China and its Discontents

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What’s Wrong with the Israel-Iran Nukes Story?

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The United States news media’s coverage of the possibility of Israel or the U.S. targeting Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program is not really about Iran; it is about us. Just as Herbert Gans noted that Vietnam was primarily a domestic news story in the 60’s and 70’s, the Iranian nuclear threat is also. (Gans, 37) Most recent news coverage has devolved into a few dominant narratives, representing different political factions. Different media outlets either report on or explicitly represent the factions, and they generally make arguments that have very little to do with the substantive evidence for or against the existence of Iran’s nuclear capability; rather, the news follows election year trends, the possibility of war as it relates to the Jewish population in the United States, and criticism of the political actors involved.

The first narrative, representing the contingent of neoconservatives who pushed for war with Iraq in 2003, also supports not only a limited tactical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but even a large-scale war. This perspective mainly shows up as representing the policy positions of the GOP presidential candidates or as the author’s view in opinion pieces. And then there is the narrative told by the traditional news sources such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most major news organizations were embarrassed by the general failure to “get it right” on Iraq a decade ago, when they almost uncritically accepted the administration’s arguments that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This time around, mainstream news is slightly more cautious in tone, but it still rarely publishes explicitly foreign-centric stories or stories with a serious consideration of the evidence on both sides, for and against Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons. The mainstream media much prefers to focus on the domestic political situation. Finally, there is the more liberal coverage, which often focuses on politics or criticisms of the neoconservatives for being so blithe about war.

Before one can even approach these narratives, one thing is glaringly clear: the news does not focus on the fact that the U.S. Intelligence Community still stands by its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that Iran continues to only enrich nuclear fuel, which could be used for a variety of peaceful purposes. This was reported on once in February by The New York Times, and scarcely appears in any of the related articles that I surveyed, either at the New York Times or at any other news organization. Much more common is the domestic political news story: “U.S. Backers of Israel Pressure Obama Over Policy on Iran.” This story is far more newsworthy. Why write about the intelligence community when you can report on Eric Cantor at the meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “We must stop following mirages in the Middle East and start following through on this reality: our mission in the Middle East is to drive our stake in the sand with our values—to proclaim our values rather than apologize for them.” If the news chose to highlight Senate testimony by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper saying that Iran is not building the bomb, the media would kill the most profitable and long-lasting angle by which to view a possible war with Iran. Political squabbles can extend on forever. The story will never end—according to Paul Begala (writing in The Daily Beast), war with Iran is one of the GOP’s biggest strengths going into this election year.

One factor complicating Israel’s and the United States’ decision to strike is the two countries’ on-and-off-again relationship. And it has become “a complication” in this otherwise calculating story of whether to strike Iran precisely because the media has made it so. President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have notoriously not gotten along—it is mentioned in almost every newspaper article where the two are discussed in tandem. And they are supposed to disagree: President Obama comes from the center-left party in the United States while Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party is partnered in a coalition government with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist and ultra-conservative Yisrael Beiteinu Party. But instead of focusing on the conflict between two governments based on legitimate policy differences, the media casts this as an acrimonious personal dispute between the two men. Why cast this as a story of, “If Mr. Obama trusted Mr. Netanyahu more, he might issue a more muscular statement of military threat to Iran…And if Mr. Netanyahu trusted Mr. Obama more, he would be less jumpy over every statement of caution emerging from Washington,” as so many stories do? Surely the entire diplomatic decision-making process does not rely solely on a pop-psychology assessment of the two.

