Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sifting the News

a talk given at the Bedford Lyceum in Bedford, MA on March 14, 2010

Every now and then I set out to write one thing and something else entirely comes out. Well, the announcement for this talk says that I'm going to tell you how I do the Weekly Sift -- and I will say a few words about that. But every time I sat down to write that talk, I kept backing up to explain why I write the Sift. After a couple of tries, I finally gave in. I'll say a little about how, but this talk is mostly about why.

But first, what. The Weekly Sift is a blog I write. It's mainly about politics, occasionally venturing out into culture, religion, and other related subjects. It comes out Monday afternoons. I try to keep it down to about 3000 words -- just slightly longer than a sermon.

In a typical week I'll have two or three topics that I talk about in some detail, and then five or ten "short notes" that might just be a sentence or two, with a link to something I found interesting. The Sift is intended to be a secondary news source. Being weekly, I write it assuming that you already know whatever the currently hyped news stories are, and that you're probably sick of them. Occasionally I miss a week, but I've been doing it pretty consistently for about 2 1/2 years.

A lot of people ask how long it takes each week, and I never have a good answer. Originally, the Sift was just a way to get my week off to a productive start. All week I'd bookmark articles I found while browsing the Internet, and then Monday I'd sit down and explain why I liked them.

Then it started to grow. Now I collect bookmarks Tuesday through Thursday. By Friday I usually know what my main stories are going to be. Over the weekend I do my research and write them up, and then Monday I go through the bookmarks I haven't used to put the Short Notes together.

I don't know how to estimate how much time it takes, because it's not always clear when I'm Sifting and when I'm just wandering around the Internet or staring into space. But however I do the accounting, it has turned into a significant enough chunk of time to raise the question about why I do it.


I have my own version of "Think globally, act locally." I believe that the best way to change things is to start with a problem that you care about personally, then look at the Big Picture until you figure out what the scale of the problem really is. Then come back to your own scale and ask what you can do about it.

The personal problem that got the Sift started was that I didn't trust the news media any more. Amazingly often, when I did even the smallest amount of research into some big controversy, I'd discover that the original controversial events never happened at all, or happened in a very different context than was being reported.

Some of these things were trivial, like Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet. Others were more serious, like the fact that Saddam didn't have WMDs and didn't conspire with Bin Laden. But again and again, I'd discover that the events we were all arguing about hadn't happened that way at all.

I don't mean that in a conspiracy theory sense. No covert organization was staging fake events or covering up real ones like in the spy movies. Most of the time stuff wasn't covered up at all. Everything was all right there on the internet -- the transcripts, the official reports, the court decisions, the bills in Congress -- everything you needed to see through the hype and the illusion, if you bothered to take the time to look it up and put it all together.

At one time, that was the job of the news media. But it didn't seem to be their job any more. It didn't seem to be anybody's job.

So, when I pulled back to look at the Big Picture, the problem I saw was this: The social contract between the public and the news media has broken down.


I'm going to have to take a long detour here, because the social contract has broken down so completely that it's hard to remember what the old contract was. So I want to flash back a few decades to what I like to call the Walter Cronkite Era.

Every day, Walter would end the CBS Evening News with his famous tagline: "And that's the way it is." To me, that sums up the old contract. For our part, we trusted Walter to tell us how things were. He was sometimes billed as "the most trusted man in America".

In return, he -- and the other news anchors of his era -- made a number of unstated commitments, which I would summarize in five points.

  • First, news broadcasts will be accurate. He tried to get it right, and CBS maintained a large staff of reporters to help him get it right.
  • Second, the news will be up to date. Not "That's the way it was" but "That's the way it is." 
  • Third, the news will be complete. Not in the sense that Walter could tell you in a half hour everything that happened today, but in the sense that CBS News considered the whole world to be its beat. If it happened today and it was important, then it should be on the news. 
  • Fourth, the news should be objective. The news should not be propaganda. Events should not be shoe-horned into a pre-existing point-of-view.
  • Finally, the news media would hold newsmakers accountable. Journalists are working for you, the public, and collectively they're strong enough to make the Powers-That-Be answer questions. 

