We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The media story

‘Our man in Basra’ is back in the UK, with some first hand stories and a different perspective on what is going on both in Iraq and in the media. His first post (out of three planned so far) is about his view of the media and why they report the events in Iraq the way they do.

Most people have an implicit, nebulous, and generally unthought through understanding of the media and what their job is. It has to do something with getting the facts and reporting the truth or at least the reality to the best of their abilities. The media is a sort of civilian intelligence agency. This is how the military, in particular, view them and when the media are not reporting the facts, they are seen as failing in their job.

The media do not see their job in this light at all. Their job is to find and sell stories. Of course, these should not be completely divorced from the facts, but facts are merely the raw materials of the stories. More importantly, the media do not feel obliged to report all the facts, especially in a place like Iraq, where there is either very intense competition among reporters and therefore not much time to investigate the story in detail. Alternatively, the interest is fading a bit, so it is not worth investing the time. Either way, the result is the same.

What has become obvious to me while in Basra and helped me understand the media better is that they have now decided what their story is in Iraq. They have signed up this story as their product before they even arrive. They are not there to research ‘the facts’ – they are merely looking to illustrate their story. If they arrive in Basra and find a huge drug selling ring inside the British Army, they will report it, because it confirms their preconception of disarray in Allied ranks. If they find that 99 percent of Iraqis support what the British Army is doing, they will not report that, as it does not fit their meta-context within which their story was created. From the individual’s point of view, it is hard to be the one journalist telling a different story to all the other journalists. Mark Steyn manages that and that is why he is the beloved of the blogosphere.

Exceptions nothwithstanding, it is therefore pointless to criticise journalists for not publishing the facts. This would be like criticising a soldier for fighting the wrong battle. A soldier does not get to choose his battles. He fights the ones he is in. You can criticise him for being a soldier. And you can criticise a journalists for being a journalist. But once that choice has been made, there is no sense in complaining about a journalist behaving like a journalist.

This is why the internet in general and blogs in particular have done so well during the war, and are continuing to do well in balancing out the negative reporting on the developments in Iraq.

This is not to say that blogs do not posses their own meta-contexts, but in the case of the blogosphere this is not a bug, but a feature. In blog totality, they bring a variety of different meta-contexts to bear. There will be some that are open to the real facts, because for them, the real facts fit. It just so happens that the official media have meta-contexts that cannot accommodate recent and current reality in Iraq, while those of many bloggers do.

The difference between the media and the blogosphere is reinforced by the emphasis on pictures in the modern media, especially during the war itself. Every story must have a picture, and the reality is that with no picture, there is no story. The picture comes first, the story is then attached to the picture.

I can think of an example most of the readers will probably remember: The British Army has Basra surrounded and is making progress everywhere with very few casualties.

There is no picture to illustrate that. The most the media can show you is a picture of a couple of tired soldiers in a foxhole, because most of the time, that is what they were doing. Don’t hold the front page. (Note: This is true. The soldiers were in a foxhole, and they were tired. But this tells you nothing about progress on Basra. This is like trying to understand what France looks like by being shown a picture of a street lamp in Bordeaux.)

Meanwhile, an American self-propelled gun has an ammunition accident and explodes. This is a great picture, and it will therefore be shown repeatedly. What you cannot show is the fact that this did not matter to the war effort. The Americans replace the kit. The barrage continues uninterrupted. Nothing important is illustrated by the picture that contributes to understanding of the situation. But, it is a great picture. And it is the picture that becomes the story, not the ‘big picture’, for which there is no actual picture.

Can you blame the media for this? They do this because people like to look at pictures and will ‘buy’ more news, if they are interesting to look at. The great advantage blogs have is that they do not have to sell their stories the same way. Therefore they can be more interested in telling the truth as they see it and fill in the niche that the media are leaving wide open.

My impression based on my experience of the Iraqi reality, media reporting and the blogosphere before and after my stay in Basra is that both people ‘in the know’ and people who care are starting to trust blogs more than they trust the mainstream media.

