Friday, September 28, 2012

The Outrage Machines

One of my Republican friends posted a link on my Facebook wall to this Fox News story (US officials knew Libya attack was terrorism within 24 hours, sources confirm) and then said:

"John, Please explain this away with one of your impartial blogs. Lie after lie after lie for a week until someone was hauled in front of congress. Ambassador Rice should have resigned rather than lie on five different Sunday talk shows for the President. Truly sickening."

By the time I saw the post it was late -- and frankly, I was more interested in the enormous wheelbarrow filled with hooch that I had just won -- so my reply was certainly not what he desired:

"You want me to start fact-checking Fox News, now? Isn't there a whole chunk of the Internet dedicated to that?"

But after thinking it over a bit further today, I think it might be a good idea to write a bit to explain why I reacted that way, so here goes.

There is a large section of the media that are outrage machines, devoted to creating outrage and then directing that outrage towards partisan ends.  The largest and most successful segment is the conservative-oriented Fox News and Rush Limbaugh segment, with all of the associated pundits, commentators, and writers.  The left wing has never been nearly as successful at this, but although Air America proved a fiscal flop on the radio, MSNBC and Current are actively flying the liberal flag on cable TV.  And Doonesbury still crushes Mallard Fillmore on the comic-book pages, so at least we Democrats still have that going for us as long as Garry Trudeau keeps plugging away.

There are also an awful lot of institutions out there that make a good-faith effort to provide what passes for non-aligned journalism these days: assorted newspapers, wire services, trade journals, web sites, local TV news, radio news, PBS and NPR, and the national news networks. Many of them have partisan leanings of one sort or another, especially the web sites.  If you looked at PBS and NPR on that list and immediately thought either "liberal media bias" or "false equivalency sellouts", you now at least have an honest answer as to where you stand on the news consumer political spectrum.

The real bias that I find in most of the non-outrage-based news organizations is towards circulation and ratings numbers.  Or, if I may quote the popular saying in newsrooms regarding stories with violence and crime, "If it bleeds, it leads."  One of the real flaws in modern journalism is the enormous 24/7 news hole that they need to fill and the business needs that all too often drive them to value ratings over informative content.

And so the outrage machines spend all day every day shouting about whatever it is they're outraged about that day because that's what they do.  And the more legitimate news organizations also spend a lot of the day inflating the importance of whatever news they have because they have an overwhelming need to convince you that whatever it is they have to plug the news hole at that moment is so important that you must devote your time and attention to it.  (Or, to put it as a local TV news tease, "Tonight we have new information that could save your life. We'll tell you about it after the break....")

When the Information Age started to break, I had a naive belief that now people would free themselves of the narrow tunnels through which they viewed the news and take advantage of the new opportunity to search for themselves across a sea of diverse opinions.  I should have thought a bit more carefully about human nature before jumping to that conclusion.  In general we seem to have instead chosen to take advantage of the explosion of news and information availability to search diligently for the pack of opinions that exactly match our own preconceived notions.

A depressing number of Americans choose to immerse themselves in the outrage machines of the right or of the left to point that they exclude opposing or neutral opinions from their news diet, and instead engage solely with the straw men summoned by their own side.  To these people liberals are idiots who want to destroy America and conservatives are a pack of greedy fascists who don't care about anybody but themselves.  If you find yourself uttering either opinion on a regular basis, you may be spending a wee bit too much time in your outrage machine.

I've spent a lot of my lifetime with a pretty good view behind the curtain of news organizations and their product.  I grew up around a small-town newspaper (the ol' Glens Falls Post-Star, shoutout to Hometown, U.S.A.!) worked for a couple of newspapers, and later worked at least part-time for it and a couple of other small newspapers.  I also spent several years as a high-volume periodical indexer mostly working with business periodicals, which was an unimaginably great opportunity to see beyond the day-to-day details of the news and really understand the structures and frameworks upon which nearly all "news" stories are based, be they ginned-up outrage messaging, genuine journalism, or the eyeball-trolling that makes up the bulk of the news cycle.

For those unlikely to spend a few years in an intellectual sweatshop perusing the back pages of Bond Buyer and American Metal Market, you can see much the same effect if you compare sports radio and commentary with political radio and commentary -- same structures: different themes, topics, and details.

And so whenever I see any news story, I reflexively evaluate it for a lot of things beyond the details in the story:

  • What's the source?
  • What's the bias?
  • What's the credibility?
  • Who is quoted and cited?
  • Is there confirmation from other media sources?
  • Can I trust this individual item, or should I confirm it myself from a different news source?
  • Is it noise or is it news?

