Friday, April 11, 2008

News To Me

[Originally posted on MySpace: 3/12/2006]

OK, so I am demonstrating my supreme laziness by making this entry a simple cut-and-paste from the blog over at my professional MySpace.

Still, it seemed a potentially useful thing for me to do, given some of the conversations I’ve had with some who might read this (and the Extreme Puzzlement and Consternation which those conversations have inspired!). Rather than blathering for hours at social gatherings, I thought it would be courteous to give folks a window into some of my sources and methods of gathering info, then let them draw their own conclusions. Gods know, the trip to my own current perspective on things has been a long and strange one!
So, do brew a fresh pot of coffee and have a gander (or a goose. Whatever.). Hope it’s useful.

Category: News and Politics

Sorry, gang; this is gonna be a LOOOONG one.

This may seem an odd sort of entry to find on a psychologist’s blog. What does being an educated consumer of the media with respect to matters of policy and politics have to do with mental health,you might understandably ask. Good question.

A big part of the work of psychotherapy is helping people sift the rational and useful from the irrational and unproductive, so their responses to their environments can track more adaptively with the shifting sands of reality. It’s all part of being a more fully conscious occupant of the universe, whether viewed from the perspective of the privacy of our own minds, the landscapes of our relationships, or the marketplace of ideas in the broader world. Really it’s all of a piece.

And yet, for some time now, I’ve been watching a curious phenomenon: People whose politics lean to the Left cry out that the MSM (MainStream Media: TV News, Newspapers, and the big magazine outlets, like Time and Newsweek) is Conservative-controlled, while those on the Right wail about a "Liberal Media." It’s a chin-scratcher and no mistake!

Political views have become toxically polarized (American politics have always been a rough-and-tumble business, to be sure, but I’m forced to conclude that the current state of affairs, with each side of the aisle dug in and glowering at the other, seemingly unable to give a millimeter, is a wholly new and altogether poisonous development). "Political debate" has largely degenerated into a brutal exchange of talking points and attack ads, and what used to be called "common ground" is rapidly turning into a radioactive wasteland. Those who are brave or foolhardy enough to wander into that no-man’s land (like John McCain or Joe Lieberman) can find themselves declared Ritually Unclean, and banished to a kind of political leper colony. It’s a hard thing to watch!

And right in the thick of it sits the MSM. To paraphrase an old truism in news circles: We don’t report on all the buildings that aren’t burning. Another form of the same thought is "If it bleeds, it leads." It is the MSM’s job to stay in business. Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. The trouble is that the need to show growth at the next quarterly stockholders’ meeting creates a dizzyingly competitive market, where the news cycle is 24/7, while the average attention span is (to quote Dennis Miller) that of a ferret on a double espresso. Moderation does not keep our fingers away from the remote.

And so, the media will tend to create a narrative into which they will plug (or ram) a string of disconnected "facts," in order to paint the most eye-catching picture possible. You can see where the first casualty of such a process will be context. No matter how seemingly self-evident might be the meaning of what someone says during any given sound bite, the true meaning and intent will usually lie in what gets said before and after that slice. Yet that is precisely what gets lost in most MSM reporting. Indeed, I’ve been forced to conclude that the sources from which most people get their information about the world amount to little more than a gigantic controversy engine, tuned to our most base fears and rages and appetites, and shaping our collective consciousness into ever-more violent spasms of ill-informed arm-waving. It is very unfortunate, not to mention undignified!

So, what is a body to do? In my travels on the Wide Wild Web, I have stumbled across some useful islands of reason and (relative) sanity, which have helped me to develop a "third ear" when consuming news segments, and better check their facts and judge their merits (or the lack thereof!).

The first group I’ll pass along to you are some non-partisan information sites. These help sift the wheat from the chaff from the sticky bits of fertilizer which come in stuck to the stalks.

The second group deals with blogs (short for "Web Logs"), the last true frontier (so far) in the media landscape. Usually labors of love (or rage. Or paranoia. Or sheer tomfoolery), these volunteer journalists are free to comment, weigh, sort, and generally blab about everything from golf to baking to the metallurgical properties of pogo-stick springs from the mid seventies. Not to mention politics.

UPDATE, 9/6/2007: This seems as good a place as any to add This is a very handy complilation of the headlines of a variety of MSM publications, as well as a selection of leading blogs on the Left and Right. It’s my new home page, and a great place to start one’s News Crawl.

Update: 10/27/2010: Deal links at the site. Pity.

First, the basics: should be a frequent stop (especially during any given election year, when the manure flies fast and furious!). I’ve found extremely few examples of bias here, and those (pretty subtle) errors have not usually been limited to one or the other end of the political spectrum. It’s also searchable, so you can look around for some of the nonsense which has been spewed about with regard to your political chestnut of choice (like, say, a search for Halliburton or WMD...). This is a well-known site which specializes in the carefully researched (they show their work!) confirmation or debunking of a host of urban legends, "well-known facts" and other bits of informational flotsam which can lodge in our brains, masquerading as Truth. It is a fantastically useful resource, from double-checking those URGENT VIRUS WARNING emails that choke our in-boxes, to the scuttlebutt about some politician, issue, etc. which can get passed around like...well... a virus, and ultimately turn out to have no basis in fact...but usually long after the damage is done. Project VoteSmart is an incalculably valuable resource for opening up the book on the ACTUAL policy positions, voting records, contribution portfolios, affiliations, etc. for any given politician/candidate (it’s so useful, indeed, that I keep a collection of their brochures in my waiting room. Feel free to grab one; I just ordered more!). Don’t let lobby groups and their attack ads on either side tell you what a candidate stands for. Check it out for yourself. A splendid companion to VoteSmart, which focuses more exclusively on the money trail for any given candidate. Wanna know who’s been taking heaps of cash from Big Oil, or Greenpeace, or whatever else might be your boogieman of choice? Here’s your spot.