26 comments to The media story

  • Dale Amon

    I certainly agree since I’ve been saying the same thing (I pretty much gave the same take in a reply to comments in one of my media articles). Thus, QED you must be brilliantly correct 🙂

    It is indeed a problem and I do feel this is the truly valuable niche the blogosphere fills. We are the ones who do care about facts and context. Many of us approach a story not as a journalist would, but as an intelligence analyst would.

    This is not to say we don’t have more fun with wordplay than the average intelligence report writer does…

  • Jacob

    This post describes probably what journalism and the media actually are, or what they have degenerated into.
    That is not what journalism should be, not what it claims it is , what it beleives it is, what it declares it wants to be.
    Journalism is supposed (and claims as it’s goal) to bring to the reader information as complete, accurate and impartial as possible.
    That it fails misserably in this is a fact, but not a fact they concede. They keep claiming that their information is complete and accurate. They do not declare: “look, we tell you the story as we see it, don’t expect to get facts from us.” They declare: we are giving you the facts.
    Something is fundamentally wrong when there is such a gap between what they say and the truth. The problem is with journalism and not with our missconception of it.

  • Jacob… since when? Journalism has never been impartial and reliable reporting of the facts. Only silly naive people get taken in by that myth. Unfortunately, there are a lot of them…

  • Kodiak

    The metacontextual fairy tale about the lonely Blogospherian following the steps of decadent, corrupt journalists is a vividly romantic story that everyone ought to buy at once.

    I assume that journalists wouldn’t merit such a philosophical reprobation from Samiz should this journalisteria happily shout & yell everywhere that Iraq is actually a true paradise on Earth…

  • Dishman

    Ah, Kodiak again.

    I don’t think anyone is claiming that Iraq is paradise, just that it’s better than the media is saying.

    Sadly, I don’t expect Kodiak to acknowledge the difference, even to himself.

  • Tim

    Kodiak –

    “I assume that journalists wouldn’t merit such a philosophical reprobation from Samiz should this journalisteria happily shout & yell everywhere that Iraq is actually a true paradise on Earth…”

    The blogosphere corrects for the sake of the big picture, it doesn’t contrast for the sake of it.

  • Jacob is right. The complaint is not that the press is biassed. As long as a bias is openly acknowledged, it can be accounted for. The gripe is that the majority of the press is fundamentally dishonest in describing and presenting its product for “sale.”

    ABC’s contention that more Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source ought to scare you to death. Not because Peter Jennings is a knee-jerk liberal, but because he is so disingenuous about it.

  • Jacob

    “Jacob… since when? Journalism has never been impartial and reliable reporting of the facts.”
    Well, it claims it is. To this day.
    And they have done a far better job of reporting the facts in the past, even if it never was perfect. Judging from my personal experience as a reader of TIME, their level of reporting has deteriorated enormously in the last decade or so. In the past they at least tried to give the facts as best as the reporter understood them (not very good).
    Now they have completely abandoned that – they give just pieces about the “feeling” of things, how some people feel about the facts reported. This is the incarnation of relativism, of what the new reporters have been taught about the nature of truth. This problem (relativism) is much deeper that just journalism, but it is manifest in journalism. They give you their story (and not the facts) because they beleive that this is a higher truth than mere facts. And also they *beleive* journalism is enobled by pursuing a “higher” agenda and not sticking neutrally to facts.

    ” Journalism has never been impartial and reliable reporting of the facts.”
    They have been more impartial and reliable in the past, when they beleived it was their duty to be so.

  • Years back, I took Journalism in college – even did a stint as editor of my college newspaper.

    I took a dusty, largely ignored rag that was published in order to … well, justify having a journalism program.

    But we lucked out, got a good advisor (ie, publisher) and that adviser let me take some risks.

    One of those was a campaign of columns and cartoons designed to utterly piss off the readership and get them talking.

    I still remember with fondness my editorial about the virtues of Title IX, which forced our community college to shut down the football program.

    I got punched out for that one. 🙂

    But I learned a basic fact of life as well.

