Even the United States has lost a little ground when it comes to press freedom because of secrecy and security issues. Recently, some new data has emerged on press freedom around the world and the picture is disappointing. Freedom House has released its 2014 data and reports a decline in press freedom around the world with an estimate of only one person in seven living in a country where political news and press freedoms are encouraged and robust. The Freedom House data is available here.
The Freedom House report indicates two reasons for the decline in press freedom: an increase in restrictive laws constraining the press typically justified on national security grounds, and the difficulty a journalist has reporting from a particular country. It is becoming more difficult for journalists to move around in order to properly report a story. Curiously, in this age of information explosion it is so difficult to get information firsthand.
As you might expect, there seems to be a correlation between increasing restrictions on press freedom and the political conditions of the country. Obviously those countries guilty of atrocities or engaged in war continue to see declines in press freedom (e.g., Syria, Sudan, Libya). A few other trends are noteworthy. (1) There seems to be an increasing distain for democratic standards. Authoritarian regimes used to cover themselves in the language of elections and human rights, now they blatantly flout democratic values and argue for the superiority of their own political conditions. (2) The escalation of terrorism is increasingly used to apply repressive measures under the guise of security. And the debate about how democracies should respond to terrorism is a legitimate one, but in the meantime more regimes are silencing dissidents and restraining the media. (3) What was once pretty extensive Internet freedom is beginning to fade. Censorship and surveillance are increasingly of more interest to governments than access. There is increased monitoring of online communication, even in the “freer” countries, such that places like South Korea increased monitoring and censorship, and even Israel imposed stricter constraints on social media pertaining to the Gaza Strip. (4) The percentage of countries that are classified as “free” stands at 46% which represents a small decline.
So! What are the top 10 (or bottom 10) worst countries or territories when it comes to press freedom?
The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories, with the lowest Freedom House scores were Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Crimea and Syria joined the bottom-ranked cohort in 2014. Any sense of independent media is nonexistent in these countries or barely workable; the press is little more than a mouthpiece for the regime or so biased and restrictive that it barely qualifies as useful information. Iran continues to earn its place among the worst of the worst. Iran regularly monitors citizens and newspapers and jails journalists for the slightest criticism.
Democracies are currently struggling with the balance between freedom and control. The observation that authoritarians and terrorists can take advantage of the openness and tolerance of democratic societies is true enough. Some might even take it a cynical step further and suggest that these trends are no advertisement for democracy. But the report also highlights a few positive trends. There were citizen uprisings in Ukraine demanding increased press freedom, and ramped up pressures on the Chinese leadership to adhere more closely to democratic principles.
Democracies just have to wait out authoritarian regimes. Sooner or later their own people will challenge the regime or it will begin to stutter under its own oppression. But, clearly, it would be a mistake to think that democracies are weak in the face of authoritarianism because increased press freedom and access to information literally guarantee a bleak future for repressive political systems.
Originally posted May 3, 2015
There is a correlation between the American media landscape and the change in public discourse, especially presidential discourse. Trump represents a different type of person to occupy the office and that is especially true of his language, digital media use, and discursive practices. As more than a few people have noted, we are in a historical period were authority is disrespected and challenged on all sides. Facts just don’t seem to matter. And when we become disconnected from facts it is possible to believe anything. So science is rejected and challenged on the basis of arguments and reasons outside the boundaries of science. Global warming, climate change, the value of vaccinations, etc. are all subjected to a set of criteria and justifications incompatible with proper scientific standards of reasoning.
Trump is a frightening extreme when it comes to ignoring facts and simply making it up or saying whatever he pleases. And the situation is even more egregious when you combine his temperament with a personality disorder. That is, he is so incapable of accepting criticism or recognizing defeat that he digs in his heels and lashes back even more aggressively. The truth be damned. When you combine this disposition with the fact that he actually knows very little and is unschooled in diplomatic, political, and intellectual conversations you have a problem. The mix can be combustible. Remember he said most of his knowledge is based on the Sunday news shows so his political knowledge is about equivalent to whatever information comes in a headline service.
The Media and the Formation of Trump’s Consciousness
What kind of mediascape does Trump live in? His vocabulary, short assertions, egocentrism, and incomplete grasp of the issues have been fashioned as a result of his emergence from a network of communication patterns and exposure to issues situated within the particular media environment. In a word, Trump talks like and processes information like those in his dominant mediascape. Let me be more precise.