(Naturally, I'm not claiming that CBS or any other news organization always lived up to those commitments. On occasion they made mistakes, overlooked things, failed to ask the right questions, and developed an implicit point of view. What I'm claiming is that those were failings, not repudiations.)

We used to call the news media the Fourth Estate, a term you never hear any more. Their power was on a scale with the other estates: the Government, the Intelligentsia, and the People.Why were they so powerful? Supply and demand. In Walter's day, there were three networks, each producing a half-hour news program each day. Two wire services -- AP and UPI -- serviced all the newspapers. In essence, those five organizations occupied a narrow isthmus between newsmakers and the general public.

Also: the news didn't need to make money. News was part of the prestige of a network. Gunsmoke made money, so Cronkite didn't have to.

Walter retired in 1981. Since then the  major networks have all been taken over by media conglomerates, and the news divisions are now expected to make as much money as they can. So budgets have been slashed and the money that is left is focused on superstars who can produce ratings.

But even more important: Today there are many news channels trying to fill 24-hours of programming each day. The internet has not only created an army of bloggers, it has made every little newspaper and radio station into a global distributor. The Bedford Minuteman is a global newspaper now. You can read it today in places where you could not have found a New York Times 30 years ago.

That has changed the supply-and-demand relationship on both sides. Journalists have to pander both to their sources and to the general public, because both can easily go elsewhere.


So how does that affect Cronkite's five commitments? Well, right off the bat we can eliminate the idea that a news organization can hold newsmakers accountable. There is no Fourth Estate any more. Powerful people answer the questions they want to answer, because if you try to ask them other questions, they can ignore you and still get their story out without you.

Look at Dick Cheney, for example. Cheney has had dozens of interviews in the last year, and they all go the same way: The interviewer brings up a difficult subject like Iraq or torture or whatever. Cheney makes a statement that is completely and obviously false. And then the interviewer moves on to the next subject. (His interview with CNN's John King set the pattern.)

Glenn Greenwald likes to say that we don't have reporters any more, we have stenographers. They write down what newsmakers say and publish it. Glenn casts that as a moral failing, and to some extent it is. But it also true that journalists don't have the power to do much else. If you make it difficult for a newsmaker to distribute his message, he'll ignore you and reach the public some other way. If you want to have a career in journalism, you have to pander to your sources.

Now let's talk about up-to-date and accurate. In the Cronkite Era, there was a daily news cycle. If a rumor popped up at 2 in the afternoon, Walter had until 6:30 to figure out whether it was true. He had a big staff of reporters to check it out, and those reporters all had sources who were competing for their attention.

Now, the news cycle is instantaneous. The rumor pops up at 2, and if you don't have it on the air by 2:01, you're behind. So when you see breaking news on TV these days, most of the time the reporter has no idea whether what he's telling you is true. There's no time and there's no budget and people don't have to answer questions unless they want to. In the Fort Hood shootings, for example, people went on the air with reports that there were multiple shooters, that a heroic female cop gunned down one of them, and that he died. All false.

So we can have up-to-date but only by giving up on accurate.

You would think that having 24 hours of broadcast time each day would make it easier to deliver on the commitment to completeness, but in fact it doesn't. Cronkite-era news organizations could cover every important event, because they had the power to impose their own definition of importance. Thirty years ago, watching the news or reading a major newspaper was a little like doing push-ups or drinking prune juice. You did it because it was good for you, because this was what you needed to know. If you weren't interested in some story that Walter considered important, well, you should be.

