Black Lives Matter! That’s the sentiment that is animating the many rallies and demonstrations around the country in the wake of the grand jury’s failure to indict white St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
1. “Quote” of the Week: “A Nation of Immigrants” 2. Slavish Reliance on Official Sources. Why? 3. What’s Wrong With Anonymous Sources? 4. What’s Wrong With Objectivity? 5. Update on the “Imminent Threat” of Khorasan
The USA Today website has an excellent photo gallery that they put up on Wednesday the 26th of November called “America reacts to Ferguson grand jury decision.” But it’s not just America. The world is watching this story unfold, and it is widely perceived as a test of the U.S. commitment to racial justice in the nation’s policing/prison system.
Don’t just look at the pictures, and don’t allow yourself to think this is only a problem for [fill in the blank: Missouri, black people, teenagers, young men, police…] While the media focuses on the “violence” of some of the protesters, the larger violence that is part and parcel of the criminalization of black men in this country is pushed into the background. I’m currently reading Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Highly recommended for those who want to understand the fire of which the killing of Michael Brown is only a horrifying spark.
While every issue of Nygaard Notes is, in a way, inspired by the readers, this issue of the Notes was inspired directly by a note I received from a reader in response to my recent issue about the Timeline of Terror, and the use of anonymous official sources in the generation of propaganda. Her comments were so thought-provoking that it seemed like a good idea to share my responses with all of you. Feedback to this issue is welcome, as always.
You can trust that, while I may not be “official,” I’m certainly not anonymous. In fact, you know that pretty much every word in every edition of this modest newsletter is written by me, whom you know as…
1. “Quote” of the Week: “A Nation of Immigrants”
Here is Barack Obama, towards the end of his November 20th speech announcing his executive actions concerning immigration policy:
“My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”
Did your blood pressure spike, as did mine, when you heard this statement?
“A nation of immigrants: This is a convenient myth developed as a response to the 1960s movements against colonialism, neocolonialism, and white supremacy. The ruling class and its brain trust offered multiculturalism, diversity, and affirmative action in response to demands for decolonization, justice, reparations, social equality, an end of imperialism, and the rewriting of history—not to be ‘inclusive’—but to be accurate. What emerged to replace the liberal melting pot idea and the nationalist triumphal interpretation of the ‘greatest country on earth and in history,’ was the ‘nation of immigrants’ story… “Is ‘immigrants’ the appropriate designation for the indigenous peoples of North America? No. “Is ‘immigrants’ the appropriate designation for enslaved Africans? No. “Is ‘immigrants’ the appropriate designation for the original European settlers? No. “Is ‘immigrants’ the appropriate designation for Mexicans who migrate for work to the United States? No. They are migrant workers crossing a border created by US military force. Many crossing that border now are also from Central America, from the small countries that were ravaged by US military intervention in the 1980s and who also have the right to make demands on the United States. “So, let’s stop saying ‘this is a nation of immigrants.’”
After the last edition of Nygaard Notes (before the Pledge Drive edition, that is), in which I went on and on about what I like to call the media’s Slavish Reliance on Official Sources (SROS), a reader wrote to ask how and why this is so common in today’s media. She wrote, “I’m sure a whole generation has grown up thinking this (SROS) is the norm. I’d be interested in knowing when (I think in the 60s and 70s?) that this wasn’t the norm, and when you started to see it really change in earnest (I’m guessing the Bush administrations?).”
I thought this was an excellent question. And I realized that I often hear variations of this question when I’m out and about in the world. So here’s an edited version of a few of the points I made in response to her questions:
Point #1: Professionalized Journalism. I think the slavish reliance on official sources (SROS) actually began to be an issue about 100 years ago, when the “professionalization” of the journalistic trade began in earnest. “Objectivity” came to be a marker of “professionalism,” which led journalists to act as if they had no opinions. So they began to rely on “credible” sources for the expression of their opinions, and Voila! The quoting of powerful officials soon came to be the norm for working journalists. Which, in turn, has conditioned the public to equate power with credibility, a process that continues to the present moment.
