Category: Citizen Journalism
Old-fashioned patriotism involves substantial government financial support for aggressive and even offensive journalism
Robert McChesney and John Nichols have written an excellent book advocating substantial public support (much more than the government currently gives) to support first-rate journalism. The book is titled The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (2010).
This book begins with a diagnosis of modern journalism. One of the main problems is that modern journalists rely far too much on officials in power to set the news agenda. In fact, when politicians aren’t arguing about an issue, it tends to go completely under the media radar. Another problem is that much of our news is regurgitated press release material issued by powerful government and business officials. “The dirty secret of journalism is that a significant percentage of our new stories, in the 40-50% range, even at the most prestigious newspapers in the glory days of the 1970s, were based on press releases.” In the 1980s, the national workforce of PR specialists was about equivalent to the number of journalists in newspapers, radio and television. As of 2008, there were four times as many PR specialists as journalists. (Page 49).
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It seems to me that, by a wide margin, most statements uttered by most people are inaccurate or downright untrue. Most of these problems result from sloppy fact-finding and sloppy reasoning; they are not the result of people intentionally misleading each other. This problem with inaccurate and false statements is even more common in the political arena, and they are also more dangerous because political lies and coverups damage our democracy. They cause us to waste time and resources on many small things and some huge things like needless wars. Falsehoods pour out of politicians mouths like water gushing out of fire hydrants. It has gotten so bad that many of us fear that our democracy is at risk. What else could one reasonably conclude when less than 10% of Americans approve of the work of Congress. But these untruths, the falsehoods, the lies and the coverups continue unabated. I’d like to discuss two of reasons for this sad situation (I’m sure there are other reasons too):
1. The confirmation bias. When political or financial motivation exists (and it almost always exists), human animals notice, say and believe the things they are motivated to notice, say and believe. The confirmation is invisible to us; we are aghast when others call us “biased” (See Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of the invisibility of the confirmation bias here). We only see bias and selective perception in other people. We constantly deny that our own perception of the “facts” is warped by our motivations, including our financial motivations. We are convinced that the lies we want to believe are truths and that our coverups are not coverups. Actually, we don’t see the coverups that benefit us as coverups. Rather, we see accusations that we are covering-up the facts as annoyances. We deny these requests for purposes of expediency and we declare inconvenient things to be “irrelevant.”
2. It is much easier to lie (or to palter) than to take the time to determine the truth. I don’t know how to quantify the extent of this problem, but I’ll take a wild guess: On average, it takes 500 times more work to expose a lie or coverup than to tell a lie and cause a coverup. It’s a lot like the physical world. It takes a lot longer to build a house than to destroy a house. Whatever the exact number, we ought to give this lopsided Ratio a name, because it is a phenomenally important factor to consider in our need to fight for policies to encourage open government. Perhaps it could be called the Lie-Truth-Cost-Ratio. This lopsided Ratio gives untruthful people (liars, obfuscators and those who are reckless with the truth) huge advantages, given that time and money are such precious resources. In the time it takes to write one accurate and detailed report regarding a serious policy issue, untruthful people can issue hundreds or thousands of untruthful statements on the same topic.
In the political realm, is the solution investigative journalism? Probably not, because investigative journalism is dying; to do it right costs lots of money. Further modern media outlets often resist free-wheeling investigative journalism because the corporate media is in the position to foot the bill for investigative journalism, yet the results of such journalism too often embarrass advertisers and business relationships connected to media enterprises (only six corporations own and control most of the media in America).
Citizens can also function as journalists too. Can we depend on private citizens to fill the void? Unlikely. Who is willing to give up significant time with their family or time to take a walk or time to watch a movie in order to do the painstaking research to expose liars, even when those lies cause massive waste of desperately needed public funds? Because we are human animals, we live in a distracting world where fatigue is a reality–we crave eating, exercising, sleeping and entertainment, and none of these enjoyable activities is long-term compatible with hunching over a computer keyboard or analyzing big piles of abstruse documents in order to expose corporate or political lies. Who do you know who is willing to do any of these things in his or her spare time? Do you even know anyone who has an adequate skill-set for doing this type of work? Who do you know who would be willing to spend even $100 of his or her money to obtain records, even where there is a good chance that those records would expose government or corporate wrong-doing? We are sometimes fortunate that public interest groups gather a critical mass of people, money and energy to investigate complex political issues, but their funding is often no match for the funds spent (and the number of untruths told) by corporate and government players, who are highly motivated to make issues complex in order to make them impenetrable. It is important to keep in mind that making a political or corporate system needlessly complex (2,000 page bills, anyone?) are a highly effective way of hiding the truth.
Further, there are so many lies out there that they cannot all be investigated. I’ll make another highly speculative guess: Only 5% of important political claims are investigated by any journalist or public interest group to any meaningful degree. That is largely due to the power of the Lie-Truth-Cost-Ratio.
