Good Media: Where to Go for Real News
The New York Times: Truth and History for Sale
This blog tries to offer solutions to problems, instead of just complaints and lamentation. But sometimes good solutions take a little trial and error.
So it is with reliable, available news media. In previous essays, I’ve explained why I’ve abandoned two long-time Manhattan media mainstays, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
The Problems: Bad Journalism and Bias in Manhattan Media
I had (and have) my reasons. The strongest was bad journalism. I lost count of instances of inaccurate basic “facts,” poor English, abysmal organization of stories, burying the real lead, and headlines that don’t match the text.
Then there is sycophancy toward “celebrities” and those who make the loudest noise. This sycophancy is a symptom of a deeper disease: declining skepticism toward public figures and conventional wisdom and increasing laziness in reporting—all under the transparent pretense of maintaining “access” to celebrity sources. (Why reporters have to coddle self-evident self-promoters has always puzzled me. Don’t self-promoters need them more than vice versa? Maybe today’s reporters lack self-esteem.)
Next on my list of importance is math. Reporters from the two Manhattan media warhorses apparently can’t understand and apply simple arithmetic, let alone higher math, to issues of economics and public policy.
I can’t tell how sick I am of reporters who ought to know better making ”news“ out of some numerically insignificant blip in government expense or the price of something, just because a political self-promoter or Fox moron blathers on about it.
That’s not reporting. It’s allowing oneself to be used by demagogues. Even accountants know that 5% (or less) of anything is not “material.”
Part of the problem is that most reporters had liberal-arts educations because they don’t like math. They have insufficient general knowledge, let alone mathematical training and intuition, to recognize when something is numerically insignificant.
Often they don’t even report the denominator, giving readers no clue how big a numerical “problem” is. Thus, for example, they allow demagogues to get away with supporting hundreds of billions in obsolete and useless Cold-War armaments (often to keep war-materiel plants in their districts), while scoring political points for decrying a mere few million spent on poor people or on local art and culture.
Together, these increasingly prevalent flaws of Manhattan’s so-called “elite” journals made me look elsewhere for reliable news, let alone anything resembling enlightenment.
There is also a cultural reason for my apostasy. Manhattan has become an arrogant, self-important and self-appointed arbiter of our culture. It’s a big echo chamber, a magnifier and aggrandizer of conventional wisdom and mindless celebrity.
Think Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. Where would they be without Manhattan and its media?
Think also George Stephanopoulos, whose utterly incompetent work in the first New Hampshire debate irrevocably tainted this presidential campaign and our democracy. Then think of the virtual news blackout surrounding Jon Huntsman, Jr., the only qualified Republican candidate for president. Could it be that our Manhattan media failed to do their homework on him because he hails from Utah and spent most of the last three years in China as our ambassador?
Manhattan’s unofficial but nevertheless complete control over our nation’s media has putrified our culture. It has also ignored or neglected the vast majority of our people, regions and economic productivity. And coming from a culture largely divorced from science, engineering and any quantitative understanding of anything, Manhattan’s reporters and pundits are woefully ignorant of history, even recent history.
Manhattan’s media monopoly puts all 307 million of us in thrall to a single city that can’t keep its streets free of potholes or its bedbugs under control. But for me, the last straw was bias toward Wall Street.
You would think that sort of bias would infect only the eponymous Wall Street Journal, which Rupert Murdoch has made the Pravda, or house organ, of mindless extreme capitalism. But if you thought so, you would be wrong. Wall Street supports Manhattan, including all the lawyers, accountants and lesser professionals who serve it. The only other industries of significance there are restaurants, retail, entertainment, fashion and property development. All depend for their above-national-market pricing on Wall Street’s wealth. About the only really independent forces in Manhattan are the teamsters and the medical profession. (I have my doubts about the government and city police.)
Because Wall Street rules the island, the New York Times, too, subtly beats its drum. Why else bury news of EU leaders “scrapping a pledge to make private investors absorb losses in any future bailout” in the middle of a long story? Why else use a double negative—a cardinal sin of journalistic English—to make that news seem positive? You don’t have to be a genius to understand that ongoing taxpayer bailouts of improvident risk-taking by banks are neither capitalism nor sustainable.
That story, for me, was the last straw. Shortly after it ran, the New York Times stopped my free trial subscription and started asking me for money. The price is a pittance. But I don’t want to support an institution that uses its considerable power and prestige to make the perpetrators of my generation’s biggest (and most gratuitous) financial catastrophe look good.