And when the media cannot play up “Bibi” and Obama’s disagreements, they focus on how the President and every other mainstream politician must remain unswervingly loyal to the state of Israel. One might think that these are two contradictory narratives. But this oath of support to Israel is apparently the sole metric by which Jewish Americans decide who to vote for. Obama, even after clashing with Netanyahu over military action against Iran and even after denouncing the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, cannot completely rebuke Israel (when push came to shove, he did not even follow-through with support of a UN resolution officially rebuking Israel for the “illegal” settlements). For the Republican Party, “fealty” to Israel is a solemn vow. For the Democratic Party, “fealty” to Israel is (mostly) a solemn vow. At this past week’s AIPAC meeting, President Obama assured the attendees that he is behind Israel every step of the way: “So there should not be a shred of doubt by now — when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” In a blog post by Colum Lynch on, President Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is quoted as putting it in even more emotionally charged terms, relating her memories “as a 14 year-old tourist where she floated in the Dead Sea,” of a visit with then Senator Barack Obama where she touched the “charred long remnants of the rockets that Hamas continues to fire at the brave unyielding citizens of Sderot,” and of her favorite psalm, “’Hinei ma’tov u’ma-nayim, shevet ach-im gam ya-chad’ — or ‘how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood.’” Rice went even so far as to say: “Last October, when the Syrian regime’s ambassador, speaking in the Security Council, had the temerity — the chutzpah — to accuse the United States and Israel of being parties to genocide, I led our delegation in walking out.” (Ital added) How is this any different than when Obama delivers a sermon in a Black church speaking Ebonics? What is surprising about this whole episode is not just that Susan Rice quoted psalms in Hebrew that have an almost comically transparent political effect and chose to sprinkle in some Yiddish to play up the schtick—it is that the blogger, Lynch, not only thought to make a whole post revolve around that schtick but also to entitle it, “Has Susan Rice found her cojones moment?” And this happens in the media all the time. Do politicians say these things because they think the AIPAC attendees and the American Jewish population will simply accept it uncritically, that it won’t sound like pandering? And do journalists dutifully report these speeches because they don’t know any better? Or do they not want to make a fuss over a common political trope, so they pass it along with a nudge and a wink? Or did Lynch write that post because he actually supports these theatrics, and didn’t stop to think that his title might be misogynistic? It is hard to accept the last conclusion, but it is probably the most correct (perhaps a combination of the latter two).

But some in the media have commented on the absurdity of AIPAC and the reversal of Israel’s “client state” dynamic with the United States. Israel, after all, receives nearly three billion dollars annually in foreign aid from the United States. Why does the U.S. President, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and politicians of all political stripes have to speak in emotional terms of their undying loyalty to the state of Israel, when it is in fact Israel that needs us more than we need them? In his blog at The Atlantic’s website, James Fallows noted (speaking of the President’s AIPAC speech), “I can’t think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way.”

And in the latest issue of Washington Monthly, Paul Pillar makes the same meta-argument that this paper is making—that the rhetoric surrounding a possible war with Iran is not aligned with the evidence: “Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping…we find ourselves on the precipice of yet another such war—almost purely because the acceptable range of opinion on Iran has narrowed and ossified around the ‘sensible’ idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The media is an intentional accomplice to political actors who want to sensationalize impending war with Iran. The media is interested in GOP conflict with the President over Israel and Iran because it is a better story, a more relatable story to the American public. The media cares about and politicians pander to the Jewish-American population because they are a substantial portion of their readership and electorate, respectively. But the media also forgets the essential truth behind any future war with Iran, as articulated by the President in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: “[I]f people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they’re lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me — I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn’t mindful of the costs of war shouldn’t be here, because it’s serious business. These aren’t video games that we’re playing here.”

Multiperspectival News

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In his conclusion, Gans is annoyed by what are relatively common complaints against journalism: that journalists are prone to charges of distortion, that they don’t select the right facts, they don’t ask the right questions, and they don’t inform a lay audience in the right way. He also makes the point that these inherent problems with journalism arise because as Karl Mannheim said, “all knowledge is relational to the knower’s perspective.” Our perspective determines what facts we recognize, what questions we ask.

Gans’s solution to this, what he calls “Multiperspectival News,” is both an unworkable solution to an impossible-to-solve problem, and fully realized in the modern internet. Let’s start with the fully-realized bit. His described solution, and especially the “two-tier model” is the internet and modern media landscape. The internet consists of a multitude of heterogenous news outlets that “devote themselves primarily to reanalyzing and reinterpreting news gathered by the central media…adding their own commentary and backing these up with as much original reporting, particularly to supply bottom-up, representative, and service news…” (318) What Gans describes sounds like the blogs I read every day.