    1. The college will subsidize 4 pages. For eight pages, you need to sell at least 2 pages of ads.

    2. Unaccountably, people CARE about sports.

    3. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to underestimate the intelligence of the American people.

    4. It doesn’t matter a damn what the editor’s choice of stories would be in an ideal universe. If it doesn’t fit within the brutal limits of what the readership cares of, the paper will be fishwrap.

    In other words; there is an unspoken editorial bias that is far more compelling than the publisher’s or editors; it’s what will keep the demographic buying, reading or clicking.

    IMHO, “liberal” or “conservative” bias on the part of a journalist is fine; so long as it’s disclosed – and that is something that was ingrained in me during my journalism classes. We were also taught to keep that bias on the editorial page.

    But both considerations will get over-ridden by one big factor; can you sell ads on the page opposite the editorials – and will people turn to page two to read the rest of your front page leads?

    If it ain’t relevant, it doesn’t matter what your bias is, or whether the facts are accurate.

    And so we all pick and choose, in hopes that we capture someone’s attention.

    Beside that elemental moment of interest, whether it occurs due to fascination, revulsion, partisan agreement or outrage is moot.

    Personally, I used to turn handsprings when I got even one letter to the editor. The day we got a death threat from the Student Council President, we had a party. 🙂

  • Johnathan

    It is pretty clear that a lot of journalists these days, certainly in Europe, have such a reflective set of views that they would not even understand that they were biased.

    I should know – I work in the media. Today, for example, I made a passing remark to a colleague about the fact that it was reported that hundreds of millions of money, much of it from the EU, had been diverted into Yasser Arafat’s own bank account. Said colleague immediately bleated about the evils of Ariel Sharon, as if that somehow proved anything.

    Then came this gem: “but he has an infectious smile and you cannot help smile back,” my colleague said.

    I have to work with these people. I have to get along and try and contain my own views to the standards of professionalism. But you know, there are times when I want to shout across the newsroom, “You lamebraned sons of b******!!!!”

  • Kodiak

    Tim: The blogosphere corrects for the sake of the big picture, it doesn’t contrast for the sake of it
    Samiz (or any rightist site)& the blogosphere are two things quite distinct, aren’t they?

    Dishman: I don’t think anyone is claiming that Iraq is paradise, just that it’s better than the media is saying
    Which medias are you talking about? Goebbels-type or free ones? You can’t mix US medias & German medias. Senegalese medias are free from gross nationalism as far as Iraq is concerned.

    Jacob: I agree that US papers like Time or Newsweek are very poor. But in the Time ‘s last issue, there’s an interesting article p 29: In Defense of France . I strongly recommend it to you.

  • Zathras

    The media will fill a vacuum.

    Most of the reconstruction work in Iraq is being done by military units from which journalists embedded during the war have been withdrawn. Most of the journalists covering Iraq are covering the CPA in Baghdad, which soldiers in the field evidently consider a marginally helpful agency at most. One of the things CPA does least well is explain the steps it is taking toward establishing security, rebuilding a civil polity and reconstruction — partly because some of these steps are being made up on the fly, and partly because much of the reconstruction work is the product of military officers operating without direction from CPA.

    Now, the media is partly to blame for the fact that the vacuum exists — they could, for example, have resisted the urge to withdraw all of their embedded journalists. But it is not the media’s job to justify government policy of the day, and if the government in question is not diligent about the things it wants reported it should not be surprised to find that the reporting is unhelpful.

    I won’t comment on the “boo on the press, yea for the blogosphere angle,” except to say that one of the big media’s least attractive features — a weakness for self-congratulation — seems to have been adopted by many bloggers with great enthusiasm.

  • Sandy P.

    Kodiak, the blogosphere’s phrase, “fact-checking your ass” isn’t for nothing, you know.

    Sylvain’s on a tear about your country and ours.

    Unless you’re “Georges??”

    I still can’t believe “The Skeptical Environmentalist” isn’t allowed to be sold in your country. What are they afraid of???

    Time & Newsweek? Bah!

    There is no defense. It’s been coming to a head for a long time and it’s on the table for all to see. Now we play w/what we’ve got.

