Thursday, May 27, 2004

a glimmer of journalistic integrity...

... but not yet bright enough to read by.

One of the things that scares me the most about this country is the way our media nurtures our short attention spans. It's something I've noticed more and more as the web has become my primary information medium - I'll see something interesting, tell someone else to go check it out, and in the time between the first and second viewings the content is changed, often in such a way as to completely alter the feel of the piece. I finally started printing out copies of pages that were at risk of being worked over by the Ministry of Disinformation, so I'd have proof when my coworkers started talking about 'tinfoil hats'.

But the thing is, there *is* proof. If you get your news from a single source (and thanks to Bush's relaxation of the media control laws it is now very probable that even if you get more than one newspaper in your city, they are still the same source), you are almost certainly being fucked. Don't think so? Take an hour or two, pick an 'important' news item, and check out 50 different news sources online, covering a few countries at the very least, covering many countries and a few languages if you can do so. You will find that the disparities in the news sources you read are so extreme that you're often not sure they are even talking about the same event.

Of course, here in the USA we know why this happens: because all of those *other* guys are spinning their stories for political reasons... our news is the pure ideal baseline upon which all of the other sources are judged and found to be faulty. How incredibly fucking arrogant and naive this country is. We believe that our news sources are sacrosanct - even if they get rewritten to contradict themselves over the course of the day.

Fortunately the web has provided a mechanism for you to figure things out on your own, if the talent and inclination to do so haven't been breed out of you yet. There are even a few resources for keeping track of things over time, like The Memory Hole, which is a great place to go looking for information that has been disappeared, and disinformation, which tries to keep the stories straight.

Today over at MemeStreams I saw that the New York Times has just printed an in-depth analysis of their own reporting practices over the past couple of years, and what they've found isn't pretty: regarding Iraq, they were more often than not lying to you. In many cases it was because the government was lying to them; in many cases they just wanted to sensationalize stories for higher ratings, and in some cases it was a deliberate reworking of the information to tell a story that would be more palatable to an American audience that doesn't ever want to hear they are doing something wrong, especially when it is so obviously true.

On Sept. 8, 2002, the lead article of the paper was headlined "U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts." That report concerned the aluminum tubes that the administration advertised insistently as components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The claim came not from defectors but from the best American intelligence sources available at the time. Still, it should have been presented more cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article. Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq's nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: "The first sign of a `smoking gun,' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud."

Five days later, The Times reporters learned that the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies. The misgivings appeared deep in an article on Page A13, under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view ("White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons"). The Times gave voice to skeptics of the tubes on Jan. 9, when the key piece of evidence was challenged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That challenge was reported on Page A10; it might well have belonged on Page A1.

Part of me wants to applaud the Times for following up on their stories and showing us their mistakes, but the rest of me knows that they are only printing the story now to distance themselves from the sources of bad intelligence, and to capitalize on the 4 seconds of introspection this country is going through over the Abu Ghraib and Nick Berg stories before we turn on the tube and watch 'Friends' reruns. The possibility that the news will ever say "these people are the source of the misinformation" is so slim as to be virtually nonexistent... recall that even after Nixon's death, we still weren't allowed to discuss what a weasel he was, and we'll be finding more shit about Bush, Clinton, and Li'l Bush for decades to come. I think we as a culture can handle it now - just so long as they don't put it on the front page of the news, or tell the story using precise language.

Keep your eyes open in the near future... in a recent L.A. Times article, Rumsfeld spoke of creating a terrorism group of our own to "stimulate reactions among terrorist groups, provoking them into committing violent acts which would then expose them to counterattack by U.S. forces". (Damn, I knew I linked to that Onion story too early.) I thought this was supposed to be a 'good guys vs. bad guys' game... where are the good guys?