Which reminds me of a journalism joke, or maybe a riddle, which I may have heard somewhere or may have made up myself. Q: What’s the difference between an editorial and a news story? A: Quotation marks.
Why do I think this is a joke? Because it’s true, despite the fact that most people think it’s not. As illustration, here’s a sentence that might be found in an editorial: “Social Security is facing a crisis.” Here, on the other hand, is a sentence that might be found in a “news” story: “‘Social Security is facing a crisis,’ Health and Human Services Secretary Ed Bobson told reporters on Friday.” Of course, many sources could also be found to say that Social Security is NOT facing a crisis. That is, Bobson was stating an opinion, or an interpretation, or an analysis; not a “fact.” But it is a fact that a high-ranking official did say it, so it becomes “news.” And, since it appears in the news pages, many people will perceive it as a fact, using the following equation: Reputable media + powerful, official source = FACT.
There is nothing objective about this process. It grows out of the desire for journalism to be perceived as “professional,” which is associated with something called “objectivity,” which relies on a perception of “credibility,” which in turn is associated in the public mind with power. And so the circle closes, with powerful sources being sought out for their perceived credibility, and the pattern of the media’s frequent citing of powerful sources reinforcing their credibility, reinforcing the perception that they are credible. Otherwise, why would “objective” journalists always cite them? It’s circular logic. It’s very sneakiness is what makes it hard to defend against.
Point #2: Social Class. Before World War II, it was normal for big cities to have multiple daily newspapers: Labor, business, socialist, ethnic, etc. After the War, this norm gave way to the local newspaper monopolies that are now the norm. These newspapers were, and are, for-profit operations, and this profit orientation produces a kinship of values with the corporate classes in their communities. And they were, and are, paid for by advertising revenue, which comes, again, from the corporate classes. Despite these fundamental facts, the legitimacy of these single outlets is based on a denial that they reflect any values at all (other than “truth” and “facts”). That is, news is news, and media’s job is to report it “objectively.” The mythology is maintained by a focus on the accurate reporting of facts, while ignoring the importance of the narratives that gives meaning to those facts.
The behavior of any business will reflect the values of its owners. So, inevitably, journalistic success is tied to one’s ability to produce a “news” product that fits the corporate culture. Preferred sources, in this context, will tend to be the ones who speak for and represent the same classes as the folks who own the media. And those will tend to be high-ranking, prestigious “officials.” And they do have values, some not unrelated to their ability to ascend to high rank.
This class bias is most evident at the level of the agenda-setting national media, where top reporters earn six-figure salaries and often travel in the same social circles as the powerful sources upon whom they rely. It’s less pronounced at the small-town/rural level, where reporters’ wages are lower, barriers to entry into the profession are lower, and ownership is often in the hands of local merchants or former reporters. That is, there are still vestiges, at the local level, of journalism as a trade, as opposed to journalism as a profession. But, again, these are not the newspapers that set the news agenda for the nation. In fact, most news of the larger world that appears in local, or now even regional, newspapers, comes from a very few national media services. Look in your own local newspaper for evidence.
Point #3: The Decline of Advertising-supported Media. The cultural change that made SROS really take off is the de-funding of advertising-supported media. This had a lot to do with the rise of the Internet, over the past 15 years especially, when the number of working journalists declined by almost one-third. This leaves us, as the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported last year, with “a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.” Journalists are thus almost forced to rely on pre-digested information, which is readily supplied by high-ranking officials and their PR apparatuses, whose job it is to provide facts that support the preferred narrative. And, if journalists wish to stay in the good graces of those upon whom they rely for information, then they must accept the conditions at the feeding trough.
Among those conditions is the routine granting of anonymity. Given the lack of resources and the resulting inability to do time-consuming investigative journalism, reporters can’t risk alienating powerful sources, since they lose credibility if they lose access to power (see Point #1 above). The de-funding of journalism really took off around the turn of the century, which happened to coincide with the period of the George W. Bush administration. This led many people to blame the Bush propaganda machine for the phenomenon, but it’s just coincidental. This is not a partisan problem, it’s an unfolding historical process. Every administration attempts to manipulate the media, but if reporters have the time and support to enable them to do actual journalism, they are much less susceptible to being manipulated. That is, they can “question information put into their hands.” The Bush administration was well aware of this dynamic, as are so-called conservatives more generally. The Left seems to be less aware of it, or maybe what passes for a Left in this country is simply less capable of accounting for it in our organizing.
