Sunday, January 8, 2017

Caveat Lector

"Let the reader beware" is especially important in this new age of McCarthyism, Trumpism and consolidated corporate-sponsored churnalism setting the agendas and formulating the group-think narratives.

Of course, discerning truth from lies, truth from truthiness, opinion from fact, fact from factoid and ad infinitum is difficult even in so-called normal times. We tend to seek information from sources that confirm our own biases. For example, if we want to be reassured that Trump voters really are a basket of deplorables, we look no further than Salon. If we're convinced that everybody in the government is out to get us, then Alex Jones's Infowars is manna from heaven (or should I say mannequins from outer space wearing tin foil helmets?) If we're comfortable trusting establishment figures and experts with credentials a mile long, we delve into the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and call it a news-consumption day.

Better yet, we read them all. We go outside our comfort zones, if only to find out what the alleged "opposition" is thinking and writing and imagining. I was particularly pleased last week when a reader left a comment on this blog stating that although she rarely agrees with me, she still reads my stuff. This is called having an open, curious mind.

It's healthy to be critical and discerning. As the motto on RT says: "question more."

And as Peter Van Buren writes in a Reuters op-ed, we need to go beyond this simple skepticism and learn the fine art of espionage.

Van Buren, a former State Department official who used to blog frequently at the Firedoglake (now Shadowproof) progressive site, says that given Donald Trump's paranoia and secretiveness about his shady business empire, journalists will probably have no choice but to rely on anonymous sources.

So how is one to judge? Van Buren writes,
Since an article’s unnamed sources are fully unknown to you as the reader, not every test applies, but thinking backwards from the information in front of you to who could be the source is a good start on forming a sense of how credible what you are being told might be.
For example, is a source in a position to know what they say they know, what intelligence officers call spotting? A story claiming bureaucrats are unhappy with the new president might be legitimately sourced from a contact in the human resources office of a large cabinet agency. But how many people’s opinions would that source be in a position to know, beyond cafeteria gossip? Tens out of a workforce of tens of thousands? So if the finished story reads “State Department officials are unhappy with the incoming administration,” how credible is such a broad statement? Is it news what a handful of people think?
One warning sign that an anonymous source has an ulterior motive other than whistleblowing in the public interest is if he or she purports to know the "why" of any given revelation, or claims to have knowledge of the inner workings of the target's mind. Always question the source's possible hidden agenda.

Reporting that something "might be true" or "we can't prove that this is not true" are also warning signs of propaganda or a planted story. So is what Van Buren calls "piggybacking" off an existing narrative. For example, just because Donald Trump took possession of a luxury hotel in Washington doesn't necessarily mean that all foreign guests are staying there for purposes of pay-to-play. Just because something is probably accurate doesn't mean that every potentate visiting Washington has a bag full of cash for Donald Trump hidden in his Louis Vuitton luggage.

Van Buren suggests that readers emulate the CIA and the FBI when they assess the possibility that Russia had hacked the Democratic Party's emails or otherwise interfered with our elections. Don't take officials' word for it that it's "stunning" or "shocking." Read the fine print. Rate each report with your own level of low, medium, or high confidence. 

In plain English, take everything with a grain of salt. This is especially true if the publication is funded by a political party, or more commonly, by a PAC or a think tank offshoot. I always try to find out if the reporters of thinly-sourced pieces which rely upon "officials granted anonymity to speak freely given the sensitivity of the issue" are themselves members or "fellows" of a ruling class or defense industry think tank.

David Sanger of the New York Times, for example, who has written many of the recent stories about Russian hacking, is affiliated with both the Council of Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute, an elite group of policy-makers and "thought leaders" focusing on US-Russia relations and national security. I always read his articles with the salt shaker close to hand.

The one quibble I have with Van Buren's piece is its failure to address the secrecy and propaganda and First Amendment assaults by the outgoing Obama administration. James Risen of the New York Times called the Democratic White House "the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation" after being hounded for years to betray the sourcing for his exposé on Deep State malfeasance.

In another case originating in the Obama justice department, Fox News reporter James Rosen was named a "co-conspirator" in a different leak investigation.

And it was Obama who instituted the Orwellian "Insider Threat" initiative which requires government employees to spy on one another, even to the point of reporting their colleagues' reading materials and extramarital affairs back to their superiors.

