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Wednesday, May 11

Toward better American news media: More on the EMP story

Pundita received several letters in praise of her analysis of the EMP story; these included a letter from a blogger (Steve at Word Unheard). In a published defense of the seriousness of the EMP threat he added criticism of himself for overlooking the points I raised.

The blogosphere gods tend to visit brain furballs--or worse, Rugby--on Pundita when she displays a puffy head. So I will draw back the curtain to reveal the high level of efficiency, organization, and research behind that blog on the EMP:

Basically, I sent an email to three bloggers-- Dave Schuler , Bill Roggio and Mark Safranski --that boiled down to, "Help! I heard a scary story about EMP from John Loftus on John Batchelor's show last night! Does anybody know anything about EMP and whether Loftus's story should be taken seriously??"

By the end of the day, Mark Safranski had tracked down blogger friend "Dr. Von" (a particle physicist) and offered to write up an analysis of the EMP threat, to the best of his ability, whenever he heard back from him. This meant that Dr. Von set aside his schedule to dash off something about EMP. Then Mark set aside his schedule to do research and write up an analysis.

It was not until I read Mark's blog that I saw my mistake. On the night he broadcast Loftus's report on EMP, John Batchelor had published on his website the May 2 World Net Daily story, which--if I'd read it closely--would have alerted me to the very points I covered in my essay. But I was blindsided by the sheer drama and scariness of Loftus's tale. Yet all Loftus did was repeat what Admiral Woolsey said in testimony before a congressional committee (and which WND duly reported) --although without mentioning the context in which the testimony arose.

Several morals derive from the odyssey I've recounted. Serious bloggers are always on a learning curve in their role as news consumer and blogger. And given the sheer amount of news they take in daily, one can slip by them on occasion.

Steve deserves credit for catching his oversight and discussing it on his blog on the EMP threat. That shows integrity as well as dedication to the empirical viewpoint (as versus the agendist or theoretical ones, which can wreak havoc with news reports).

One of the nice things about the blogosphere 'community' is that it serves as additional eyes and ears (and brain!). I note that my blog wasn't about EMP or even the threat it posed; it was an analysis of media treatment of EMP. I depended on the work done by other bloggers for the analysis of EMP and its potential threat--and for digging up sources on EMP.

Being a news consumer is hard work--particularly during war, when the agendists and propagandists ratchet their rhetoric, and when there's so much news requiring attention. Everybody fogs out and gets caught napping--even the best analysts. But you'll regain your bearings easily if you remember to ask about the context in which the news story arose; e.g., was it part of testimony before a committee or during a press conference? If so, what is the background?

The EMP story is particularly instructive because so much was 'going on' with it. It had different elements mixed together:

> The technical element (the nature of EMP and debates about its threat),

> the very scary and highly dramatic statements about a specific type of threat (an EMP fired at the US from a tramp steamer),

> and the claim that the Iranian missile test "must" have indicated that the Iranians were readying an EMP weapon.

So one has to isolate and untangle the separate elements then analyze them singly--not an easy task for the general public, and not easy for those under pressure to comment quickly on a news story (e.g., bloggers).

Yet that kind of analysis is required, if one is to avoid gross misperceptions. Ideally, we should be able to depend on professional news analysts to do that brain sweat for us. But professional news commentary in the mainstream media is so poor that the serious news consumer has to learn and practice at least the basics of analysis.

Eventually, all that citizen effort will result in demands for better professional new analysis. Right now the professionals are getting off the hook; they divert attention from their incompetence by bringing up the bias argument then concentrating debate around that.

Bias is the least of the problem; most professionals simply aren't trained in news analysis. Part of that is the fault of journalism schools; part of it is the tendency to look for 'personalities' in commentators--people who become professionals by virtue of their writing or speaking ability and appeal with the public.

Another part is the Talking Head phenomenon--the tendency to bring in an expert on the subject matter of a particular news story, rather than someone who specializes in analyzing news as data.

Heavy reliance by the mainstream media on Talking Heads is why it's so easy for the news consumer to lose the thread of a news story. Once experts start debating the technical aspects of an issue, the context in which the issue arose as a news story gets lost in the maze of expert opinion.

That's what happened with the EMP story. To catch hold of the thread, always ask yourself in what context the news story arose. In the case of the EMP threat, the news arose in the context of testimony before a congressional committee. Holding onto that thread will lead you out of the maze of data, exposition, speculation and debate and deposit you at a reasonably objective view of the news of the day.

For readers who despair that the quality of MSM news analysis (and reporting) will improve, never underestimate your power and the determination of those inside the business to make improvements. Over the years, John Batchelor has aired many segments that serve as a primer on defensive news consumption. During the run-up to the gubernatorial recall vote in California, John took Craig Crawford through a step-by-step analysis of a poll that the Los Angeles Times printed about the candidates. Under Batchelor's questions, Craig's 'forensic' analysis was a jaw-dropper; the poll, when closely examined, was very misleading.

Within days of that broadcast, the mainstream media began airing and publishing stories about the media's heavy reliance on polls as the basis for news stories, the different types of polls, and the highly deceptive results of some types of polls.

When Eason Jordan used the World Economic Forum (or the other way around) to launch a sneak attack on the Bush administration, Bill Roggio and a handful of other bloggers closely analyzed Jordan's remarks and the context in which they arose. Their analysis cut so close to the bone that it seems CNN preferred to ditch Mr. Jordan in an effort to tamp down further inquiry. In any case, CNN was served notice that the American news consumer is becoming more sophisticated.

Yet the nature of news in this highly complex war means that no matter how trustworthy we consider a news source, we need to learn the basics of good reporting and apply the standard to important news stories.

For new readers who wonder about the identity of Rugby, Pundita refuses to give that precocious lab rat any more publicity than he's already received on this blog. But if you must know, I suppose you might type "Rugby" into the search engine that Google perches on this page.

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