Rodney Benson in a paper for Goldsmiths describes “The New American Media Landscape.” Benson essentially posits three segments of the US journalism field. The first is a vast infotainment field that is populated by well-maintained websites such as Yahoo and the Huffington Post. Local commercial television and the innovative websites Vice and Vox are included in this category. These sites produce news in an appealing fashion intended to attract audiences; they do some interesting things but are designed more to attract attention then quality information. A second segment of the mediascape is the partisan media represented by Fox (conservative) and MSNBC (liberal). The political blogosphere is also pertinent here. This is the terrain of biases and shouting matches where slavishly clinging to a political perspective, even if it’s an indefensible perspective, in order to bring down the other side is the primary motivation. And the third territory is the mainstream quality media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Specialty magazines and academic papers are also part of the quality media landscape.
Trump is always critical of the mainstream quality media because they are issue and data based in an effort to treat issues according to their quality and allowing good solutions to emerge rather than insisting on a political perspective that is forced on everyone else. The mainstream quality media is more critical and analytical and seeks to attract an audience on that basis. Trump’s discourse and primary influences clearly match the second level partisan terrain of the media characterized by distortions and misinformation. His name calling and bombastic style are contrary to what a functioning democracy requires which is a public narrative that recognizes differences.
The image of Trump as a populist nationalist (I will reserve judgment on using the word fascist for now) is increasingly defensible as he continues to appeal to an angry population by stoking the fires of their resentment. His 3 o’clock in the morning tweets make him an active participant in the partisan landscape. Apparently, a couple of nights ago Trump was watching a program on flag burning as symbolic speech. Consistent with his unreflective style he tweeted his immediate emotions which were to assert that burning the American flag should result in either jail time or loss of citizenship. He used new social media (Twitter) to blurt out an unconstitutional and indefensible gut reaction exerting a sense of power. His behavior from the partisan landscape was responded to by the quality media with a lecture for Mr. Trump on the Constitution and the extent to which it protects symbolic speech, of which the Supreme Court has established. This is one thing – maybe even to be expected – from a private citizen but a little scary and disappointing from the President of the United States. I suspect we will see more media territorial framework tensions as Trump’s partisan media style clashes with other segments of the media landscape.
This video makes some very strong points and is worth watching. I suggest you click on it now and watch. The video is sponsored by “Media Matters” which is a liberal organization but one that has the interests of our democracy in mind. It is possible to make the case that systematic and consciously perpetrated bias by Fox News governs their organizational identity and has quantifiable effects on voting patterns and political knowledge. The claims of news bias are so pervasive and so self-contradictory that it’s damaging any remnants of news credibility. Everybody believes the news is biased right up until the point the news says something they agree with. And, moreover, people are absolutely convinced that their perceptions are correct and their understanding of the issues and whatever source they came from is accurate. The public is shockingly naive about the frequency and forms of information processing distortions.
Let’s pay attention for a moment to this issue of news bias and try for some rigor and conclusions that result from data and controlled studies. I’ve grown weary of everyone complaining about the news and biases especially when all the complaints are simply self-serving. It borders on fascinating how few people see their own distortions and biases. Every Trump supporter is convinced the New York Times and the television media – minus Fox News – favored the other side and was critical of Trump while being charitable toward Hillary. And Hillary supporters (although in much smaller numbers) lamented the fascination with Trump that brought him so much free media time.
I would call your attention to a study directly confronting this issue of Fox News and its impact in the news sphere. The authors examine the impact of media bias, the persuasiveness of a particular media, the likelihood of voting, and mobility rates. Moreover, and something most citizens don’t think about, the review of the studies includes conditions of the receivers. In other words, the same news programming does not have the same effect on everyone. So, on the basis of survey research the authors found that 22% of the population believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but 33% of Fox News viewers believed he had weapons of mass destruction. The findings hold even after controlling for party identification.
Additionally, exposure to conservative media has an effect on voter choice including being responsible for switching some Republicans to Democratic voters. The results are slightly conditioned by the psychological state of receivers. Those watching Fox news for the first time were more persuadable than viewers who watched consistently. This particular study focused on Fox News and conservative media but I would presume that the pattern of results apply to liberal media as well even if the effects are stronger or weaker.
My concern here is not to repeat the pernicious effects of Fox News or biased media but to sound the alarm for increasing pressure to both find quality outlets of information, as well as “educate” the public a little more about the nature and exposure to bias and what to do with it. Fox News is responsible for taking partisan positions and making some extreme even outrageous claims; these then get repeated and spread throughout the population thus multiplying the distorted effects.
Turning more toward public media rather than commercial media is one response to this situation. Public media presents more in-depth and critical news about domestic and international affairs and is capable of increasing citizen engagement as well as quality information.
