No bias. No bull. No information.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, it will probably come as no surprise that I don’t consume much mainstream news, particularly the televised variety. Having dinner with my CNN-addicted in-laws a few days ago exposed me to an episode of Campbell Brown: No Bias. No Bull.

The particular segment to which I paid attention focussed on the U.S. government’s impending interventions into the auto industry. To the show’s credit, they did seem to give more air time than the average show to a single topic. Unfortunately, they didn’t fill it with much other than prattle. There were some words you heard repeated over and over, such as “bailout” and “billions”. One word that I didn’t hear at all, however, was “loan”. (I looked for transcripts of this show to verify this, but couldn’t find any. Leave a link in a comment below if you know where they are kept.) You couldn’t be blamed for concluding from the coverage that the government was contemplating giving free money to GM, rather than providing them the federal loans that they are actually requesting. You know, loans that would mean we’d be getting the cash back, with interest. Now, while giving loans to GM is stupid enough on its own, it doesn’t need any media trickery that makes it sound like something stupider, like just giving them free money.

Given that the auto-industry is a powerful lobby, it may turn out that they can weasel out of these loans at some point in the future, so maybe no one actually believes the idea that these would be loans. But if so that is the story, and you’d expect at least a passing comment on it.

While the difference between a loan and gift seems rather fundamental to me, mainstream media seems to either not understand the difference, not care, and/or assume that their audience doesn’t know or care either. They (and this particular CNN show is far from alone here) appear to be happy essentially screaming “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” over and over for a bit, then cutting to a talking head who screams “billions of your money! billions of your money! billions of your money!” a bit more. When covering the “$700 billion bailout” the government is engaged in now, nearly every media source I watched or read seemed to go out of their way to give the impression that this money was just being pissed away. Some of it surely will be, but mostly the idea is to buy things. While the government will probably overpay for these assets—hard to tell for sure, because the main problem is no one really knows what they are worth—but they are certainly worth more than zero. Most of the money buys instruments that are ultimately backed by houses. This might force the government to be something like a landlord to get value out of these assets, which, gee, seems like a fairly important story for journalists to cover to me. Or, how about the story that, while the plan calls for buying things (and thus, the possibility of recovering losses), the lawmakers that did as much as anyone to cause this mess in the first place are now screaming that this money shouldn’t be used to buy things, but rather to just give money to citizens who can’t add in order to allow them to shirk their obligations. That seems like a good story, too.

Or, how about a story detailing people that saw this collapse coming and how Wall Street will never look the same again. That would be interesting.

Or even just pieces that help inform the viewer, such as a metaphor for what’s causing the credit crisis or what the hell these freaky instruments are that caused all the trouble. Those would be welcome stories as well.

Fortunately, such stories exist. You just won’t find them on television.

Beyond the five W’s

All introductory journalistic training starts with the “five W’s (and one H)” (who? what? when? where? why? how?), representing the types of facts that should appear in the lead of a story. Unfortunately, many journalists these days seem to think that is all they need do: find the most obvious answers to those questions, relate them, move on to the next deadline. While this passes for news, it’s not very useful for actual understanding. The superficial answers to these questions are almost never the truth necessary to draw real conclusions about an event. That requires real digging into these questions (particularly “why?”) and since that is actually hard, you get the kind of limp, gloss-over journalism-like news of today.

Take this CNN story, for example: Nigeria militants ‘raze’ Shell oil complex. As per basic training, the story holds the five W’s:

  • Who?: The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
  • What?: “attacked Shell’s Alakiri flow station, gas plant and field logistics base… killing a guard and wounding four others.”
  • When?: “Monday”
  • Where?: “southwest of Port Harcourt”, Nigeria’s delta region
  • Why?: “The rebel group hopes to secure a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for people in the delta, where more than 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.”
  • How?: They “‘stormed’ the flow station complex…set fire to the facility and ‘razed it to the ground.'”

So, what do you know? Some people blew up an oil station in Nigeria. You’re told that they want the oil wealth for themselves. That sounds reasonable. On to the next story. A few basic problems: first, if the intent is to gain the oil wealth for themselves, why are they destroying the facilities that would let them claim it, rather than taking them over? Seems like a bad strategy. Maybe they have good reasons for this. Maybe there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe they just failed basic economics. The point is, this is a pretty obvious question to at least ask, but journalists don’t seem to be interested. They don’t seem concerned that the basic motivation they give for the event doesn’t really make any sense. It’s almost as if the intent is to sound informative, not actually be informative.

I was on a jury once, and it was very frustrating to watch the lawyers work. You kept wanting to scream at them to ask a certain question, usually one that never came. Is it important they didn’t ask it? Was not asking it strategy, or just incompetence? Who knows? I’m just a juror, so can’t actually ask any questions. Reading modern news stories is much the same experience, except I’m just some guy at a desk and not, you know, the person getting paid to actually report on what’s happening in front of his own eyes.