Here’s a real-life example: the current controversy regarding proposed Keystone XL pipeline. I’ll set aside, for now, the environmental concerns that are often dismissed or underplayed by the corporate players and the alleged news media. Instead, I’ll look simply at the alleged quid pro quo regarding those who have been pushing for the project. The Koch brothers have indicated that they have no financial stake in the XL pipeline.
In the real world, these sorts of claims appear in newspaper headlines, and they are declared be the “news.” In a perfect world, these claims would be meaningfully investigated before being reported. But investigating each of these sorts of claims would require highly motivated people (including journalists at the U.K. Guardian) countless hours, because the truth regarding complex matters like this can only be determined by reviewing hundreds of convoluted documents. Robert Greenwald has produced the following 2-minute video announcing his own suspicions:
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The Constitutionally deplorable intentions of the United States regarding Julian Assange and Wikileaks
At Occasional Planet, Madonna Gauding explains that the U.S. campaign to imprison Julian Assange and put him to death, has nothing to do with national security:
Unfortunately, prosecuting leakers is not really about upholding the law or maintaining national security. It is about making sure the government or corporations can continue to hide information they do not want citizens to know, such as the video of the horrific gunning down of Baghdad civilians by U.S. forces in Iraq that Private Bradley Manning exposed. In this example, this secret brings the lie to the official story of the so called humanitarian mission in Iraq. Exposing military wrongdoing undermines the power of the government and the corporations it supports who make their fortunes off war.
Prosecuting Assange to the fullest extent, which could mean prison or even execution for espionage, is not about bringing a criminal to “justice,” or protecting the citizens of the United States. It is about instilling fear and intimidation in any one else (including mainstream journalists) who might want to expose information about government or corporate malfeasance. The purpose of Assange’s prosecution is to send a strong message that whistle blowing will not be tolerated.
Mauding’s account is bolstered by the unrelenting and precise writings of Glenn Greenwald, who points out that the Wikileak’s release of materials apparently provided by Bradley Manning have done the opposite of threatening U.S. security.
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Charlie Rose recently discussed the #Occupy movement with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and writer Chris Hedges of Truthdig.com. This was a thought-provoking show in which all of the participants take the #Occupy movement seriously. What follows are some of my notes regarding the interview.
Amy Goodman indicates that we are in the midst of a revolution. Chris Hedges describes this revolt as one that strives to regain democracy and is opposed to the current system of “inverted totalitarianism.” It’s not “classical totalitarianism. It doesn’t find its expression through a demagogue or a charismatic leader, but through the anonymity of the corporate state. . . . [In a system of inverted totalitarianism, "corporate forces purport to pay a fealty to electoral politics, the Constitution, the iconography and language of American patriotism, and yet have so corrupted the levers of power as to render the citizens impotent. We see that in one piece of legislation after another. . . . The formal structures of power are tone deaf. . . [Under the corporate state] there is no way to appeal to the system. It doesn’t matter what the citizens want.”
Amy Goodman points out that while most Americans support the #occupy protests, the protesters are portrayed by many as merely engaging in class warfare. At 14:50, Goodman points out that the #Occupy protesters and the Tea Party have many overlapping concerns. At 21:00 Hedges indicates that there are stark differences with the Tea Party which, he claims, has deep elements he would describe as fascist. Another difference is that the Tea Party targets government because “the corporations want government to become more anemic; it speaks in the language of violence and the gun culture” and they direct their rage toward “vulnerable people such as Muslims, undocumented workers, homosexuals and intellectuals, all sort of the classic rubric that one finds in a fascist movement.”
Goodman also discusses the importance of citizen journalism. “When police tell people to turn off their video camera, that’s exactly when they need to turn their video cameras on. . . . We need media in this country that allows people to speak for themselves. Ultimately, the media can be the biggest force for peace on earth.” Goodman believes that this movement will be sustained through the winter and beyond, and that “the organized parties, the Democrat and Republican parties are running scared.”
I was at our local #occupy protests on Saturday for what organizers were calling a “Global day of action”. This week marks one month since #occupywallstreet began their occupation in New York City, and have proven to be an inspiration to people around the globe.
Omaha is not exactly known as a hotbed of radical activism or sentiment. Protests here regularly turn out a half-dozen or so committed activists, but rarely much more than that. My wife and I decided that the time had come for us to express our discontent with the existing socio-political environment here, and so we headed out to #OccupyOmaha on Saturday morning. Expecting low numbers, we were surprised when we could see people streaming towards the meeting site from blocks away.
At Occasional Planet, Gloria Bilchik has gathered information showing the latest trends in the town hall meetings that some of our Congressional representatives are still having (many of our representatives aren’t having town hall meetings anymore). The information she gathered shows that some of our representatives are charging admission fees for entry into the town hall, while others are excluding those who are less likely to kowtow and confiscating cameras from those who are allowed in.
This is a good summary with lots of links.