The below is from Tom Englehart and I thought it was particularly good and deserving of distribution so I reproduce it here on my blog. Tom runs TomDispatch.com and there’s information at the end of the text if you would like exposure to more of Tom’s thinking. Tom’s point in the second paragraph is well taken – whoever thought we would be on our way to a caliphate that out maneuvers us in social media. I think the issues for what America has to learn are pertinent.
Writing History Before It Happens
Nine Surefire Future Headlines From a Bizarro American World
By Tom Engelhardt
It’s commonplace to speak of “the fog of war,” of what can’t be known in the midst of battle, of the inability of both generals and foot soldiers to foresee developments once fighting is underway. And yet that fog is nothing compared to the murky nature of the future itself, which, you might say, is the fog of human life. As Tomorrowlands at world fairs remind us, despite a human penchant for peering ahead and predicting what our lives will be like, we’re regularly surprised when the future arrives.
Remind me who, even among opponents and critics of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, ever imagined that the decision to take out Saddam Hussein’s regime and occupy the country would lead to a terror caliphate in significant parts of Iraq and Syria that would conquer social media and spread like wildfire. And yet, don’t think that the future is completely unpredictable either.
In fact, there’s a certain repetition factor in our increasingly bizarro American world that lends predictability to that future. In case you hadn’t noticed, a range of U.S. military, intelligence, and national security measures that never have the effects imagined in Washington are nonetheless treasured there. As a result, they are applied again and again, usually with remarkably similar results.
The upside of this is that it offers all of us the chance to be seers (or Cassandras). So, with an emphasis on the U.S. national security state and its follies, here are my top nine American repeat headlines, each a surefire news story guaranteed to appear sometime, possibly many times, between June 2015 and the unknown future.
1. U.S. air power obliterates wedding party: Put this one in the future month and year of your choice, add in a country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa. The possibilities are many, but the end result will be the same. Dead wedding revelers are a repetitious certainty. If you wait, the corpses of brides and grooms (or, as the New York Post put it, “Bride and Boom!”) will come. Over the years, according to the tabulations of TomDispatch, U.S. planes and drones have knocked off at least eight wedding parties in three countries in the Greater Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen) and possibly more, with perhaps 250 revelers among the casualties.
And here’s a drone headline variant you’re guaranteed to see many times in the years to come: “U.S. drone kills top al-Qaeda/ISIS/al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula/[terror group of your choice] leader” — with the obvious follow-up headlines vividly illustrated in Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins: not the weakening but the further strengthening and spread of such organizations. And yet the White House is stuck on its drone assassination campaigns and the effectiveness of U.S. air power in suppressing terror outfits. In other words, air and drone campaigns of this sort will remain powerful tools not in a war on terror, but in one that creates terror with predictable headlines assured.
2. Latest revelation indicates that FBI [NSA, CIA] surveillance of Americans far worse than imagined: Talk about no-brainers. Stories of this sort appear regularly and, despite a recent court ruling that the NSA’s mass collection of the phone metadata of Americans is illegal, there’s every reason to feel confident that this will not change. Most recently, for instance, an informant-filled FBI program to spy on, surveil, and infiltrate the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline movement made the news (as well as the fact that, in acting as it did, the Bureau had “breached its own internal rules”). In other words, the FBI generally acted as the agency has done since the days of J. Edgar Hoover when it comes to protest in this country.
Beneath such reports lies a deeper reality: the American national security state, which has undergone an era of unprecedented expansion, is now remarkably unconstrained by any kind of serious oversight, the rule of law, or limits of almost any sort. It should be clear by now that the urge for ever more latitude and power has become part of its institutional DNA. It has already created a global surveillance system of a kind never before seen or imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the last century. Its end goal is clearly to have access to everyone on the planet, Americans included, and every imaginable form of communication now in use. There was to be a sole exception to this blanket system of surveillance: the official denizens of the national security state itself. No one was to have the capacity to look at them. This helps explain why its top officials were so viscerally outraged by Edward Snowden and his revelations. When someone surveilled them as they did others, they felt violated and deeply offended.
When you set up a system that is so unconstrained, of course, you also encourage its opposite: the urge to reveal. Hence headline three.