Point #4: More Outlets for News, Fewer Sources. Historically, most investigative journalism is done by newspapers, with television and radio serving more-or-less as headline services. So, as newspapers shrink their newsroom staffs, the remaining capacity for generating news falls to a very small number of what I call Agenda-Setting Media outlets, such as the NY Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and the Wall St. Journal. Perhaps National Public Radio should be on this list, although they rely rather heavily on newspapers for their agenda.
Seeing their newspapers shrink, people then gravitate to non-newspaper sources for news. But few of those sources have the time or money to do actual journalism. Instead, they rely on the journalism done by the few newspapers that can afford to do it.
Commentator David Sirota discussed this dynamic in a 2012 interview on the radio program Counterspin, noting that “radio stations and television stations . . . have traditionally had fewer reporters than newspapers, and they’ve seen their own cuts. So, what you’ve seen is the pyramid of news built on fewer and fewer news sources, even though you have more and more news outlets” many of which reside on the Internet. As newspapers decline, Sirota explains, “the non-newspaper media outlets are serving, in a sense, simply as a huge amplifier for the fewer and fewer newspapers that are reporting actual news. Which, of course, then, gives monopoly newspaper owners an even bigger amount of power over what is news and what’s not news.”
Add to all that the fact that it’s much more expensive to dig up a story than it is to be spoon-fed a story by official sources and their PR managers, and you begin to see who really has the power to shape the public’s understanding of the daily news.
The top-drawer correspondents (that’s Russell Baker’s term) employed by the Big Boys are highly-trained and very well-paid. Again, elements of social class come into view. Increasingly, the journalists are themselves “Big Boys.” That is, they come to see themselves as members of the same class as the high-ranking official sources upon whom they rely for their stories. They tend to see the world the same way their sources do, and this produces an unhealthy symbiosis in which journalists tend to find palatable whatever it is that their sources are serving. After all, the powerful sources they are talking to LOOK credible. They went to the same schools, belong to the same clubs, play golf or tennis in the same places, etc. So imagine that a friend-of-a-friend offers a reporter a “scoop” on the condition that they not be named. Rather than seeing this as a red flag alerting him or her to the presence of Propaganda, a top-drawer journalist instead is grateful for the combination of luck and smarts that put him/her in position to receive the scoop. Thanks, Pal!
Point #5: Summary. To close the circle, the belief that “professional” journalism is value-free and concerned only with “truth” and “facts” is supported by the mythology of “objectivity.” Journalism then comes to be seen as a technical skill that can be done by anyone who is trained properly. This legitimizes a journalism game that has very few players, who in turn rely on very few sources. (Who needs large numbers of reporters, as long as the few we have are professionals?) This reinforces the credibility of the small number of sources—typically powerful, often anonymous—who come to dominate the nation’s front pages. After all, “prestigious” news organizations like the Times or NPR wouldn’t quote a source if it weren’t credible, would they?! And the class-based prism through which the news is viewed, over time, thus comes to normalize the values, priorities, and narratives held by the powerful few who are perceived to “make” the news, and the powerful few who listen to and report the news they make.
Were there any “good old days” when reporters were hard-nosed and uncorrupted and went about the traditional journalism business of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? I don’t think so, at least not in the mass-circulation, daily press (noble examples abound in the ethnic, socialist, and left media). The daily mass media, as an institution, has always served power. But there was a time when journalism was more a trade than a profession, and advertising provided enough cash to employ larger numbers of reporters. This allowed for a bit more diversity in terms of class (not race or gender, the feminist and ethnic press notwithstanding), and gave some of these working- and middle-class reporters enough time to follow up when something smelled funny. So, in the “old days” there was a bit more wiggle room that allowed a conscientious journalist to do his (or occasionally her) job more often. There still are some journalists doing their jobs (and they’re not all white men!). It’s just much more difficult than it used to be.