Modern media does of course fall short of Gans’s ideal: even though it is structurally similar, no outlet is really multiperspectival in the ways Gans wants them to be. And as I said before, I don’t think they can be. Gans briefly mentions my critique on page 311: you cannot add up every perspective together. If you try, you end up with nonsense and incoherence. As he says, “One cannot be a Marxist and a libertarian concurrently.” And we can’t each adopt only a single, pure perspective either. That is too limiting and not realistic to our life experiences. Instead, every person must synthesize, and this involves blending perspectives together. And once you do that, you automatically leave some things out of your perspective. That’s why no individual journalist can ever approach the ideal of “multiperspectival news”, and why collectively no journalistic organization will reach it either. We just have to live with this limitation; and we might do better for ourselves if we didn’t view it so much as a limitation, dropped the goal of “multiperspectival news”, and asked a different set of questions!

Written by Will

April 1st, 2012 at 6:42 pm

The Internet and Libel Law

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Should the internet be subjected to historical libel laws? Can they even be applied in the same ways? One of the biggest obstacles to applying libel law to the internet is anonymity. Of course many websites and blogs are attached to a specific name or organization, and even if they are not, the IP addresses of libelers can be identified. But certain software, such as TOR or VPN services, can conceal a user’s IP address. TOR isn’t just used for this purpose in Western countries–it’s also used by journalists and protestors in undemocratic countries to disseminate news. Furthermore, websites or internet service providers might not want to disclose their users’ IP addresses and even if served with a court order they might not be able to if they intentionally do not store that information.

Libel law seems out of place in the Wild Wild West of the Internet not just because “internet message boards are so filled with outrageous postings that no reasonable person would interpret such a posting as a true statement of fact.” (150) People online do not just commit mild negligence; they often intend actual malice. Social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter are prime examples of websites that could attract massive libel suits against its users, and yet the two are rather tame compared to other examples. 4chan is an infamous message board that is known for being crude, puerile, offensive, and at times libelous. One can also assume a large portion of 4chan users are underage. The internet, by disconnecting a person from their identity or any real-world consequences, frees some people from all inhibitions. The cost of publication is free and it’s anonymous–why not post it?

And yet the factors that make it difficult to sue for libel on the internet also add the greatest unique value to the internet. The internet has succeeded as a revolutionary technology precisely because the entry barrier is low and it is so easy to publish. While the internet has provided a platform to conspiracy theories and Obama birth-certificate claims that are most certainly published with actual malice, it has also turned the tables on the way information is distributed. With older forms of media, information is produced and consumed in one direction. With the internet, consumers become producers, and vice-versa. The average citizen is free to produce new creative works, remix old culture, and yes, libel his fellow citizens with abandon. If we “fixed” the internet so that every user had to conform to journalistic standards, we would destroy the essential characteristics of the internet that make it great.

Written by Will

April 1st, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Public Journalism vs. Ideologically-Committed Journalism

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Installment #2 of the journalism class blog posts.

You could not have a more bigger shift in tone between “The Idea of Public Journalism” and “The Death and Life of American Journalism.” I guess that’s what happened in the intervening ten years between the two books’ publication dates. Compared to the more optimistic takes on journalism’s future in “Public Journalism,” McChesney and Nichols paint a dire situation. Not only are the newspapers failing, but nothing will ever replace it absent state intervention (we’ll address that next week). The alternative is bleak, where PR firms dictate the content of every media outlet (one almost senses they would go even further to say PR firms will start dictating what we think, too). The corporations, the rich, and the status quo win.