3. FBI [NSA, CIA, DIA, or acronym of your choice] whistleblower charged by administration under the Espionage Act for revealing to reporter [any activity of any sort from within the national security state]: Amid the many potential crimes committed by those in the national security state in this period (including torture, kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, illegal surveillance, and assassination), the record of the Bush and Obama administrations is clear. In the twenty-first century, only one act is a crime in official Washington: revealing directly or indirectly to the American people what their government is doing in their name and without their knowledge. In the single-minded pursuit and prosecution of this single “crime,” the Obama administration has set a record for the use of the Espionage Act. The tossing of Chelsea Manning behind bars for 35 years; the hounding of Edward Snowden; the jailing of Stephen Kim; the attempt to jail CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling for at least 19 years (the judge “only” gave him three and a half); the jailing of John Kiriakou, the sole CIA agent charged in the Agency’s torture scandal (for revealing the name of an agent involved in it to a newspaper reporter), all indicate one thing: that maintaining the aura of secrecy surrounding our “shadow government” is considered of paramount importance to its officials. Their desire to spy on and somehow control the rest of us comes with an urge to protect themselves from exposure. As it happens, no matter what kinds of clampdowns are instituted, the creation of such a system of secrecy invites and in its own perverse way encourages revelation as well. This, in turn, ensures that no matter what the national security state may threaten to do to whistleblowers, disclosures will follow, making such future headlines predictable.
4. Contending militias and Islamic extremist groups fight for control in shattered [fill in name of country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa] after a U.S. intervention [drone assassination campaign, series of secret raids, or set of military-style activities of your choice]: Look at Libya and Yemen today, look at the fragmentation of Iraq, as well as the partial fragmentation of Pakistan and even Afghanistan. American interventions of the twenty-first century seem to carry with them a virus that infects the nation-state and threatens it from within. These days, it’s also clear that, whether you look at Democrats or Republicans, some version of the war-hawk party in Washington is going to reign supreme for the foreseeable future. Despite the dismal record of Washington’s military-first policies, such power-projection will undoubtedly remain the order of the day in significant parts of the world. As a result, you can expect American interventions of all sorts (even if not full-scale invasions). That means further regional fragmentation, which, in turn, means similar headlines in the future as central governments weaken or crumble and warring militias and terror outfits fight it out in the ruins of the state.
5. [King, emir, prime minister, autocrat, leader] of [name of U.S. ally or proxy state] snubs [rejects, angrily disputes, denounces, ignores] U.S. presidential summit meeting [joint news conference, other event]: This headline is obviously patterned on recent news: the announcement that Saudi King Salman, who was to attend a White House summit of the Gulf states at Camp David, would not be coming. This led to a spate of “snub” headlines, along with accounts of Saudi anger at Obama administration attempts to broker a nuclear peace deal with Iran that would free that country’s economy of sanctions and so potentially allow it to flex its muscles further in the Middle East.
Behind that story lies a far bigger one: the growing inability of the last superpower to apply its might effectively in region after region. Historically, the proxies and dependents of great powers — take Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam in the early 1960s — have often been nationalists and found their dependency rankling. But private gripes and public slaps are two very different things. In our moment, Washington’s proxies and allies are visibly restless and increasingly less polite and the Obama administration seems strangely toothless in response. Former President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan may have led the way on this, but it’s a phenomenon that’s clearly spreading. (Check out, for instance, General Sisi of Egypt or Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.) Even Washington’s closest European allies seem to be growing restless. In a recent gesture that (Charles de Gaulle aside) has no companion in post-World War II history, England, Germany, and Italy agreed to become founding members of a new Chinese-led Asian regional investment bank. They did so over the public and private objections of the Obama administration and despite Washington’s attempts to apply pressure on the subject. They were joined by other close U.S. allies in Asia. Given Washington’s difficulty making its power mean something in recent years, it’s not hard to predict more snubs and slaps from proxies and allies alike. Fortunately, Washington has one new ally it might be able to count on: Cuba.
6. Twenty-two-year-old [18-year-old, age of your choice] Arab-American [Somali-American, African-American or Caucasian-American convert to Islam] arrested for planning to bomb [drone attack, shoot up] the Mall of America [Congress, the Empire State Building, other landmark, transportation system, synagogue, church, or commercial location] by the FBI thanks to a Bureau informer: This is yet another no-brainer of a future headline or rather set of headlines. So far, just about every high-profile terror “plot” reported (and broken up) in this country has involved an FBI informer or informers and most of them have been significantly funded, inspired, or even organized by that agency right down to the fake weaponry the “terrorists” used. Most of the “plotters” involved turned out to be needy and confused losers, sometimes simply hapless, big-mouthed drifters, who were essentially incapable, whatever their thinking, of developing and carrying out an organized terror attack on their own. There are only a few exceptions, including the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the Times Square car bombing of 2010 (foiled by two street vendors).