I’ve mentioned anonymity a few times, but it’s so widely accepted in today’s journalism that the next essay discusses it in some depth.
3. What’s Wrong With Anonymous Sources?
People often ask me “What, exactly, is wrong with anonymous sources?” The reader who inspired this issue of the Notes asked the question this way: “Are unnamed sources better than nothing or are they worse than nothing?”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with granting a source anonymity. It depends on the motive of the source. If the source has a legitimate fear of reprisal or punishment if identified, then anonymity may be appropriate. (Determining if the fear is legitimate is not always easy, by the way.) However, if the source simply wants to evade accountability by concealing their identity from the public, then a couple of questions arise: 1. What is their motive for telling me this? and 2. Why should I believe someone who won’t stand behind their statement?
The issue is credibility. Journalists are trained to get multiple sources for something before publishing it. As the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) puts it, “publishing information without verification from multiple sources, even if they are all off the record, is a dangerous practice.” So the journalism establishment thinks that multiple sources make something believable, but that may not be good enough in today’s information environment.
Maybe the SPJ hasn’t noticed, but we live in an age of Public Relations and coordinated “message discipline” at the highest levels. Institutionalized in the Reagan White House by chief of staff Michael Deaver, the practice involves controlling which officials are allowed to speak to the media (that is, the public), and making sure that they stay “on message.” The result is a whole army of people parroting the “daily message” to anyone who will listen. In this environment, what does it matter how many sources there are? If they all are allowed to remain anonymous, and all are parroting the Line of the Day, then the conditions are perfect for propaganda.
At a deeper, and more subtle level, the same effect can be seen when one of the criteria for credibility is that a source has shown over time that they accept the dominant narratives important to those in power. Such sources are unlikely to need prompting to stick to the “daily message.” Or, more importantly, they will have internalized the cultural mythology—what I call Deep Propaganda—that serves to make the “daily message” believable. Part of what elevates a journalist to “top-drawer” status is the internalizing of the same mythology.
People often make statements that are not true. Even powerful, official sources do this! Sometimes they do it on purpose. And journalists who cite sources who are unreliable should be considered unreliable journalists. The fact that such journalists, and their unreliable sources, often escape serious damage to their reputations tells us a lot about modern corporate journalism. Personally, I trust some reporters to make good judgement calls in this area most of the time. But that trust is built up over long periods. I don’t “trust” any news source unless and until they show themselves, over time, to be trustworthy. And even then, I never trust them one hundred percent.
When a source possesses information that a reporter regards as being important to the public, and they are the only source for that information, it becomes even more important to identify them.
With an identified source, readers can judge for themselves if the source is credible. (Although that’s not as easy as it sounds, which I’ll come back to in a moment.) A lot of what I do in Nygaard Notes is simply back-tracking to find the original source for a claim. We all do this. Just imagine talking to a friend who says something that surprises you. The first thing you might say is, “Where did you hear that?” That is, you’ll ask them to identify their source. We should ask the same of journalists, especially when they report something that surprises us, or that we find hard to believe.
“Identified,” But Virtually Anonymous
What does “identify” mean in this context? Does it mean simply providing the name of the source? No, it does not. And this gives me an opportunity to mention a pet peeve of mine. Often sources in the media are identified by their former position in government. For example, “John Doe, a former Undersecretary of Education, said, Blah, blah, blah.” Well, that doesn’t tell the average person too much. That is, if a source whose name means little to the general public is identified with information that likewise means little to the general public, then the source may as well be anonymous, since nobody knows who they are and thus cannot evaluate their credibility. That is, such sources are virtually anonymous, if not technically.
A reporter can offer meaningful information to help readers get a sense of where a source is coming from. In the case of the “former Undersecretary of Education,” for instance, there are a variety of reportable factors, such as who appointed them, the agenda they pursued while in office, or ethical issues attached to their time in office—that would be helpful in assessing credibility.
It only takes a few words to pass on such valuable information. It’s also true that the choices about what information to include can help readers to get a sense of the values and priorities of the reporter, not just the source. For example: “Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger”? That’s true. “Controversial Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger”? Also true. “Accused war criminal Henry Kissinger”? True again. “Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Henry Kissinger”? Absolutely true.