(Fun game: Sit down and watch a few campaign ads, then follow them up at the above sites, and count the ways you would have been spun, manipulated, and straight-up duped if you hadn’t investigated for yourself!)

And now, on to BLOGS!

It takes a little (okay, a lot) more work to skim the Blogosphere for the stories behind (and above, and below, and around) the stories you’ll get from the MSM, but the payoff is a MUCH more nuanced and fleshed-out appreciation for the issues which inform those stories.

But which blogs to read (there are thousands upon thousands!)? One of the best ways to build your blogroll is to find entries which move
and interest you (say, something somebody sends you [see below!], or that gets linked in an article somewhere else, or maybe the link to the blog page of someone who makes a particularly on-point comment in the discussion of an article you read somewhere). Click on the "Main" or "Front" link on that entry, to get you to the blog’s front page, and read a few more of that blogger’s entries. If you still like what you see, bookmark it...then go on to see what blogs they read (usually a list along the side of the page), and repeat the procedure. Over time, the best blogs tend to rise to the top, and get linked to from more and more other blogs, so if you start seeing the same name again and again, odds are it’s worth a click.

Naturally, this process can be a mite time-consuming, so I was really happy to find the following links to various blogs on the left and right, with brief blurbs/reviews of each. I’ve also added a few of my own faves....

Here’s a page with reviews of some blogs which lean, to varying degrees, Leftwards:

And here’s one which reviews some which lean, again, to varying degrees, to the Right:

Actually, I would add a couple to this second list: A pro-war but generally non-rabid site with some thoughtful commentary on tactical and strategic matters. A devastatingly on-point daily deconstruction of the MSM’s coverage of the War and related matters, from a professor of Communications Studies at UNC. Leans in a pro-war direction, but you needn’t agree with this to draw useful (and at times infuriating) information about the ways in which media stories get spun, decontextualized, generally distorted, and otherwise buggered beyond usefulness.

UPDATE, 9/6/2007: Unfortunately, the Prof stopped ranting last year, and hasn’t returned. The archives are still up, though, so somebody’s paying the bills, and they are definitely worth a read.

And here’s a couple from what I would call the Center, though, of course, the location of that elusive fulcrum is a notoriously moving target!: This is my first stop every day in my blog crawl. I simply cannot overestimate the value of their frequent and comprehensive briefings on matters related to the realm of foreign policy. Although leaning in a moderately pro-war direction, this site is all-too ready to take the Bush Administration and other sectors of the USGov to task when they step in it. The writing is balanced and wide-ranging (and occasionally hilarious). This site is one of the best examples of the value of the Blogosphere that I can point to. Check it often!

UPDATE, 9/6/2007: Alas, in the last few months, WoC has slipped, as several of the writers have gone on to other projects. The posts are not nearly as frequent, nor as balanced and comprehensive. This is not to say that it’s not worth checking, but it no longer merits the glowing endorsement I gave it when I originally posted this. The Belmont Club is one of my favorite blogs. Their thoughtful commentaries on a variety of topics take a reasoned, generally quite moderate perspective on military, Intelligence, and diplomatic matters, with a generous helping of historical analysis and the occasional Tolkien reference. I’ve found many of these commentaries to be quite wise and useful in providing historical and geopolitical context (there’s that word again!) on the stories of the day (including many of the ones you’re not likely to see reported in the MSM at all). This guy usually impresses me by how directly up the middle he tends to fly. He’s like a bull detector when one or the other end of the spectrum (or both) gets too exercised about a given issue. Useful.
Sorta-Center-Left foreign policy discussions. Liberal-friendly, but not afraid to be a tad hawkish. Not exactly entry-level, in that they go into some detail of the politics of the Middle East and other hot spots. But it rewards the effort with some pretty thoughtful analysis (particularly useful with all the dense political wrangling now going on in the new Iraqi government, which
the MSM is all-but-guaranteed to oversimplify or just plain get wrong).

UPDATE, 9/6/2007: This site also appears to have suffered over time, with very infrequent entries, and some problems with the formatting. Doesn’t look like anyone’s minding the store as of this writing. Pity; it was pretty good. That’s just how it goes in the blogosphere, though.

That’s about all I have the energy for right now. I hope these links prove useful, particularly as we move toward mid-term elections. It truly is a crying shame that it should take this much work to gather balanced, comprehensive information, when the survival of a democracy is so vitally dependent on its citizens’ capacity for critical, well-reasoned decision-making (any journalism majors out there, please take note!). But there it is.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle
And knows.

-Robert Frost

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