What the FBI has operated in these years is about as close as you can get to an ongoing terrorism sting-cum-scam operation. Though Bureau officials undoubtedly don’t think of it so crudely, it could be considered an effective part of a bureaucratic fundraising exercise. Keep in mind that the massive expansion of the national security state has largely been justified by the fear of one thing: terrorism. In terms of actual casualties in the U.S. since 9/11, terrorism has not been a significant danger and yet the national security state as presently constituted makes no sense without an overwhelming public and congressional fear of terrorism. So evidence of regular terror “plots” is useful indeed. Publicity about them, which runs rampant whenever one of them is “foiled” by the Bureau, generates fear, not to say hysteria here, as well as a sense of the efficiency and accomplishment of the FBI. All of this ensures that, in an era highlighted by belt-tightening in Washington, the funds will continue to flow. As a result, you can count on a future in which FBI-inspired/-organized/-encouraged Islamic terrorism is a repeated fact of life in “the homeland.” (If you want to get an up-close-and-personal look at just how the FBI works with its informers in the business of entrapping of “terrorists,” check out the upcoming documentary film (T)error when it becomes available.)
7. American lone wolf terrorist, inspired by ISIS [al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, terror group of your choice] videos [tweets, Facebook pleas, recordings], guns down two [none, three, six, other number of] Americans at school [church, political gathering, mall, Islamophobic event, or your pick] before being killed [wounded, captured]: Lone wolf terrorism is nothing new. Think of Timothy McVeigh. But the Muslim extremist version of the lone wolf terrorist — and yes, Virginia, there clearly are some in this country unbalanced enough to be stirred to grim action by the videos or tweets of various terror groups — is the new kid on the block. So far, however, among the jostling crowds of American lone mass murderers who strike regularly across the country in schools, colleges, movie theaters, religious venues, workplaces, and other spots, Islamic lone wolves seem to have been a particularly ineffective crew. And yet, as with those FBI-inspired terror plots, the Islamic-American lone wolf turns out to be a perfect vehicle for creating hysteria and so the officials of the national security state wallow in high-octane statements about such dangers, which theoretically envelop us. In financial terms, the lone wolf is to the national security state what the Koch Brothers are to Republican presidential candidates, which means that you can count on terrifying headlines galore into the distant future.
8. Toddler kills mother [father, brother, sister] in [Idaho, Cleveland, Albuquerque, or state or city of your choice] with family gun: Fill in the future blanks as you will, this is a story fated to happen again and again. Statistically, death-by-toddler is a greater danger to Americans living in “the homeland” than death by terrorist, but of course it raises funds for no one. No set of agencies broadcasts hysterical claims about such killings; no set of agencies lives off of or is funded by the threat of them, though they are bound to be on the rise. The math is simple enough. In the U.S., ever more powerful guns are available, while “concealed carrying” is now legal in all 50 states and the places in which you can carry are expanding. Well over 1.3 million people have the right to carry a concealed weapon in Florida alone, and a single lobbying group in favor of such developments, the National Rifle Association, is so powerful that most politicians don’t dare take it on. Add it all up and it’s obvious that more weapons will be carelessly left within the reach of toddlers who will pick them up, pull the trigger, and kill or wound others who are literally and figuratively close to them, a searing life (and death) experience. So the future headlines are predictable.
9. President claims Americans are ‘exceptional’ and the U.S. is ‘indispensible’ to the world: Lest you think this one is a joke headline, here’s what USA Today put up in September 2013: “Obama tells the world: America is exceptional”; and here’s Voice of America in 2012: “Obama: U.S. ‘the one indispensible nation in world affairs.'” In fact, it’s unlikely a president could survive politically these days without repetitiously citing the “exceptional” and “indispensable” nature of this country. Recently, even when apologizing for a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that took out American and Italian hostages of al-Qaeda, the president insisted that we were still “exceptional” on planet Earth — for admitting our mistakes, if nothing else. On this sort of thing, the Republicans running for president and that party’s war hawks in Congress double down when it comes to heaping praise on us, making the president’s exceptionalist comments seem almost recessive by comparison. In fact, this is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. It only took off in the post-9/11 era and, as with anything emphasized too much and repeated too often, it betrays not strength and confidence but creeping doubt about the nature of our country. Once upon a time, Americans didn’t have to say such things because they seemed obvious. No longer. So await these inane headlines in the future and the repetitive litany of over-the-top self-praise that goes with them, and consider them a way to take the pulse of an increasingly anxious nation at sea with itself.