  • Jacob

    ” But it is not the media’s job to justify government policy of the day”
    It is the media’s job not to be lazy and rely only on what they are told or not told by government. They must dig up the facts and report them as they are. They are not doing this, they are not digging, and what they report is filtered through an ideological filter.

  • Jacob

    Time & Newsweek? Bah!

    Bah! Bah! Bah!

    NYT Bah!

    I don’t read all the newspapers, but it’s not an issue of this or that paper. It’s a general trend.

  • Johan

    Most often, a biased newspaper or not is not always the issue (I use those to wipe my ass), but rather the reader reading articles as if they are telling the One Holy Truth about whatever they are about. I have no problem finding bias when I read an article, but it’s frustrating when another person reads the same piece and worships it as god-given information and say “I knew it! I knew that Bush is responsible for global warming!”

    At times like that, I get very, very frustrated.

  • omnibus bill

    I like the blogosphere for news gathering because most bloggers admit they have a perspective, they are honest about it, and it is immediately evident from their writing.

    Whereas most major media outlets have a perspective, deny it, and cloak their language in objective terms (e.g. “Al Qaida, whom some allege was behind the 9/11 attacks”).

    Blogs are generally like the Op-Ed pages – good for opinions, and if you are a careful reader, good for the facts too. Sometimes. Better than the NY Times under all circumstances, as the Times is utterly unreliable, even when it’s not trying to lie.

  • Theodopoulos Phrecydes

    “…it (good news) does not fit their meta-context.”

    “We are developing the social individualist metacontext…”

    “…blogs…posses [sic] their own meta-context.”

    “metacontext – the non-individualized ontological context that underlies all contents of consciousness.”

    Maybe we should just go back to saying “point of view”.

  • This post inspired me to dig out the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

    It is “Fisked” here.

  • Ryan Waxx

    A word about bias:

    When people say ‘well, at least bloggers admit their biases’, they are speaking the truth, yet avoiding a more important issue, because it is harder to justify and can’t be explained well in a soundbyte.

    Firstly, part of their complaint is that the media’s bias doesn’t match their own. Not many people currently complaining about the mass media would be quite so peeved as long as the mass media would make the lazy errors in THEIR direction once in a while.

    Fox News, for one example, is just as lazy as the rest, yet it generates less bile from those who are inclined to criticise its competitors. Conversely, those who think the teaditional mass media is just fine tend to turn green and start shreiking wildly in the presense of anything vaguly Foxlike.

    So we have to deal with a substancial amount of people who would be happy EITHER with more accuracy or a bias shift.

    That is uncomfortable truth #1. A lazy blogger or journo will get a pass from too many people who have ideological reasons to defend him/her, and this problem is not confined to the left.

    Although it may be more serious and prevelant on the left simply because they are still firmly enshrined in the mass media, Foxnews’s, rightblogging, and talk radio’s inroads notwithstanding. Its easy to hide in an echo chamber when no one is banging on the door.

    Expansion to truth #1: If you are a journo-apologist, its rather easy to blast the bias-preferrers to distract from the real problems. But the problems exist irrespective of that complaint. There is nothing in the news business that is forcing you to interview 20 ‘men on the street’ so you can weed out the responses you don’t ideologically like.


    Uncomforable truth #2: The reason mass media matters is BECAUSE it is mass media. A great many people are NOT savvy news consumers, and so the likes of Paul Krugman can lie, cheat and slant a landslide to his heart’s content and only a fraction of the people he decieved will ever find out.

    So yes, I can go find out weather America really did allow massive looting of Iraqi artifacts, but its rather annoying to have to keep going back to relatives who don’t have that kind of spare time and correcting the warped and sometimes outright false picture that the mass media unleashes.


    To sum up, bias is what creates the itch, but I do not feel comforable demanding that others accomidate my bias. But honest ideological foes should be able to agree with me on principles.