On my own scale of news evaluation, Fox News scores pretty highly for having a clearly understood bias -- which is a plus with me, since at least I know where they're coming from -- but very low on the credibility scale due to their well-known and long established habit of embroidering fact with a complicated web of half-truths, omissions, and the occasional flat-out whopper.

Before shooting me as the hopelessly liberal biased messenger of that evaluation, let me give you two fairly recent news stories from reasonably credible sources:

Or, if you would prefer a more entertaining take on Fox News's credibility, I refer you to the cumulative broadcasts of The Daily Show for the last umpteen years.

And so when that Fox News story got posted on my timeline with the comment at the top of this post, I didn't think, "My gosh, this is terrible. This set of facts makes me entirely re-evaluate everything I've learned over the last three years and nine months of the Obama administration."

I really had three simultaneous thoughts:

1) How is this story any different than the hourly scream of outrage at Obama's presidency that appears nonstop on Fox News?

2) I have no interest in digging into this particular story to try to disentangle what is true, what is half-true, what is omitted, and what is outright lie.  It's an enormously time-consuming enterprise, just to get to the starting point. There are tons of people interested in and dedicated to this sort of fact-checking of the opposition outrage machines. I ain't one.

3) You spend your days immersed in an outrage machine, and now you want me to explain why you're outraged?  It seems self-evident.

But in any event, the posting did make me do a bit of thinking, which is always good.  So here's my post on that story.


P.S. All of which isn't to say that I don't think there are some pretty good questions that need answering about the Mideast embassy riots and the Libyan incident in general. To start with, why the heck was there apparently no freaking security at that consulate?  Who exactly was responsible for that? How close are we to finding the perpetrators? Do we get to drone-strike their asses? Have we done so already?  (And better yet, can we start being a bit more selective about when and how we're using drone strikes? Killing off a specific terrorist is great, but it's also limited in efficacy when you generate enough ill-will to create five more.)

But international crises are notoriously complex, and understanding them well enough to evaluate what went on and who knew what when takes a lot of research and usually requires access to classified security briefings.  I don't have any of that stuff at hand and I am certainly unlikely to collect all the data anytime soon.

P.P.S. Speaking of news sources, if the situation is as grim as my description above, what would I recommend?  In general, my advice would be the same as I'd give to anybody about their eating habits: moderation and variety. As a longtime news junkie, I find that my own news intake often lacks moderation, so I try to make up for that sin with variety.

My primary news sources are the four newspapers that I get regularly: The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, The Oakland News, and the Spinal Column, our local weekly newspaper.  I don't read them cover-to-cover every day.  Most mornings I just hit the sports section and the comics ... it's about all I can stand of the news in the morning.  But I do try to give them a good regular browse in the evening when I get a chance.  And I usualy dig in a bit deeper on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  I also get a pretty good variety of newsletters and magazines that I browse and read as time permits.

On the broadcast side, I usually catch the headline news on NPR in the morning, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report at night, and I DVR most of the Sunday-morning punditry shows, both local and national.  I watch very little local television news, and practically no cable television news at all, though I will tune in on occasion when something newsworthy happens, mostly to see commentary from the various perspectives.  In the mornings and when I drive I listen to podcasts instead of the radio, usually on non-news topics like fantasy sports, science, and comic books.

And on the web I tend to browse around a bit from story to story and my sources vary from time to time.  Sometimes I'll check Google News, just to see what their front page looks like. On the local front I find that often makes a good news supplement to my newspapers.  I've been giving Twitter a good (Monique would say, "obsessive") workout as we come down the stretch in this election cycle, and have found some pluses and minuses. Twitter tends to get more than a little echo-chamberish, so I'm trying to make sure I have a good assortment of perspectives in there, but I'm not at all convinced I've found the right balance yet.  I'm sure I'll write up a post about the experience of following this election via Twitter after it's all wrapped up.

Finally, in the place of moderation, I do occasionally concede to sheer news exhaustion and institute a full news ban until I'm ready to engage with it all again.  I think the longest in the last decade or so lasted three or four months.  I find that I need a reasonably coherent perspective to be able to absorb as much news as I usually do, and stepping away from it altogether is a great way to find my center again.  When you spend a lot of time within the news cycle, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between news and noise.

So, if you've found yourself in a state of perpetual outrage at the news, let me heartily recommend a few months away from the outrage machines.  You'd be surprised at what they look like when you check back in.

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