Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Read the news (how to)

On Reading the News in the Internet Age

Update: Here's a recent article that's basically spot on about the tribalizing of political news, and how to (for those of us simply looking for the truth) find good news when there's so much propaganda out there. Read it, share it. Indeed, it's filled with great possible solutions, though I'm not sure that one can focus on only one news source and maintain ties to it (perhaps I'm wrong, and support must be consolidated somewhere). 


Any intellectual worth his salt, any citizen of any democracy/republic, or anyone who wishes to see the world as true as can be must come across the issue of how to read the news (though to be fair, there is some value in only reading the news to stay in tune with the currents of your fellow man). I'm referring to how one can gather the best news possible without being misled.

I'm not sure about other people but I'm very concerned with this issue. Recently, while discussing geopolitics (or at least as it pertained to the then occurring invasion of Ukraine by Russia, where it's so easy to see the drum rolls of  'power' being touted in favor of proper analysis, as if the memes of tribalism are that much stronger than rational thinking) with some friends over dinner, I came upon this issue of information.

I live in New York, and most self-respecting liberals here get a lot of their news from the New York Times (NYT), a fine newspaper which covers many points of view. But should it be the only thing one reads?

No. Let me explain. The first time I had an inkling that the news could be incorrect was as I was coming into my teenage years. I believe I was mulling over whether or not history was set in stone and whether what was happening in my life was not. In other words, previously I had the view that what was written in history books was true as anything, while (after hearing the rants and the complaints of my grandparents and my parents about newspapers and what they contained) newspapers didn't seem to be as true, and in fact seeing people contest them (such as the letters to the editor section) only furthered my distrust of them.

But as I walked through each step of collecting news versus history, I realized that there weren't any differences. That to gather news one needed eyewitnesses and that, outside of natural events, it was hard to fathom something more ephemeral. I made the connection that history was merely old news. That it wasn't much more than someone going in the past to see what people said then.

This rocked my pre-pubescent world. If what was taught wasn't true then what could I do? I decided to mistrust all that I read. But this proved to be nearly impossible. I couldn't judge for myself what was true, even if I was mistrustful, and I didn't have the background necessary to weigh it against anything (all I had was a few conflicting upbringings; I had the American text books I was reading, as well as my knowledge of what I had learned about certain hotspots in the world when I lived outside the States—for example in Israel; there couldn't a more different view of that conflict than from inside the States to outside it... this only further deepened my mistrust).

So I did something very anti-intellectual; I decided to go with what my parents were reading. I trusted that they knew something, and so I decided to trust The Economist as well as a few other magazines (some right leaning, some left leaning).

I should point that another intellectual stream was running strong in my life at this point, and that was the stream of the assimilation. Mind you I was in the middle of a small town in Michigan, thus this stream ran strong. And I was coming to love my adopted country. Therefore American triumphalism ran through my veins, in that it considered American points of view above all else.

In the face of these two lines of thought, I decided to accept them and developed a sort of distrust for a lot of what passed as the mainstream media, while accepting fully the narratives that those very same media spouted. It required much less thinking. And I'm sad to say that I completely fell for this siren song.

Then 9-11 happened. And the drums for the Iraq War started to beat. It was, in my circles, hard to find dissenting voices, and most of them sounded shrill. Being a vivid reader of The Economist, I was sure I had all the facts.

So I joined up. Infantry. A few years later I was certain that I had been fooled (though it would be easy enough to say that I allowed myself to be fooled). I was furious (this is why, outside of wanting to know the basic facts on what's going on in the world, I minimize my time reading The Economist). My time in Iraq also taught me that the media tends to act as a collection of viewpoints of major interests/powers, as well as a fight for eyeballs. It will always be those two things above all else.

And so here I am, after that dinner, wondering how best to put my views on news reading to paper. In the end I've reverted to my previous views that the young me had: that it's impossible to read unbiased news. News is nothing more than bias-propaganda and a veiled attempt to garner more eyeballs. Even when it tries hard to be impartial it can be nothing more than a continuation of whatever narrative a nation has (note that I'm not just saying that it's an American thing, this is true of all countries), as well as the interests (powerful or otherwise) in those countries. The need for advertisers makes sure of this.

So what's a person to do? Surely one cannot make it through life avoiding all news. For then you would be forced to listen to others' views which are in turn influenced by the news. No, the best way to deal with this is to read as many conflicting reports about a matter. And that doesn't mean to just listen to a newspaper that's supposedly giving you both sides of the view. I mean you need to read from several different newspapers or news outlets (see if they're subsidiaries of something larger, because if they are, then there's not much chance that they are all that different). Listening to one will invariably make you subject to that newspaper's whims and, being that it's an entirely human endeavor, mistakes.