Choosing how to identify a source is far from an “objective” process, and that leads us to a related, often-asked question: What’s wrong with objectivity?
4. What’s Wrong With Objectivity?
“Don’t you think objectivity is an important quality for a journalist to have?” I’ve often been asked. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. It’s that I don’t think there is such a thing, at least not as it applies to journalism. Or thinking, for that matter. (I discussed this ‘way back in the year 2000, in Nygaard Notes #65, in an essay called “Morals, Ethics, Values, and Thinking.” http://www.nygaardnotes.org/issues/nn65.html )
I’m not joking. When it comes to journalism, I honestly don’t know what the term “objectivity” is supposed to mean. My dictionary defines “objectivity” as “the ability to consider or represent facts, information, etc., without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions.”
How would one go about presenting a fact without having an opinion about it? How about the opinion that one fact is more important than another? Should a reporter’s decisions about which facts to include in a story—or which story to cover—be decided by coin flips? And how about feelings? Last week I quoted a report that says climate change “could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.” Is a reporter supposed to have no feelings about this? Could a reporter have no feelings about this? Or about Ebola? Genocide? Terrorism? Wouldn’t such a person be a sort of sociopath?
Not only do I not think it’s a good idea to seek out sociopaths who are “neutral” about events they are covering, I don’t think it’s even possible. Journalists, after all, are meant to function as surrogates for the general public, going to places the average person can’t, or won’t, go and asking the questions that we would ask if we could go. I want someone with feelings and opinions acting as my surrogate, and those feelings and opinions will lead them to do things a certain way, which I may or may not find helpful. Which is why we need a large and diverse group of journalists working at any moment, since each one brings a different pair of eyes and ears to the job.
I was recently speaking to a local group about propaganda and such, and several people mentioned that they were concerned with the problem of “bias” in news reporting. That reminded me of an irate reader of the Notes who said, when cancelling her subscription, “While I find some of the information you preach about interesting, the rest is very biased.” I admitted to probably being biased in some ways, but when it came to the article that offended her, I didn’t think it was particularly biased. I said that “I thought I just reported some facts and gave my opinion on them. And let’s be clear on this: Having an opinion after you look at the facts is not bias. It’s only bias if your opinion interferes—beforehand—with your ability to see the facts.”
There’s a whole other discussion here about how feelings affect our thinking, but let’s not go there for now. At the moment we’re talking about so-called objectivity.
As I often point out, when we receive information that is new to us, it doesn’t mean anything unless and until it is connected—in our minds—to some ideas that we already have. So, how in the world do any of us (journalists included) make any sense out of the overwhelming river of information that comes at us in the daily news flow? How do we decide what to pay attention to? How do we decide what is important and what is not? How does a journalist decide what needs explaining and what is “common knowledge”? How do we decide that a source is credible? Or not? It all has to do with what is already in our heads. That is, values, priorities, principles, ideology. None of this is neutral; there’s nothing objective about it!
For example, I talked last week about Bolivia, pointing out that the communitarian indigenous conception of democracy that is prevalent in traditional Andean societies is very different than the one-person, one-vote ideal of democracy prevalent (at the moment) in mainstream North America. So a program of “democracy promotion” may well be perceived very differently by someone from Bolivia than it is by someone raised in the U.S. Even within the U.S., people have very different understandings of the nature of U.S. “democracy.” So the people carrying out a “democracy-promotion” program may thus be perceived as friends or foes, depending on one’s values, priorities, principles, and ideology.
All journalists make decisions to focus on one news item and not another, or to believe one person and not another, or to put one thing on the front page and one on the back. And journalistic institutions make similar “non-objective” decisions, about where to station reporters, about which “beats” are covered extensively and which are ignored, about which journalists rise to the top and which languish on the bottom rungs of the newsroom.