And mind you, this is just to scratch the surface of what’s predictable in the American future. I’m sure you could come up with nine similarly themed headlines in no time at all. It turns out that the key to such future stories is the lack of a learning curve in Washington, more or less a necessity if the national security state plans to continue to gain power and shed the idea that it is accountable to other Americans for anything it does. If it were capable of learning from its actions, it might not survive its own failures.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt
Matti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.
His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.
First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.
The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.
A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.
Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).
There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.
There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always here. It continues year after year as populations everywhere grow weary. The other issue that is always with us is the charge of biased news coverage. Large numbers of people will charge, for example, the New York Times with blatant bias and their fury seems to jump from the page. The next day another group will accuse the Times of being the mouthpiece for Israel. You can’t win and you don’t know who to believe. Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times recently expressed similar frustrations in an article called “The Conflict and the Coverage.”
Frustrating and futile as it seems to be, newspapers of quality such as the New York Times must continue to grapple with how they can do better. And they must continue to search for standards that ensure balance, context, and accuracy. Even though we have a tradition of aspiring to objective journalism the public remains ignorant about how journalists actually work, not to mention the difference between “bias” and “perspective.” Moreover it is impossible to write a story from a perspective that matches everyone. But let me suggest to you three good reads on the matter of covering Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first one we mentioned above is Margaret Sullivan who is the public editor for the New York Times. Sullivan concludes that The Times does everything in its power to be fair and does have a basic worldview that Israel has a right to exist. This assumption puts them at odds with radical critics of Israel such that nothing The Times does will be satisfactory. She makes four suggestions: (1) provide more historical and geopolitical context, (2) improve the engagement between the newspaper and the public so that the public can ask questions and learn more about journalists, (3) improve the coverage of Palestinians, and (4) stop straining for equivalencies. In other words, take a stand when defensible and necessary.
If you want a perspective from a blogger strongly supportive of Israel who corrects biases and misunderstandings then go to “How Not to Report on Israel (and How It Can Be Done Correctly”). You will not find detailed data and argument on the site but you will find the perspective of a cultural native who is tapped into the consciousness of Israel. This is a useful perspective because many journalists covering the Middle East have a modest at best working knowledge of history, culture, language. This may not be true of journalists such as Thomas Friedman but he is an exception as well as an editorial writer which allows him to stay above the fray; that is, he is rarely if ever on the ground reporting facts.
A final reading is from Tablet magazine entitled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.” In this essay a former AP correspondent explains how so much of the reporting fails to understand Israel. Yet the international media is consistent in its reporting and suggests a narrative or an understanding of Israel that is largely misdirected. First, so many media assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than others where more people die and the politics are more contentious. This “magnification” process often associated with the media is truly operational here. The conflict also garners attention because it takes place in the center of the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and this infuses it with significance. Secondly, it is simply policy to favor stories that are about violence more than peace and reconciliation. When a political party is elected to government and it seeks a moderate path and contact with the Palestinians the story goes untold. This is true, according to Matti Friedman the author of the Tablet story, because of the pressure to maintain the consistent narrative that has the Palestinians as the underdog seeking a home and historical justice, but Israel as difficult and unmoving as it drifts rightward.
The coverage of Israel has moved from fair and supportive to unfair and critical. And no fair treatment of Israel can ignore either its strong Western democratic traditions or its moral failings. But it is also true that Israel is not a symbol for everything right or wrong, good or evil, solvable and not. The coverage of Israel requires some critical empathy on the part of all sides.
In their USIP report on “New Media and Contentious Politics” Aday and associates identified five levels of analysis in which new media and political conflict intersect. The five levels are pretty straightforward but useful. Still, I find two things most interesting about the evolution of new media: they are the fact that new media is not so “new” anymore, and secondly that new media relies on old media more than we thought. There is an interdependence and dependency on the two media (new and old) that organizes itself according to bridging structures. Quickly, the five levels are individual such that individual attitudes and behaviors are changed. The society is a second-level evidenced by things like polarization, protests, and participatory events. Collective action is a third level of analysis which points to the ability to organize and catalyze political activity. Regimes are also affected by new media because information and stories, accurate or not, can circulate in the society and stimulate regimes to respond impressively. And new media brings international attention which was especially potent during the Arab uprisings.
Again, Aday and colleagues in another Blogs and Bullets report explained in more detail the functioning of new media during contentious politics. When the audience is local new media such as Facebook serve mostly an information function. And of course it is increasingly important for mobilizing protests and organizing the community. But when the audience is more global new media plays a megaphone role in that it attracts international attention to local issues.