Today, with all the choices and the corporate need for profit and ratings, the news is whatever a lot of people will watch. Just as journalists have to pander to their sources, they also have to pander to the public. (Today it would seem incredibly arrogant for Katie Couric to tell us "the way it is". Who, we would wonder, told her she had that kind of power? Thirty years ago it didn't seem arrogant at all; we knew and accepted that Cronkite had that kind of power.) So the news is full of fluff and hype and outrage -- and if there's a coup somewhere in Africa, who really cares? Nobody has the budget to have an office out there, and who would watch anyway?

Finally, let's consider objective. Today we have philosophical problems with objectivity. The prevailing philosophical view today is that real objectivity is impossible. You can try to suppress the prejudices you know about, but some preconceptions are just the warp and woof of your thinking, and you can't get away from them.

So journalists today are a little like priests who don't believe in God. They're trying to live by a value that doesn't make sense to them any more. So, like priests who have lost their faith, journalists demonstrate their objectivity in dishonest and hypocritical ways. They have lost any real sense of objectivity and instead made a fetish of balance.

So, for example, we have the he-said/she-said story. Climate scientists say one thing about global warming; flacks hired by the oil industry say something else. On to the next story. Nancy Pelosi says that it's raining; John Boehner says that its sunny. On to the next story. God forbid a reporter should go outside and tell us whether or not he's getting wet. That would be picking a side. It wouldn't be balanced.

Or we have the false equivalence story. Several members of one party are ax murderers. But somebody from the other party got a parking ticket, so there is law-breaking on both sides. If I just reported the murders, or said that murder is more serious than a parking ticket, that would be picking a side. It wouldn't be balanced.

Finally, honest analysis from any political point of view has been replaced by dueling talking points. You have somebody like James Carville give Democratic talking points, balance him with somebody like Karl Rove giving Republican talking points, and on to the next story.

I'm going to go off on a bit of tangent-within-the-tangent here, because this is a phenomenon that nobody ever explains, and it has to do with budget cuts and commercialization.

The problem isn't that Rove is a Republican or Carville a Democrat. The problem is that they aren't commentators at all -- they're advertisers. A real commentator is working for the network that is working for you. But heavy hitters like Rove and Carville command big money for their insights -- more than the network wants to pay. So Carville and Rove don't go on TV for the money, they go on because the network has assembled an audience that they can sell their talking points to.

They're not working for you, they're working on you. That's why networks occasionally have these open-mike accidents, where a pundit has dutifully sold his talking points -- and then the camera goes off but the mike keeps recording, and he says something completely different. What he told you when the camera was running was not honest commentary. It was advertising.

So let's sum up what I see as the faults of current mainstream news coverage.

  • First, it's inaccurate; it jumps on rumors and fans them.
  • It's ineffective at getting newsmakers to answer the questions we need answers to.
  • It's lazy. It's easy to balance a story between two opposing sides, but it's work to figure out whether anything that they told you was true. Less and less often does anyone do that work.
  • It's repetitive. It got to be a joke around our house. Deb would say, "What's new?" and I'd say, "Michael Jackson is still dead." 
  • It panders. Now that news organizations have to maximize profit, the news is whatever will get ratings.
  • And finally, it's dishonest. Advertisers are presented as commentators. People who are working for somebody else come on the air to work on you.

OK, that's a very long-winded description of the problem. Now, obviously one person is not going to solve that. And I'm not a billionaire or the president of a media corporation or the dean of a journalism school. So what can I, working on my small scale, do about this?

Obviously, I can't go out and replace Walter Cronkite or his organization. I can't be complete. I can't be up-to-the-second. If I call up the White House and demand answers, I'm probably not going to get any farther than you would. I have the same philosophical problems with objectivity that everyone else does. About the only one of Cronkite's commitments I can fill is that I can try to be accurate. And if I discover that I haven't been accurate, I can own up to it and try to fix my mistakes.

So I can't offer to uphold the old social contract between the public and the media. But what I can do, and what other bloggers like me can do, is offer a new contract.