    That is why principles are important: not because they existed in some mythical utopian past, but because while I do not agree with U.S.A Today on weather sidestepping France’s threatened veto was a good thing, they and I SHOULD be able to agree that when they report on that story several months later, they should at least MENTION the threat instead of hoping I’d forget.

  • I tend to agree with Ryan. The two big problems with the media are that they are uninformed (and they are supposed to be informing us) and they are dishonest about their biases (and often unconscious about them).

    I watch Fox News a lot. I consider them to be of higher quality than the others, not just because their bias usually matches mine, but because they really don’t pretend to be centrist and unbaised. Sure they have their “fair and balanced” advertising theme, but their real pitch, and I think their viewers know this, is that they are going to present the alternative (i.e. conservative) viewpoint to the other mass media. When they say fair and balanced, they mean that they ARE the balance to the other media.

    Furthermore, their anchors (many of whom are quite smart and accomplished people outside of the news business, not just news readers) neither try to hide their opinion nor claim that they are unbiased.

    Thus Fox is at least more honest. The only really dishonest thing I have seen from them was when they ignored the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong. This action is what is typical of what is done every hour by the rest of the US mass media outlets. Fox obviously did this to avoid annoying the Chinese, from whom they stand to make a lot of money. But when they were called on it, mostly by conservative commentators, they eventually had to admit that their coverage had not been up to standard.

    I have been a watcher of news outlets and propaganda for many decades. I started listening to Radio Moscow and Radio Havana in the early ’60s. One of the things that amazed me was that by the mid ’80s, Radio Moscow was at least as credible as CBS News!

    One thing you learn from listening to propaganda stations is the difference between propaganda and news. Today, the big three broadcast networks in the US broadcast propaganda, pure and simple. Their news is most kindly described as news analysis, but more accurately described as leftist propaganda. I’ve heard the real thing from the masters, and it sounds no different.

    And uncomfortable truth #2 above is sadly too true. More Americans get their news from the evening network news shows than from any other source. And those network news shows are as biased as the old Radio Moscow.

    Another uncomfortable truth is that the Beeb, which served me well as an American overseas (as compared to the worthless VOA) has been taken overy by the same sort of folks that produce CBS or NBC news: leftist propagandists. What a shame!

  • Kodiak

    John Moore,

    Today, the big three broadcast networks in the US broadcast propaganda, pure and simple. Their news is most kindly described as news analysis, but more accurately described as leftist propaganda.

    LEFTIST (???!!!…) propaganda displayed by the 3 US majors?

    What do you call left?

  • Theodopoulos Phrecydes: Maybe we should just go back to saying “point of view”

    But meta-context does not mean ‘point of view’.

    A statist Republican and statist Democrat may have very different points of view but share the same statist meta-context that accepts as a given the state exists to ‘do stuff’ and is the axis around which civil society spins.

    Meta-context is the collection of frames of reference, the axioms, within which one shapes and holds one’s point of view… within the context of ‘what should be the economic policies of the state’, a Republican may prefer the state to give tax money to steel producers whilst a Democrat may prefer to give tax money to schoolsandhospitals… but due to their shared meta-context, the notion that states should not have any economic policies simply falls outside the axiomatic realm of what would even occur to them.

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    In other words, the Republican and the Democrat do not share the same point of view about where to place tax money but do share the point of view that taxation is a good thing.

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes… nope

  • Dishman

    Kodiak, I believe you correctly interpreted the intent on that one. “Leftist” is the word that was intended.

    That the word surprises you indicates a huge cultural difference.

    Dishman: I don’t think anyone is claiming that Iraq is paradise, just that it’s better than the media is saying
    Which medias are you talking about? Goebbels-type or free ones? You can’t mix US medias & German medias. Senegalese medias are free from gross nationalism as far as Iraq is concerned.

    Major media in the US and UK is portraying a very negative view of events in Iraq. It’s far more negative than the first-hand reports we’re getting. That’s what I was referring to. I’m not sure where you get the notion that US media is parroting the Bush administration’s lines, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with reality.

    If the major media in the US has been taken over by a Goebbels type, it’s pretty clear that said person does not work for or even like the Bush administration.