There's a precedent for Trumpism and the incoming president's threatened purges of various government agencies and his threats to reporters. Or as Donald himself might Tweet it, the ingrained assaults on press freedoms and the public's right to know are not "unpresidented."  

Each commander in chief has this annoying habit of always paying his evisceration of the Bill of Rights forward. They take care of their own. They euphemise it as "continuity of government."

Because if they were ever prosecuted for torture or obstruction of justice or lying us into a war, where would our exceptional nation be in the court of manufactured public opinion?


annenigma said...

Thanks, Karen. This is right up your alley.

There are also leaks and pseudoleaks. You can easily tell the difference because Obama cracks down heavily on real leaks/leakers but never on pseudoleaks.

Pearl said...

Karen: great analysis of what we face everyday in the medium trying to find a kernel of truth somewhere. Thank you for the translation.

I just surprisingly came upon an uninterrupted statement and appearance on CNN by Glenn Greenwald who mentioned that anything reported about Russian interference in U.S. affairs is possible.
But, that this is an ongoing game between countries and then proceeded to remind us of some major biased reports of U.S. Intelligence agencies from the past that resulted in chaos and eventually proven false. No one mentions this on the news. Perhaps CNN is remembering past history and becoming worried as one can only hope for.
Greenwald was the kernel of truth on CNN today.

Bill said...

Wonderful. Being lied to is why I stopped watching TV forty years ago. I'm down on lies. Whether they masquerade as capitalism or whether they're the weather on TV

Pearl said...

Trump's Tweets the Mutterings of a Madman by Heather Mallick, Toronto Star 1/07/17

annenigma said...

I started watching RT after cancelling cable some years back, although I don't watch it consistently. I get RT along with 40 other free channels over-the-air using a cheap, flat digital antenna. I wonder, how many cable companies include RT in their paid package? If it's included, so are another 200+ channels (or whatever it is nowadays), so why would the USG believe that RT is so singularly powerful and influential? Personally, I get all my information off the web and tv is just an entertaining sideshow.

Our Orwellian USG is trying to pull a fast one on us by claiming RT is such a dangerous propaganda tool. I was trying to figure out why the USG would assume that Americans who watch RT (how many could that be?), watch ONLY RT, making us vulnerable to Russian propaganda when it occurred to me that NO ONE watches ONLY RT! RT has extremely limited programming, and if you get RT, you also get dozens of other stations (as I do) or hundreds of others if it's included in a cable package. RT viewers could easily compare what we're getting in terms of news/opinions and assess the propaganda aspects, if any.

What they fear is that we'll learn to more easily recognize THEIR corporate-sponsored propaganda if we hear calm, thoughtful dissenting voices such as Chris Hedges on his RT show. Even PBS sounds a lot like propaganda in their news/opinion/interview programs. They now have many powerful corporate sponsors they didn't used to have, including Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and the Koch Foundation among others. They're in lockstep with the rest of the corporate media and you almost can hear the drumbeats.

Controlling the narrative, aka propaganda, means keeping the sheep herded for slaughter on the battlefields and sheared for taxes. War has been the lucrative business of our growing empire since WWII. It's "Humanity hanging from a cross of iron" as Eisenhower said. Question More, indeed.

In regard to getting varied news and opinions, in addition to many great sites from Karen's blogroll, I'd add:

-Drudge Report, a news aggregator which is always first to announce breaking news
-Washington Times, representing the conservative establishment
-Breitbart *gasp*

I also recommend checking out the interesting daily 'Links' on the Naked Capitalism website, in addition to the NC posts themselves.

Jay–Ottawa said...

For those of us too old to give up print and go full digital, I would add "Harper's Magazine" and the "London Review of Books." A sub to their print editions is needed to read the digital versions plus online extras like blogs and essays that don't make it into the print editions. "Harper's" archive goes all the way back to 1850, good for at least one or two citations for a high school student doing a term paper in history, politics or the humanities.

Despite the name, the LRB does not consist entirely of book reviews, nor is it strictly UK oriented. Without a subscription, the LRB lets you read one long form essay on line from the latest edition, after which they ask you to subscribe if you want more from the current edition or the archive.

As the say in Quebec, Bonne lecture.

Zee said...

For a cross-section of opinion and analysis, I like "RealClearPolitics."