Therefore listen to or read many. And to that end, listen and read to as many from different nations and different geopolitical blocks as you can (there's an idea for a proper app or algorithm to create stories with these combinations in mind). Time is limited in today's world, but surely you must have time to at least add the newsfeed (a reason the Internet is great) of one American then British news outlet (BBC, the Guardian). And then go farther to another non-Anglo source (Spiegel is another). And go even farther to a non-Western source. Aljazeera, or perhaps an Indian news outlet. There are plenty of non-Western ones with English outlets.

And when these outlets tell the news, beware of any national narratives that could influence their objectivity (or where they're getting their money from and what other pies these moneyed interests have their fingers in). And finally, know some history (with just as many viewpoints). You will see a pattern developing that will allow you to, with imperfect information (because that's what all news ends up being), extrapolate into the darkness of what is not known. Or even to see a lie for what it is. This also allows you to rise up above whatever current is sweeping up rational discourse. See that the powerless don't have as many avenues to fire off their own propaganda and will be viewed as the more evil. See that occupiers call all who rise up terrorists. See the world for what it is and this will increase your chance of not being swindled.

It would be great if someone could trace all the money sources for even the News outlets I've mentioned, this would allow us to make sure that there are no duplications in that department. If more information is found, then I will surely list that here.

Any thoughts? How do you read the news?

Update. Here's a video by Chomsky. Pretty long, but at 38:00 there are some good points. His points on the media are intelligent

Update (May2014): I mentioned the recent Ukraine crisis as something that is a perfect example of a simple narrative coming through the media where there should be some more perspective. I'm mainly talking about how no one seems to want to talk about the fact that an elected leader was ousted unconstitutionally. It's impressive, really. Now some might say that lies and obfuscation is the way all geopolitical games are played. I disagree. Any liberal in a democracy/republic, should be worried that the media—considered by many to be a check and balance—refuses to do its job. 

I will say that at times when people like Sarah Palin or others on the right claim that the Main Stream Media (also lame stream media also MSM) is filled with bias or inanity, one cannot say they say this without some reason. I think that they are misguided and tend to misread some reasons, but some of their instincts are right when they sense something of a cabal, or misplaced ethics in the media (again, I'm aware that on something like the Ukraine situation most don't seem to care for the truth and are more interested in political points against Obama, or in reviving the Cold War and some idea of national strength, on the anniversary of WW1 no less).  

Update (Aug2014): More thoughts on the matter of how to improve a news reading app or the like. With the other recent update (and the associated picture) of how separated and how tribal the links on the internet over certain (though one could dare say all) topics can be. There should be, in the end, a more holistic way of battling such issues rather than to say: let's help out one magazine that's doing it right.

What's this way? Well, I propose that on certain sites where there are upvotes, that the links between those people upvoting be examined. More strength should be given to articles and the like which are upvoted by more disparate (and less connected) people. This way one mob cannot come through and rule a post and its comments, or something similar. With social media and all, I'm not certain how this would work, but it appears to be something that could work. Thoughts? 

Update (Sep2014): Recent events have only further confirmed my suspicions about the media in general. No, this is not some conspiracy rant, rather it's about the many levels on which it seems our media lacks the authority to do anything but trumpet for war. Sure they were tired, but it seems that they have no answers and only parade the same people (or same powers with different faces) in front of us with the same answers. Again, there has to be a better solution to news than this.

I should also note that throwing up one's hands (saying it was ever thus) is not the correct way of doing it. Not in America at least. I hear too many arguments that it's all about money. As if that's the last argument that needs no explaining. No talk about freedoms or any such thing. Thus, if a new outlet gets money spouting lies, that's fine. Or if a defense company gains money, that's fine too, same with what the NSA does: they're creating jobs? Well that's fine. Ignore the inherent value of a right. Maybe I'm hanging out with defeatists. But when I hear that Snowden was foolish for giving up a 200k/year job for a belief (possibly nuts), or that there are only economic answers to all problems, like ISIS, then I'm certain people don't have a grasp of the wider world. 

Here are a couple other examples (we know China and Russia do this, but our government does so as well) of how our government attempts to change public opinion:



Update (16 April, 2015): And so it should go without saying that I've found more and more in terms of sources (trustworthy, or so it appears). Of course I'm not the first to make such an observation. Noam Chomsky, of course, has done it best and I would recommend almost any book of his, but especially Manufacturing Consent.

I will soon list all websites that appear to give the most neutral and historically informed views. I will also discuss trying to create a news app that will allow one to see through the veneer of bias that most news stories are covered with. 

Update  21JAN2016: And yet another good post on the matter of reading news, as well as intellectual discussion in our great Nation. I agree, even though this was written in 2009. "The apex of contemporary elite culture is not occupied by writers, poets and artists, but by a chimerical combination of Jack Welch, Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, and the anonymous scribes of the Economist magazine."