The New York Times: Truth and History for Sale
There is still another, deeper problem. When it went to a subscription business model, the New York Times put all its legacy stories “behind the counter.” That means the hundreds of links to its reporting on this blog—all inserted when the newspaper was free and of better quality—now require a subscription.
So now my readers have three choices. Confronted with a link to pre-subscription NYT authority, they can take my word for facts and remain ignorant of useful background. Or they can take a trial subscription and avoid expense, but only for a limited time. Or they can pay up and support a medium and point of view that they may not want to endorse.
I can’t easily convert all those hundreds of links to free media. To do so would take months. So I’m stuck with, in effect, asking readers to subscribe to a medium that I no longer respect and personally decline to support in order to get access to basic facts with some authority behind them. That sucks.
Good journalism is expensive, especially in Manhattan. Subscription business models can help good news media survive and publish for another day. I had a paid subscription to the Wall Street Journal for over thirty years before Rupert ruined it.
So I can understand requiring customers to pay for regular access to recent, “hot news.” But requiring customers to pay for old news—for what wise folk have called “the first draft of history”—has three undesirable effects. First, it leaves the poor and uneducated at the mercy of Fox, which is “in their faces” everywhere, for free. Second, it raises the price of “fact-checking” for everyone from bloggers like me, through government, to future investigative reporters looking for historical background. Putting the facts off limits is not generally a characteristic of free societies. Finally, raising the price of something (a pre-subscription-model free story) retroactively is a bit of a bait and switch. All this, too, sucks.
Maybe the Times’ managers are desperate enough to use their century-and-a-half of archives as a bludgeon to beat revenue out of the public. And of course maintaining all those archives takes cash, let alone in Web-available digital form. But I would hope the Times might consider making medium-term news (say, from sixty days to a year old) available for free. What good is a high-priced medium that styles itself a keeper of truth if the hoi polloi have to rely on Fox?
Those, in a nutshell, are the problems. Here are the solutions I’ve found so far:
Bloomberg.com is now my chief source of day-to-day business and financial news on America. It’s authoritative. It’s still a Manhattan medium, but its writing is better, briefer and more accurate than that of the other two.
And it’s free. I hope and expect that the links I now make to Bloomberg.com will continue to provide and verify basic facts without my readers having to pay for them. (My chief source of this hope is Michael Bloomberg’s deep pockets.)
Most of all, Bloomberg.com has reporters who seem to understand arithmetic and, on occasion, can accurately report even higher math [search for “high wire”]. They don’t use math as much as The Economist, but they manage to report the most important figures, and to make them cohere with other relevant numbers far more often than any other general American news medium I know. (For an example with laudable brevity, see this story.) For understanding and analysis of current events in economics, business and politics from a quantitative perspective, I have found no better medium than this British publication. Its quantitative analysis is consistently superior to that of rival general media, with graphs, charts and numbers galore. It editors and reporters seem to understand that, in a world with over seven billion people and going on two hundred separate sovereign nations, the only way to keep things in perspective is to make liberal use of numbers.
But numbers aren’t The Economist’s only comparative advantage. Its writing is excellent, with simple sentences, sprightly language and good organization. Its prose is irreverent (sometimes too much so), and its headlines are often too punny or cutesy. But they rarely mislead; they usually serve just to identify the topic and attract interest. (And anyway, no one reads The Economist for its headlines.)
The Economist also performs a uniquely valuable service. Its stories regularly digest leading-edge quantitative academic research, making it accessible to an audience of non-specialists. Bloomberg.com sometimes does the same, but no general publication of which I am aware does it as well, as thoroughly and as often as The Economist.
The Economist also benefits from a British perspective. Having lost their empire decades ago, the Brits no longer feel they have to prove their “exceptionalism” to the outside world. Their writing lacks the mindless triumphalism that has become an increasingly depressing feature of so-called “mainsteam” American media (those recommended in this post excepted).
The Brits are skeptical of everyone and generally fair to every point of view. And their long history of globe-straddling involvement in every field, for good or for ill, gives them historical perspective, which also informs their stories.
Sometimes The Economist’s skepticism of conventional economic wisdom, too, is insufficiently robust. But compared to the two Manhattan media warhorses, it is a paragon of what journalism ought to be.
The Economist’s final comparative advantage is its publication schedule. It’s a weekly. So its reporters and editors have time to think about what they are writing. Its recent effort to publish nearly weekly special reports on important topics apparently gives their creators even more time. In a Twitter world with obsessive focus on whatever happened in the last thirty seconds—but largely complete ignorance of history—time to think and do a modicum of online research may be the rarest and most important commodity in journalism today.