I wouldn’t classify everything in Nygaard Notes as “journalism,” but when I am producing what I call “journalism,” I make the same sorts of subjective decisions all the time. The difference is that I don’t go around saying that I am “objective” when I do it. And that’s because I know that every time I interpret something I am relying on my values, beliefs, and what’s already in my head (that is, what I “know”). Every time I direct my attention to one thing and ignore something else, I am making a choice, and that choice reflects my values. This is not an “objective” process, nor should it be.
There are all sorts of qualities I look for in a journalist: passion, creativity, intelligence, curiosity, fairness, empathy, and so on. I do not look for “objectivity,” because I don’t believe in it.
5. Update on the “Imminent Threat” of Khorasan
On October 20th I published a piece I called “Timeline of Terror: War Propaganda at Work,” in which I suggested that the September tsunami of articles about a previously-unknown group called the Khorasan Group was best understood as a propaganda campaign aimed at terrifying the U.S. public sufficiently to justify sending the U.S. military into Syria. We hear, and heard, a lot more about the Islamic State, but it was said at the time that Khorasan was “considered a more urgent concern” than IS/ISIS/ISIL. Indeed, we were told that Khorasan was made up in part of “operatives and explosives experts from Osama bin Laden’s old al Qaeda network” who “may again present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.”
In the 25 days after September 13th, when the Associated Press introduced the U.S. public to the Khorasan group—who “few have even heard of because information about it has been kept secret”—a Lexis/Nexis search of major newspapers yielded 130 articles mentioning the group. In the 25 days ending Nov 14 the same search yielded 18 articles. 13 of those 18 had to do with a single series of attacks on Khorasan targets on November 6th that “may” have killed a Khorasan bomb-maker.
I should say, “alleged attacks,” as the only source offered was the U.S. Central Command. Actually, following the pattern, the headlines were based on remarks by an anonymous “official.” The head of the Central Command actually said “We’re still assessing the results of those strikes.” Results of that “assessment” have not been reported and, if history is any guide, will never be. So the “first draft of history,” in this case, will be written by “Anonymous,” and despite no corroboration, will form a part of the foundation for the popular (mis)understanding of subsequent developments in the region.
Now, would the Central Command have any reason to lie about a supposedly “successful” attack on a Khorasan target? Well, on November 2nd a New York Times editorial remarked that “Military officials have said curiously little in recent weeks about Khorasan, a militant group they described during the early stages of the airstrikes in Syria as posing an imminent threat to the United States.” Could it be, then, that “military officials” thought it was time to renew some interest in this “imminent threat” to the homeland?
The Washington Post noted that the November 6th attacks showed the U.S. “targeting a group other than the Islamic State for only the second time since the air campaign in the country began.” How they would know this is a mystery, since they have adopted the role of stenographers to power, rather than journalists. Stenographers only report what they are told, and there’s no reason to think that they are told anything that Central Command doesn’t want them to know. And, obviously, anything that Central Command does not want them to know will not be “leaked” or otherwise transmitted to reporters, and thus will remain unreported.
I bring all this up because the dramatic drop-off in coverage of the “imminent threat” of Khorasan, coupled with the ongoing reliance of the media on anonymous sources should make every one of us seriously question what we think we “know” about what is going on in Syria, Iraq, or any other place where the U.S. military or other agents are operating. Come to think of it, we should not think we even know where the U.S. military or other agents are operating, although a good working assumption might be “everywhere.”
(The same propaganda apparatus that works hard to conceal U.S. military activities also works hard to direct our attention to the alleged activities of our alleged enemies. For example, if you have the impression that Russia has “invaded” Ukraine, you might benefit from asking yourself where you got the idea.)
As I type these words, President Obama is planning to seek Congressional authorization for war in Iraq and Syria. What he’s looking for is called an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the 2001 version of which is what he’s been using to legitimize the current attacks.
If you are opposed to an agenda of endless war against uncountable enemies near and far, have a look at a list of things the U.S. can do instead of embarking on an endless war in Iraq and Syria. The peace coalition WIN WITHOUT WAR recently published a list called “Alternatives to Endless War: An Effective Response to ISIS.” I don’t agree with all of it, but there’s much there that will help to, as they put it, “popularize the possible steps towards a political solution.” Read it, then do something to restrain the declining empire from killing even more.
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