Thursday, May 27, 2004

The failure of media

What is wrong with the media today?

Of course, there are several problems at the same time. Some I don't want to detail here:

Many people noted the media relies too heavily on government sources that use them. (It is mentioned less often that this is kind of a 'blowback' for Watergate: Woodward and Bernstein heavily relied on "Deep Throat" and other leakers, but politicians quickly discovered the power of leaks, and later the power stemming from holding a journalist 'addicted' to leaks.)

Also many people note that most of the 'free press' where it exists is now in the hands of large media conglomerates, which, even if their leaders don't have a political agenda, on one hand fear for their other business interests that the powerful could hurt if there is negative reporting, on the other hand abuse the media to produce PR for these other business interests.

A further aspect of corporate ownership of media frequently mentioned is the introducion of corporate culture and thinking into journalism. That is, doing 'market research', writing 'what the readers like to read about' (what the reader wants to read rather than the truth), ascribing the success of another media outlet to a 'trend' and for that reason copying it, all the Infotainment BS etc.

Now, the failure I want to write about runs deeper, wider and hits the Blogosphere too.

Isaac Asimow, one of my favourite science fiction authors, wrote in the fourties the Foundation series. In one book, a character thinks about a scientist in an about-to-collapse Galactic Empire, and foresees the collapse from the fact that scientists no more look for discoveries 'out there', but look instead in old books. (Ironically, Asimow committed the same fault, for the Foundation series is largely based on Gibson's Fall of the Roman Empire, and so do I - but at least he preemted postmodern literature.)

What I noticed is that 99% - yes, 99%, and maybe more - of the content of news reports is copied out of other news reports. The media today functions as a hyperactive meme-reproducing machine.

So obviously one problem I see with this is that newspapers and TV today are reluctant to go for a story, or if they do, to do it thoroughly. This problem is only amplified by the Blogosphere. But more important is the problem of not doing what could stop this frantic reproduction: to check the facts and use reason. (This the Blogosphere, or at least sub-networks of it, could improve.)

And I don't just mean checking some new info that is copied. I mean checking the whole stuff, the 'background' stuff, the presumptions underlying the interpretation of new infos.

For example, if newspaper editors (not just Americans) would have just checked out their own paper's reporting in 1998 and early 1999, they wouldn't have repeated a million times the lie dropped by the Bush spin machine, that "Saddam threw out the inspectors in 1998" (or worse, claiming Clinton bombed Iraq for this fictious event). Instead, they would have countered the slander of the Bush admin against the UN inspectors('s effectivity) by pointing out only a failed US regime change attempt (and being used for it) ended their successful work, not a Saddam who backtracked from every bold vow and withdrew behind every supposed red line.

Or more recently, had they asked some (real, not AEI) Iraq expert or read up in some book, or just re-read newspaper reports from the area from April 2003, the now solid myth of Fallujah as the city especially loyal to Saddam wouldn't be there. (Instead, the token reminder at the end of articles would include references on one hand to Fallujah the filthy city, the city of hundred minarets and base of Salafism persecuted by Saddam; on the other hand to the 1991 US bomb on the marketplace and its 150 casualties, still sympathy for the US upon its arrival in 2003, the harrassments in April, the two protests shot up and followed up by changing lies, the many civilian casualties in the following anti-insurgency operations, the officially indiscriminate killing in 'Operation Iron Hammer', the ceasement of activity upon the 82nd Airborne's withdrawal from Fallujah in February and the disastrous Marine demonstration of force before the mercenary slayings.)

These examples are from Iraq, because now Iraq is on my mind. But I was angered by a lot of these mindless repeats of assumed evident truths, in fields ranging from space exploration through economics to pre-election candidate characterisations. Yes, this is not at all restricted to the American media, in fact I see it in European media considered quality and rather progressive - including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, or (OK not that progressive) the BBC. It is as if even respected journals forgot to use their documentation centers (Der Spiegel is famous for its own), and its journalists forgot that the common people's disdain for nitpicking and precision should be absent from a serious journalist.

I think a journalist, above all, should be conscious of the fact that small errors can grow into big mistakes in course of reproduction. This is a very much Darwinist process, not on genes but memes - but you can stop it, use your brain.

For now, I prefer blogs.


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