It remains interesting that new media are not so central to the news process as some people were beginning to think because it turns out that their relationship with traditional media is more complementary. Sometimes traditional media cannot cover a story because they are restrained or simply organizationally unable to manage coverage. Consequently, new media which are smaller and more mobile can cover a story and then make it available to traditional media and their often superior resources. And if new media and traditional media are both available then they make up a more complex media ecosystem that enriches the information value available.
The location of click data, reported in the Blogs and Bullets report, indicates that the majority of them came from outside the country thus reinforcing the notion of new media as an international megaphone. But the international community has a short attention span and they turn away from the story rather quickly. The Blogs and Bullets report suggests that counter to the popular conclusions about the local organizational role of new media (Facebook, Twitter, various webpages), they actually had more effect outside the region and internationally. Moreover the report underscores the fact that disentangling traditional media effects from new media effects is difficult if not impossible. The two media systems if you will have mutually influential effects on one another and are not quite so distinct as some believe.
Generalities about “new media” or “social media” have to give way to more precise questions and relationships. Thus, Facebook seemed to have some definite effects in Egypt but it did not another places. Why would that be? What are the lines that connect new media with traditional media? In other words, how do they work together to create an effect and can we parse out these effects?
The term “new media” continues to be a convenient shorthand and is communicative to the extent that it refers consistently to network-based asymmetrical forms of communication made possible by digital technology. But more work needs to be done on just how preferences and concepts are formed and spread, and which medium (new or old) is responsible for which affect.
The blogging community is growing, stretching its muscles and increasing its influence. Blogs are, according to a number of studies, providing more insight and more thoughtful analysis than traditional media. Clearly, there are amateurish and ineffectual blogs that contaminate the blogo sphere but these will always be with us as long as communication environments are unrestrained.
In a study by Johnson and Kaye (Media, War & Conflict, Vol 3, 2010) they discovered that the Iraqi war was a significant event with respect to blogs when people began to see them as more thoughtful and often more accurate than traditional media. Until then, blogs were mostly annoying sideshows dismissed by quality journalism as something not to be taken seriously. But soldiers in Iraq who began to write war blogs and report on what they were seeing, including a natural view of the military and the culture of military life, began to acquire support. These military blogs were popular and attracted the attention of traditionally trained journalists as well as the public.
But a strong majority of Americans who supported the war up until the toppling of Saddam Hussein began to fade away as the war effort shifted to state building in Iraq. Attention to blogs began to wane and it appeared that military blogs were consistently the most popular and blogs lost some of their appeal as things moved to routine politics. Still, the public recognizes that government sources control wartime news and these sources of course have their limitations and biases. The beginning of the Iraqi war and the hunt for Saddam Hussein produced more cheerleaders than journalists.
In time of war blogs written by soldiers are particularly popular for some rather straightforward reasons. They offer up more detail, insight, and perspective as well as assumed to be more authentic. Moreover blogs by soldiers, or more detached participants, can write in a subjective and breezy style that does not adhere to normal journalistic standards. And although this can have disadvantages it makes for more enjoyable reading. The interactive features of blogs are also very popular where readers can respond and initiate extended discussions.
Johnson and Kaye found that blogs were influential in establishing perceptions and had the power to influence opinions. Readers of blogs in their study reported increased influence and attributions of credibility about the blog as time went on. There are of course a number of political and foreign-policy explanations for this including the influence of changing popularity from traditional media.
Also of interest is the predominance of Republican and conservative ideology among blog readers and users. We would expect military blogs to be largely conservative but overall blog attention increases among Republicans and conservatives. In the same way that conservative radio and television is more popular or “works better” than liberal programming, conservative ideologies seem to seek out alternative media probably because of their general belief in liberal media bias.
Some years ago it seemed quite unlikely that citizens would drift away from CNN and traditional news and start partaking regularly of blogs for war news, a time when blogs were considered more hardscrabble upstarts then respected and reliable. But the blogosphere is growing and shaping itself into something significant as well as genuinely challenging traditional news. The blogs of war were unleashed during the Iraqi war just at the moment where technology and politics intersected.
The United States has a long tradition of “objective” journalism. At least we tell ourselves that objectivity is an ideal to strive for. In some other news cultures there is not even the pretense of objectivity. A newspaper, for example, will have a perspective and they will state it clearly and the reader is expected to know the perspective. So there is a communist newspaper, a socialist newspaper, a business capitalist newspaper, and so on. The reader understands the perspective and reads the news with the interpretive lens called for.
