Wednesday, November 9

Limitations of US news media: why it's hard to make sense of world affairs

(This writing incorporates excerpts from 11/8 and 11/15 essays, both of which I've deleted.)

Three posts yesterday -- two based largely on segments from John Batchelor's Monday show and one based on a CBS report. John's reporting and analysis are of such consistently high quality that I'm ashamed to say I've come to take it for granted -- whereas I burble praise when a mainstream media reporter does a good job.

Of course that's because the bar is set so low with the mainstream that it really stands out when a reporter leaps above the bar. Yet there are many good reporters working in the mainstream, as Batchelor's show demonstrates. Many of his correspondents are moonlighting from major press and electronic media outlets.

So the raw material is out there for making great American journalism. What seems to be lacking is vision at the management and editorial/production levels.

Data is just that until it's understood; only then does it become intel. It's not just the war news that is hard to follow; it's the complexity of globalized era. The Cold War was easy for journalists because the Iron and Bamboo curtains greatly limited the amount of information they needed to process. And the Middle East was behind a virtual Sand Curtain. And Latin America was behind a Banana Curtain. And Africa was behind, well -- Dark Continent Curtain.

In short, there were very few chess pieces on the news board -- even after America became a superpower. Today, news producers/press editors are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of newsworthy events, so they have retreated to a completely irrelevant decision tree for analyzing which news gets featured. The major part of what drives decision making is economics: it costs megabucks to maintain world-class foreign bureaus, and megabucks to hire good analysts.

Another part of the problem relates to psycho-epistemology. The picture-driven, event-driven TV medium is the worst for building a coherent understanding of events. Even the talk driven news shows such as PBS NewsHour are at the mercy of the traditional way of analyzing news, which I term Bunching:

A bunch of Talking Heads arises out of nowhere to discourse authoritatively about a news event, They are replaced the next night by another bunch when another news event rises. Then, poof! the bunch is replaced by another bunch the next night, discoursing with equal authority on another news event that has arisen.

The upshot is a crazy-quilt jumble of facts and opinion that only news junkies and wonks can fit into a coherent picture of world events. Result: the general public fogs out. People need coherence before they need facts. Above all, they need meaning: Why should I pay attention to this?

One of my essays The Seven O'Clock Intelligence Briefing analyzes what the public would need to know, in order to understand the Ukraine presidential election.

My point was that without providing adequate background to a situation and connecting it with American interests, it is hard for the public to discern the truth of matters, hard to distinguish which news stories carry true weight.

Paid agendists, propagandists, and influence agents are the cats among the pigeons; they are skilled at manipulating the public's (and journalists') poor grasp of world events. The best defense is a better informed public.

I could write volumes on this topic but my point is that Pundita blog strives to explain the relevance of complex situations to a general reader; in particular, how certain situations (e.g., corruption and development banking) feed into the War on Terror and Bush's democracy doctrine.

In summary, it ain't enuf to know the facts on the ground; one must connect their meaning with a larger picture, one that a general readership can grasp. This is if news organizations in the 21st century are to keep the public well informed. Given the close connection between democracy and an informed public, communication is a very important issue. Political bias is really the least of the problem.

In the end it's just a bunch of people and their actions we're discussing. If we never forget that, we can always find our way to a clear explanation about matters of state. Such matters are no harder to understand than the progress of a sports team or the plot of a soap opera. However, both are serials, which means the fans build up an understanding over time. As I pointed out in the Seven O'Clock essay, it is supposed to be the job of the news media to help the public build up an understanding of the events they hurl into the news reports. They've done a lousy job.

This said, I don't think the static medium of television or even the printed medium is the best way to learn about issues related to major news stories. Because learning is an interactive process I consider the Socratic method -- a dialogue between teacher and student -- the very best way to learn. This is because the student's questions drive the teacher's replies and reveal what the student does not know about a topic. The teacher can help fill in the blanks and correct misunderstandings on the spot.

So I think the blogosphere/Internet chat room, which allows for rapid feedback, and talk radio, and which allows for caller feedback, are better media for getting background on the news, at least until TV becomes interactive.

I note that John Batchelor does not accept calls during his radio show but he gets around that limitation through dialogues with his guests. Clearly, he goes into his subjects very well informed but he will take the role of the student and ask the kind of questions that his audience would ask.

I know from my year of blogging how easy it is to assume too much about a general reader's grasp of a subject. Early on I threw too much at the reader in one of my essays, Democracy Stage Show Kit, because I made reference to concepts that would only be readily familiar to people working in development areas.

That led to misunderstanding and away from my central point. My first reaction boiled down to, "I can't go back to Square One; I'm not a teacher."

It took a few essays but I managed to clarify. The experience brought home to me that an interactive element is key to making sense out of news events. That's why I recommend people start foreign policy discussion clubs.

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