Should anyone wish to further discuss these matters, or anything else, or even reach out. Please email me at
I look forward to hearing from you. 

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  1. This reads a little like a conspiracy, no? Things these days do seem like that, though. Or perhaps they have always been this way? But having more information is better than not having enough information at all (or only having a few people hold it, though let's be honest, they still hold a lot of it), or is the firehose something that we need to step away from?

    Best thing is not to complain, but to come up with a proper way to get this news channel (that looks at all views in the world) out there for the people.

    1. It does read like a conspiracy, at points. But I do believe that it reflects truth more so than a mainstream view on such matters would. In other words: one can look at history, look at the headlines at the time, and see that conspiracy advocates (or those who saw the machinations of power for what they were) tend to be right. And those who oppose are merely saying they enjoy the status quo. Again, there are exceptions etc, but there is a trend. Slogans when spouted too often, should rarely be trusted.

  2. The update makes perfect sense: in that it tends to show how polarized (and perhaps how easy people want to make being propagandized is, since they are very tribal) people are, and how they hate to see something that doesn't fit in their world view. You had a post on watching sports and the world burning, and I think that you've answered your own question here: you've managed to show that with this kind of setting many people are willing to engage in something that seems real (sports) even if it matter less (doping will change that, I guarantee it)

  3. Going to make some points here: for most of us finding some ephemeral truth isn't the point. I could argue with you that truth itself is very debatable term and that finding it is a waste of most people's time. I won't as post-modernism has basically put that to rest (indeed it is a sad truth and one that leads liberals to be very hesitant in acting to things out in the world). I could argue that truth in one's social group is more important. I will:

    Like I said, the truth is all smokes and mirrors, for our species of apes (for self aware algorithms, now that's a different proposition). If this is true, what can one do about the news? Well, I argue that it is a matter of being tribal. That visualization that you showed, that's nothing to be scoffed at, it's human's being humans and cannot be fought, nor should it be (unless you have a knack for steering towards windmills, otherwise...).
    Why'd I say this? Because what matters in this world, my friend, is being connected to other people. And people means those with similar interests to you. And in this world that means mainly those people with the same interests as your country has. And that's about it. It matters that we all think in the same vein (with variations, of course) because otherwise why be a stick in the mud? Why be the outcast for having odd views that cannot change a damn thing anyways? Think about it.
    No truth, but being connected to your friends and family, that is beautiful, and when we all agree on something, isn't that beautiful? So why would you want to tear this one social adhesive apart?
    Yes, I mean that. Think on it. Why tear people apart? It matters not what the person in the middle thinks, but it matters what the people around you think. And if I may be provincial I should say that, in America, it matters that we have some level of unity and ability to move towards something together (truth doesn't matter, except for technical matters). So when it comes to picking sides, then none of this truth matters.
    My proof? Well, you see it in that visualization you linked to. People naturally move towards liking others with similar views. Shocking. And in America, land of the free and home of the brave, and where free speech is a protected right, we have our news drift towards superficial matters. Why? because no one cares for truth about ephemeral matters while they do care about the truth for technical matters that will improve their daily lives (with regard to pleasure and so forth). Nothing wrong with that, IMHO.

    Not that I don't appreciate what you're doing. Or trying to do. But perhaps all this is a misplaced apprehension?

    I shall now allow you to retort.

    1. There's nothing more endearing than leaning towards windmills, thoughts in hand. But be careful when you walk forward down this line, when you think on things like how do you read the news.

      Had a friend, my friend, and he taught kids. Good teacher, parents, coworkers all loved him. Then one day there was a complete and utter change in him. He was sick of teaching as required and wanted to teach the kids to not trust what they read in the news (like you). So he goes off and comes up with this way of teaching where he would give them books, but they would have to chase the original sources and so on. Poor kids.

      Parents caught wind of this and had his head on a plate (not ISIS style, of course). Kids were re-assimilated to the school and all was well. TEacher, well, my friend is out on the streets. You jsut can't do something like that, you just can't.

    2. You may yet be proven right. but I will venture that smoke and mirrors only goes to show how ill informed a body of people can be, and that only goes to help someone take advantage of that. The bedrock of this society is that we shine light on processes that matter. Here, I'm asking for the same thing. And what's wrong with that? After all it may require a technical solution and not anything about better angels.

    3. Plato, nice story. I suppose what would matter is how he went about doing what he did. Do you have details? I think this sort of indepth reading can be helpful, but only after a certain age (it's what a person studying teaching told me. Perhaps I'm wrong?), yet it seems that if we want to enact change, we should do so from a young age. And not rely on industrial age methods for the 'new era'


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