But whether there is objectivity or perspective the news is still a sort of “lecture.” The journalist is an authority and the reader is “learning” something. Given the distrust of journalistic institutions, sinking circulation, weak citizen engagement, and low credibility for news this monologic approach is clearly dying off.
But modern incarnations of journalism are more influenced by user generated possibilities as well as new technology. Fueled by the ideas of public journalism and a reinvigorated public sphere where ordinary citizens could communicate about ideas, contemporary thinking about journalism includes more interactive possibilities. (A good reading on these and related matters is by Marchionni in the journal Communication Theory volume 23, 2013) The reader can use various web tools to participate in journalism and this can include supplying content and forming a sort of collaborative journalist-citizen relationship.
These new trends are interesting and grounds for improved engagement between the public and journalism institutions. But I am less concerned with what journalism practices are called (public, participatory, interactive, or conversational) then I am with journalism’s quality and reliability. I prefer the term “knowledge-based journalism” as described by Patterson in his book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. A thorough essay on knowledge-based reporting appears here.
Knowledge-based reporting tries to maintain the tradition of accuracy and truth but recognizes that most of the time the news report will simply do its best to get the best version possible. Still, knowledge-based journalism relies on its tradition of verification. Journalism is not fiction, or entertainment, or propaganda. Patterson, as described in the essay available in the link above, argues that journalism should adopt the thinking and processes of “science.” That is, the journalist formulates guesses and hypotheses, gathers facts, and knows how to apply other facts.
Walter Pincus wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review accusing journalists of being narcissistic primarily because of journalism’s interest in larger long-term investigatory projects that are likely to bring Pulitzer prizes. The article makes a few counterarguments warning against the narcissism that prompts journalists to devote too much time to one story rather than making a variety of issues available to readers.
But deep knowledge and competence and specialization are at the core of knowledge-based reporting. Patterson reminds us that journalists who are uninformed and lack detailed knowledge are more subject to manipulation by sources, make more mistakes, and vulnerable to a few experts.
Finally, communication scholars have pointed out that journalists are just fine at providing the who, what, where, and when but fail miserably at the “why” question. I have asked journalists about this and they typically reply that they do not want to turn the press into a school text. But this hardly seems like an inevitability. And with new technology and graphics the possibilities for likely presentations and explanations seem ample. I will not repeat the cliché about democratic and free societies relying on quality information. But “democratic and free societies rely on quality information.”
Let’s return to the issue of biased images. Click on the link below and check out some of the most biased and obviously manipulated images – not necessarily from the previous year – and think a little bit more about how to protect yourself from such manipulation.
You can see that there are essentially four strategies to manipulating images. The first is termed deliberate staging. This is pretty self-explanatory and refers to using objects to increase the emotional intensity of the message or stimulate a particular conclusion that might not be warranted otherwise. It represents a blatant lie and the crude manipulation of an image by placing objects in the image that were not there in the first lace. The second strategy is called fauxtography. This is making something look like a photograph that really is not. So you can see in the one image how a fired missile was captured on the computer and reproduced to make it look like another missile was fired and increase the impression of military might and competence. This is particularly simple in the era of computer photography and Photoshop. The third way to manipulate images is through perspective and angles. Close-up shots of a few hands make it look like there are more people present then in actuality. Wide-angle shots give a different perspective than narrow angle shots. Finally, visual images can be recycled or reused. Pictures of injured or dead soldiers can be simply reused in order to make the scene appear more emotional or communicative of violence than actually occurred.
The ethics of digital manipulation of the news in particular are clear – it is unacceptable. There are debates about photo manipulation with respect to aesthetics or beauty. I have encountered the argument that enhancing beauty or engaging in numerous manipulations for the purpose of aesthetic enhancement only is acceptable. I can accept that. It is not very troubling that a movie star on the front of a magazine has blemishes removed and positive highlights. But a “news” story that is supposed to be telling some semblance of the truth is a different matter.
I have encountered the argument that enhancing a photograph through any of the four methods described above, for the purpose of what the perpetrator considers increased clarity and specificity, is acceptable. So, if a building is blown up and some children are killed then placing a baby’s toy in the center of the image enhances the significant emotional truth of the story. This is, of course, a weak argument that is dangerous since its acceptance justifies any sort of manipulation. Moreover, even if children were killed in an explosion there are numerous emotional and political issues that would be forced to the background because of an individual’s doctoring of the image. And although such an argument has been made is accepted by no reliable or trustworthy news organization.