live paycheck to paycheck)? The truly rich will still exist in a ‘social democracy’ (e.g.: what occurs in Europe), but the small-business-owning enterpreuner upper-middle-class will be choked to its death by taxation and regulation. To a socialist that may be acceptable as part of utilitarian calculus (on average, everyone may be better of), but that is exactly where my problem with socialism is: it seeks to better society at the cost of individual economic liberty.

posted by Anon again... on June 17, 2006 #

I don’t think I’ve ever expressed my general opinion on socialism on this site ever and I don’t plan to start here. I was simply pointing out factual errors in PG’s argument.

But, for what it’s worth, it would seem that in an ideal society I could spend most of my life doing things I enjoy without having to “start a startup”.

For a good argument as to why “economic liberty” is bogus, check out Robin Hahnel’s The ABCs of Political Economy.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 17, 2006 #

Regarding: I’d love to see a revisionist piece on OhMyNews. As I was editing this piece for publication, that bit seemed hard to believe, but I didn’t really have any other sources to look to. (my emphasis)

See the problem? :-)

That’s it in a nutshell. The bad data drove out the good. It doesn’t matter if the truth is out there somewhere - you couldn’t find it, since it was obscured by a mass of marketing hype for the revolution-via-OhMyNews :-(.

Here’s some skeptical commentary (see link in it) that I happened to know about the Korean election:


So, what I mean by “a system which values what’s true over what’s popular” is setting up people’s incentives so that disseminating and echoing what’s accurate is rewarded, as opposed to crowd-pleasing or money-serving data. Science has a way to do this, which is referencing external reality. Nobody has done anything which has really worked in politics, and even minimal attempts require going to unpopular places (by definition!). Moreover, blogging/web/wiki etc. seems to be overall a step backward, since so far it’s almost a purely popularity-based system. And that’s defended vigorously with demagoguery that what’s popular is what’s best, and anyone who isn’t cheerleading it, isn’t a goodthinking person (the usual word is “elitist”, which is a shorter form of “pointy-headed intellectual”).

posted by Seth Finkelstein on June 17, 2006 #

People intrigued by these issues might enjoy Bob McChesney’s articles; he’s a UIUC prof who hosts a top-notch radio show you can download podcasts of, and the best US media historian I know of.

He pointed out that modern standards of “journalistic professionalism” carries certain hidden biases, like reliance on official sources. I was really floored when I read Edward Bernays explain in his 1928 landmark _Propaganda_ that:

“The newspaper man looks to him for news. And by his power of giving or withholding information the politician can often effectively censor political news. But being dependent, every day of the year and for year after year, upon certain politicians for news, the newspaper reporters are obliged to work in harmony with their news sources.”

posted by Tayssir John Gabbour on June 17, 2006 #

(Of course, I don’t know that many radio shows, so feel free to take my overly glowing recommendation with a grain of salt…)

posted by Tayssir John Gabbour on June 17, 2006 #

Aaron, if this is what your writing is going to consist of, regurgitated talking points from fair.org and democracynow.org, I take back my earlier support for you writing. There are partisans on both sides trying to sell their own incomplete picture of what is going on and it looks like you have been captured by one party. In fact, this whole series reads as a textbook example of the kind of bias Mike Sierra argues with you about.

Take, for example, the media. I would posit that they’re predominantly liberal but are forced by a split populace (and perhaps some pressure from their conservative superiors) to present every contested case as an “on the one hand… on the other hand” report, even if one side does seem to have more evidence in its favor for a particular case. Of course, this does not favor the left or the right as each has particular points that it has more evidence for. Rather, the loser is the public as the truth is ultimately distorted.

I suggest that you take a wider view of all this and carefully consider the evidence provided by both sides. Right now, you’re drinking too much of one party’s kool-aid.

posted by Ajay on June 17, 2006 #

“The real people who ought to be paid lots are the people doing the unfun but necessary grunt work that nobody really wants to work.”

It depends on your definition of grunt work, but many of those people do get paid lots. Doctors, plumbers, longshoremen, etc. Even at the lower levels, such as nursing and truck driving, the compensation is fair, and probably more than you think.

“it would seem that in an ideal society I could spend most of my life doing things I enjoy without having to “start a startup”.”

Well this is completely possible. You just may not make as much money. The USA, at least, is filled with countless examples of people who mostly just do what they enjoy. I’ve lived in Santa Cruz and Hawaii. The surfers just… surf. Even here in San Francisco, there are tons of writers, musicians, bike messengers, artists, who just do what they want. Sure you can’t live a standard bougiouse lifestyle on those wages, but who cares if you are truly doing what you want to do. Even some of the startup starters around here happen to be doing what they want.

posted by starkfist on June 18, 2006 #

Aaron, you’re working on reddit, so why is the reddit tagline “what’s new online” instead of “what’s important online”? Where are the stories from Democracy Now! on reddit? On the front page, I currently see “North Korea Readying Missile Test That Could Reach US” and “Ayatollah’s grandson calls for US overthrow of Iran,” which look a lot like the sort of news stories right-wing thinktanks produce and the mainstream media mindlessly repeat. How are you applying your media critiques in your own media work?

posted by Scott Reynen on June 18, 2006 #

posted by Tim on July 18, 2006 #

This link (http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/business/columnists/5889390.htm) is bad.

Got a better one?

posted by Tim on July 18, 2006 #

posted by DAYWANI4 on July 23, 2006 #

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