PBS and BBCI have largely despaired of getting useful information, let alone analysis, from commercial television.
After watching the professional journalism of Walter Cronkite and his rivals degenerate into the transparent propaganda of Fox and the celebrity sycophancy of other TV “news,” I have come to a reluctant conclusion. The medium of television itself, due largely to business and economic factors that dictate its modern operations, is almost completely incapable of coherent thought, let alone depth. It’s a “Gee, whiz!” medium, with sensationalism and lack of perspective built in.
So I don’t watch TV for news anymore. I watch it for entertainment, which is what most news “shows” have become. The sole exceptions are PBS’ News Hour, which I watch irregularly (largely for important breaking stories) and the BBC’s World News, which has some of the same advantages of dispassion that characterize The Economist, and which immediately precedes the News Hour on PBS.
Even PBS today has some of the same flaws as other American media. Too often, it chooses stories based on their immediate interest, even titillation, rather than their real importance, let alone long-term impact. Its political “horse race” coverage is an egregious example. With so many underreported stories occurring worldwide, it ought to leave to its news summary (or to lesser media) day-to-day coverage of the candidates’ routine charges and countercharges, the contribution wars, and transient poll numbers.
Very few of these things have any lasting significance. They serve only to distract the public’s attention from what really matters. Unfortunately, PBS devotes nearly as much of its resources to this background noise as do less able media.
But PBS still has advantages in objectivity, quality of commentators, and analysis over any other television news source headquartered in America. So I watch it, just not as much as I used to.
Time MagazineLike The Economist, this venerable American medium benefits from being a weekly. That time frame gives its authors and editors time to think, verify their facts, and write coherent English with good organization. Although it contains a lot of fluff about cultural irrelevancies and current news, its lead stories are usually comprehensive, balanced and well written. When I want something resembling good analysis of current news, I look for a feature or lead story in Time.
ConclusionsThat’s about it. I had wanted to add Al Jazzeera—English (for unbiased news of Greater Arabia and the Islamic world) and Russia’s business newspaper Kommersant (I read Russian) to this list. But I can’t yet. Based on spotty past experience, I have no reason not to recommend them. I just haven’t had the time to give them a proper vetting.
As for the Internet, it is an open sewer. So is Twitter. On them you can find whatever thoughtless or invented bullshit pleases your prejudices. You can read that space aliens have taken over our planet, that the President is one of them (or just a mere foreign human), or that he is a Muslim, communist, socialist, fascist—or all of these things at the same time. Then you can e-mail or Tweet your friends to let them know it’s all true.
The problem is not variety. The problem is accuracy and reliability.
My generation had Walter Cronkite and his now-forgotten rivals (Huntley and Brinkley) to rely on. They spent their professional lives trying to get things right and make them simple. Today’s Internet generation has only themselves and their online “friends” to sift the garbage for rare nuggets of truth.
The opportunities for demagoguery and cultural perversion today are infinitely greater than ever before in human history. Unfortunately, most commercial media, including the NYT and WSJ, are complicit in exploiting those opportunities.
But somewhere out there, I trust, are youth who are just as interested in what is happening in the real world beyond their computer screens as I was at their age. It is to them this post is dedicated. No matter how earnest they are or how much debt they incur for their education, they will not succeed if what they “know” is lies.
Erratum: An earlier version of this post stated that the Wall Street Journal, unlike the New York Times, does not require a subscription to older stories. That statement is only partially true. The WSJ does not require a subscription to read editorials and essays, like this post, from which I gleaned Daniel Yergin’s generous estimate of “fracked” and other US natural-gas reserves. It does, however, require a subscription to read more than the lead of news stories like this one, which reports the crucial meeting in October 2008 in which Hank Paulson gave out $120 billion of the people’s money to bail out shaky banks.
The difference appears to be that the WSJ considers free availability of its editorials an opportunity to promote its party line of laissez-faire capitalism. In contrast, the NYT seems to consider its columnists as important assets and attractions to subscribers. I regret the error.
Footnote 1: As of July 3, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly had 193 member nations. We live in a big and complex world.
Footnote 2: I wrote this sentence before reading the “Special Report” on London in The Economist’s June 3 — July 6 issue. It’s hard to read that report without detecting exaggerated claims for the city, including the claim that it surpasses all others in Europe. In fact, the report goes far toward refuting the notion that any human culture is immune to triumphalism.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Brits who write for The Economist confine their triumphalism to their relatively small country with a relatively small global footprint. Anyway, that small bit of British triumphalism is a relief from the steady stream of domestic triumphalism in a time of self-evident domestic decline.