Saturday, July 23, 2011

Newspapers and journalism

There are very, very, few media outlets I have anything resembling trust in these days. Now, trust is a relative word, sometimes people do their best to tell the truth, and you have to focus on that and their ability to get things right, rather than a 100% perfect record.

There are two newspapers I'm prepared to spend money on. Oddly enough, they're both British, but they also have extremely good US coverage. Does this mean I like the British media or that I like it more than the US media? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Let's first of get "the media squiggleslash is OK with" down.

The Guardian

The Guardian - and only The Guardian, not its bastard adopted sister The Observer - is exactly what the media should be. It reports the news in depth. It doesn't focus on "he said/she said" stuff. It reports things that are inconvenient to the establishment. It investigates issues and tries to determine the core truth. It looks for stories, rather than focusing on a small core issues considered important by pundits.

Why The Guardian and not The Observer? They both share many journalists, after all, share largely the same political outlook, and, of course, are owned by the same group. Well, it's because The Observer really isn't up to the same standards. The Observer has never allowed truth to get in the way of a good story, the worst example arguably being the 1997 on-line "pedophilia" expose that smeared an ISP director and an already under attack anonymity service, the latter of which having to close shortly afterwards. I've read numerous articles in The Observer since that demonstrate the same sophistry and lack of a desire to fairly inform. I don't know how the two newspapers can co-exist.

In any case, that's not what this is about, except in that sometimes showing contrasts helps underline the point. The Guardian makes a concerted effort to find the truth and report it. In doing so, it's - on multiple occasions - been the only paper to report major establishment scandals that other papers refused to touch. I love it. I really do.

The Financial Times

The FT isn't an investigative powerhouse, but unlike its competitors, it doesn't allow rumors and cheap politics to get in the way of proper, factual, reporting. The paper is essentially a business sheet, intended to inform on the workings of business, the economy, and the markets, and it does so extremely well. The FT's biggest rival is the WSJ - but the WSJ pushes agendas, frequently simply misleading its readers quite intentionally to drive home ideological points.

The FT has, of course, an "ideology", if you can call it that, and has - with notable exceptions - tended to side with right wing governments. It's free market, pro-globalization, and its editorials reflect that. This doesn't reflect in its actual news gathering except in terms of the issues it chooses to highlight - but even those inevitably reflect those of its readers - the leeway to segue into topics of your own choosing is severely limited when you have to serve people who are only buying your paper in order to ensure they have the facts necessary to make good financial decisions.

It's a great paper.

British vs American Media

So does this mean I like the British media more than the US media? Well, no. Here's the deal.

Almost all US media, from what I've been able to tell, is essentially establishment run and focused. Some of that media, particularly Fox News and the various right wing opinion outlets, pretends not to be, but ultimately ends up pushing the same agendas - with minor exceptions to cater for its market - as the rest of the establishment. For reasons I just cannot fathom, the US establishment media considers making a real effort to determine truth and reporting it, "hysterical" and "unserious".

The result is just plain peculiar. Reading the US press feels often like falling into an alternate reality, where up is down, down is up, and investing in improvements when you're not doing so well is a bad thing to do. This is part of the reason why the FT is so much better than the WSJ - the FT actually does what it needs to do; I don't understand why anyone reads the WSJ to begin with.

The issue with the British media is somewhat more complicated. Essentially, most of it is awful. There are some honorable exceptions, and different newspapers at different times can be superb - The Times was good once, and The Independent tends to try to do what The Guardian actually pulls off. The BBC I'd put in the same class - well, maybe a little lower - as The Independent, at least, online. But for the most part, the British media is made up of newspapers that lie.

Now, I don't mean in the same way as you read US establishment media and get lied to. No. In the latter case, the US newspapers truthfully report the lies they're told. And they consider that good journalism. But the US media doesn't consider it good journalism to investigate whether what they're told are lies. That's unserious.

Most of the British media, however, just plain doesn't care whether what it reports is truthful or not. It will faithfully report rumors as fact, and use sophistry virtually all the time to imply things that simply aren't true.

How bad is it? Well, it varies. The Sun is infamous for a campaign it ran against Elton John in the eighties where it just kept making up crap about him, right down to underage sex allegations. The BBC (yes, that highly respected organ of truth) spent most of the late eighties and early nineties reporting that the Conservative party was on the verge of collapse, leading almost every single news telecast (I'm not exaggerating about this) hyping some ludicrously unimportant bit of news, along the lines of:
Good evening. In a major blow to the conservatives, sources are telling us tonight that Sir Humpton Bumpton, the MP for East Chorleywood, is upset at a proposal to build a bypass through his constituency, and has been quoted as saying "I'm jolly upset about this and I might well not vote for it when it comes up for a vote". This astonishing development can only be a major blow to Margaret Thatcher's government, an MP that has never criticized the government before has just done so. Could this spell the end for the Conservative Party as we know it? I'm joined by...
Yes, the BBC was like that. No wonder it was seen by many British rightists in the eighties as "left wing biased", although I think, in reality, the BBC - suffering a policy called "Mission to Explain" at the time - was trying to make politics "interesting" by promoting drama where clearly there wasn't any.

What you have with the British media is, essentially, a wave pattern where the highs are high and the lows are very low, the result being a media that's - on balance, worse than the US media, but with the peaks being much, much, better.

What I want out of the media

I have a few principles I'd like to see journalists respect in a way the majority really doesn't these days.
  • If, as a result of reading your articles, the majority of people who read your articles believe major things that simply are untrue, then you're doing it wrong.
  • There is no left or right, there's an establishment. The establishment needs to earn its position as an establishment. You must tell truth to power.
  • You must leave people informed about the issues that affect them, period. Not "more informed than they would have been", but positively informed.

Other things I read
  • Preferred echo chamber is the Washington Post's The Plum Line - at least, when Greg Sargent writes it. Not terribly impressed by Jonathan Bernstein.
  • The only thing left in worth reading (that isn't entertainment I mean, Ask the Pilot's OK, and there's a few things like that, but the commentary sucks!) is Glenn Greenwald.
  • The NYT has a column and blog by Paul Krugman.
Occasionally these people link to articles in the Post or NYT, but doesn't it tell you something that more than half the time, the link isn't "Read about what's happening at this link", it's "In this extremely misleading article, the NYT says..."?

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