 The number one thing in that contract is honesty. Honesty is very different from objectivity or balance. Anyone who reads more than a few lines of the Sift knows that it's a liberal blog. I am a liberal myself, so when I try to make sense out of the world, I make sense in a liberal way.

But a blogger should be like the cobbler who wears his own shoes or the baker who eats his own bread. I'm trying to make sense of the world for myself. If I find some sense, I publish it on the Sift. I can't promise you that the story I tell you is "the way it is". But I can promise that the story I'm telling you is the same one I tell myself.

If you want balance, you don't need me to provide it, you can make it for yourself. If you read the Sift and then go read a conservative blog or a communist blog or an Islamic jihadist blog, that's wonderful. And if all of those people are making the same commitment to honesty, if they're telling you how the world really looks to a conservative or a communist or a jihadist -- then you're going to have a wonderful sense of perspective on the world.

Number two is verifiability. I'm not aiming to be the most trusted man in America. Quite the opposite, I want to burden your trust as little as I can. That's why I put so many links in my stories. I expect you to doubt me -- sometimes I even want you to doubt me -- so I link to the evidence that led me to believe what I just wrote.

That's particularly important when I'm telling you what public figures are saying, because so much of the mainstream media these days is an enormous game of Telephone. A public figure says something that gets paraphrased. Then the paraphrase gets paraphrased, and so on until the quote is nothing like what was originally said.

So when I quote somebody, I do my best to link to a video or a transcript -- preferably a complete one. So you can verify that I didn't make this quote up, and you can judge for yourself whether I took it out of context.

My third commitment is depth. If I take up a story at all, I will do that work the news media refuses to do: Look up the sources, make the connections, and find the context. If a story raises an obvious question, I'll try to answer that question.


OK, now let's get into what the talk was supposed to be about, the how. I think a lot of people who don't understand the blogging community imagine that I'm much smarter and more widely read than I really am. They see that one week the Sift has a story from the Charlotte Observer and another week there's something from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and they think that I must read, like, a hundred newspapers every day.

Not exactly. Most days I read the New York Times and buzz through the top headlines on Google News and CNN. But what really happens is that I'm plugged into a network of people. And among all of us, we probably do read a hundred newspapers every day. And if any one of us spots something interesting, it gets out.

The best place to keep track of these stories that other people are spotting is in the Recommended Diaries column of DailyKos. Thousands of people post the things they find interesting on Kos. And if fifty or a hundred Kos readers think what they found was interesting, it makes the recommended list. That's the only way I'm going to find something in the Sacramento Bee.

I pay regular attention to two other group blogs: Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post. And there are a handful of individual bloggers that I read just about every day: Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias, Digby, and a few others.

I often link to something in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, or the Atlantic, but usually somebody else found it for me.

I also pay attention to a few specialist blogs; I don't read them every day, but I search through them if I want to understand a particular issue. Juan Cole is my Middle Eastern expert. Nate Silver analyzes polls for me. Scott Horton and Marcy Wheeler are my civil liberty lawyers. I found them the way you find specialists in any small town: Somebody you trust tells you about somebody else.

Sometimes Sift readers send me stuff, or they ask a question that leads to a Google query. And, like anybody else who browses the internet, I find a lot just by luck. A page I visit links to another that links to another, and eventually I find something good without knowing how I got there.


Finally, I want to back off of something I implied earlier: that I work for my readers rather than on them. On one scale that's true, but on another it isn't. I seldom state it in so many words, but there is one idea sitting in the background of just about every Sift article. It's part of my own faith, and you could say that I'm always working to sell this idea to my readers: The world is comprehensible. The stuff you need to understand to be a good citizen and play your role in a functioning democracy -- it's understandable.

Lots of people would like to convince you otherwise -- that the world is arcane and complicated and you should just give up on making sense out of it; that everybody lies and you can never sort out what's true and what isn't. But the underlying message of the Sift is that everything you need to understand the world is sitting in plain sight. If you're diligent and you take the time, you can put it together.