I looked through the top 10 hits on Google for this particular news story. Some were better than others. Some pointed out that the group is “well-equipped”, “heavily armed”, and using “dozens of speedboats” and “dynamite and other explosives”. Many mention that the group is responsible for reducing Nigeria’s oil output by a 20-25%.

None of these stories, however, even asked the question to which I wanted the answer, much less answered it: given that this is a force of “indigenous people” and most of the indigenous people live on “less than a dollar a day”, from where is MEND getting the money for all these weapons, speedboats and explosives?

A bit more Googling revealed not much more information. Someplace called the International Crisis Group, summarizes the situation in Nigeria and at least says that MEND “has not revealed the identity of its leaders or the source of its funds but its actions demonstrate that it is better armed and organised than previous militant groups.” Contrary to the journalists, this group does care about these funds, claiming they come from oil theft and “protection” rackets, where oil companies pay to avoid being targeted. This is at least more informative, even if it doesn’t necessarily match the current set of attacks. Did Shell just refuse to pay and are now being made an example? Has MEND graduated past the need for such financing? Gee, if only there was some kind of publication or company that would send people to these places, with the job of asking these kinds of questions and reporting back to us.

As before, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Until I do, I will continue to foam at the mouth about it. Sorry.

By the way, I have a theory that this type of shallow journalism also explains why more people seem to be willing to accept conspiracy theories these days. Since the news isn’t actually providing explanations of anything (or, worse, those they do offer contain obvious flaws), people just assume that something else must be going on that makes more sense, and will go through paradoxically nonsensical contortions to guess at it.

For example, with this Nigerian story, a) the attacks seemed geared at stopping oil production, rather than gaining control of it and b) that would decrease the supply of oil and c) raise the price, which d) would be good for other oil producers. Since e) no other theory seems to exist, I’m just going to assume that OPEC is funding these people. Unless I lived in the European Union, when I would assume that Russia was doing it. (Look! I’m halfway to believing things without facts, just like religion would have me do. Must be a conspiracy.)

Foreclosing the fourth estate

Imagine the local network news casters are telling you that a storm is coming. This might require imagining yourself as someone who still watches the local news, which may be a stretch, but bear with me. Can you picture your local news people? The male anchor with good teeth and hair and the hot, yet professional, woman of indeterminate ethnicity joke with each other, then put on their “grim face” as they talk about the “Storm of the Century”. Custom made graphics woosh in each time they cut to another story about it. The Wacky Weatherman gesticulates wildly in front of a superimposed map, showing a spiral storm cloud off the coast. Reporters out in the street stand in the rain and warn of heavy winds and describe the storm as the coming apocalypse. The news offers a brief snippet of the governor calling the storm “the real deal” and that “as of right now”, your area “is definitely the target for this hurricane” and suggests you might want to think about going to higher ground, and take “small quantities of food for three to four days”. The local news shows shots of people leaving and interviews of people staying. They assure you that they’ll be there covering it all, so stay tuned.

Do you leave?

I wonder how many people in Louisiana and Mississippi looked at the dire warnings on the news and decided to stay because the local news always makes dire warnings about even insignificant weather. If this happened to even one person who got killed, it’s yet another indication (if you needed one) of the media’s collossal failure to fulfill their basic purpose. As John Stewart observes:

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy. It serves to inform the voting public on matters relevant to its well-being. Why they stopped doing that is a mystery.

I’m breaking my own rules by bitching about this without a solution to suggest, but I’m at a loss on how to fix this. Do we just stop watching until they shape up? I’ve been trying that for years and it doesn’t seem to be working. If anything, reducing the number of viewers used to thinking for themselves just makes it worse. Do we just beg them to stop? The blogosphere is starting to marginalize the press in some ways, but this is a mixed blessing, as most blogs check facts more loosely than television and most follow no editorial standard at all. Maybe the point of the blogosphere is really that of fact checker for mainstream media. It’s proving that it does that job really well. Will this turn the media back into something trustworthy? Was it ever trustworthy?

Looking back at how the press covered Katrina before it hit has been enlightening, and I recommend it. You can see a map showing predictions of flooding scenarios, for example. You can see the director of the National Hurricane Center describing the coming Katrina as “really scary” and “a worse-case scenario”. (I’d be curious to see how local TV covered that.) You can see New Orleans main newspaper’s June 2002 story about New Orleans washing away if hit by a big hurricane. You can see Bush follow three paragraphs about Katrina, in which he urges people to seek safe ground, with a dozen about Iraq. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but it’s good to see how the world looked before something bad happened, to see if you could recognize the signs of it if it happened again.