Here’s the problem I have this argument: the authors blatantly argue for a press that supports their political preferences, without stopping to think of alternative rhetoric they could use. Wanting more partisan coverage is not necessarily bad. I, as a Democrat, would certainly like journalists to more positively cover Democrats and their policy preferences. But I know that that is an unrealistic expectation and probably not in the best interests of the country as a whole. Even if I think those policy preferences would be in the common good, I do not think we should design a press establishment that is biased in that way.

McChesney and Nichols, despite their protestations to the contrary, romanticize some standard of journalism that never actually existed. They hark back to the Framers of the Constitution to justify a “take-no-prisoners, speak-truth-to-power journalism that has as its end not a recreation of the old order of empowered elites and cowering masses but a new order in which the will of an informed and emboldened people shall be the law of the land.” (XXViii) Further, they want a press “that regard[s] the state secret as an assault to popular governance…” (2) Finally, they claim, “The business of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (8)

This is all a bunch of hogwash. This type of journalism, despite their claims to the contrary, has never existed, nor can it ever exist. Journalism has always been status quo, and nominally pro-government. I also don’t see how the United States could function without a commitment to political and religious pluralism. The truth is, the kinds of changes the authors want to see in American journalism are highly partisan. A large portion of the electorate does not have the same social justice sensibilities as the authors.

Any time anyone has attempted to create this sort of ideologically-committed journalism, it has descended into something that is not journalism: Fox News, most cable opinion shows, Media Matters, etc. These outlets may be socially useful–but they are definitely not journalistic outlets.

What kind of rhetoric could they use instead? I was a big fan of many of the articles from “Public Journalism.” In many of those articles, the authors referred to “convening communities” and “problem-solving.” This is the right way forward. It avoids the partisanship of “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” while still acknowledging failures in and proposing solutions to currently-practiced journalism.

Written by Will

April 1st, 2012 at 6:11 pm

What is News?

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I’m taking a class on journalism that requires us to blog (not a journalism class, but a class on journalism). So I thought I would put those posts here too. Readings from the class will be referenced (but don’t worry, the references are quoted and explained).

In asking, “What is news?” I was reminded of a question recently posed in the form of a blog post by Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times Ombudsman: “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” Should newspapers point out that X politician made Y and Z false statements? The obvious answer is yes (Jim Fallows at The Atlantic generally summed up my views). Fallows’ critique of the media is common today, and has been common for a long time: that many journalists engage in superficial “horse race reporting” (where facts are presented without context and meaning) and “false equivalence” (where two opposing truth claims are treated as equally plausible). This critique is even mentioned in one of the readings, “If you call to mind the topics which form the principal indictment by reformers against the press, you find they are subjects in which the newspaper occupies the position of the umpire in the unscored baseball game.” (Lippmann, 50)

Some of our readings make the opposite case. According to Halberstam, news is not about providing context or explanation: “News reports, on the other hand, need not be explanatory and those explanations which do appear in news account are often adscititious intrusions.” (Halberstam, 13) Halberstam’s definition of the news would seem to rule out a lot of important news. Financial reporting on the recession, for example, would be useless without context and explanation of the causes and actors involved in the crash. Similarly, Halberstam’s emphasis on events as news would rule out most news stories concerning global warming, or other long-term patterns that impact us in dramatic ways.

I know that personally, I would like to believe that journalists exist as the fourth estate, uncovering malfeasance and inserting themselves into the political process in a way that makes everyone else more informed and better citizens. This sort of reporting would require context and explanation of events and long-term patterns. Lippmann argues strenuously against this idealistic vision: “If the newspapers, then, are to be charged with the duty of translating the whole public life of mankind, so that every adult can arrive at an opinion on every moot topic, they fail, they are bound to fail, in any future one can conceive they will continue to fail.” (Lippmann, 117-118) That might be a straw-man argument. I don’t think that the media, by fulfilling its public purpose, will hand down the truth from on high to the masses. Every person makes autonomous judgments. Rather, news media should seek to make people better-informed citizens, regardless of the political conclusions those people make. After all, Morson’s example of the degraded conditions at the Ridge Home nursing center could lead someone to conclude the government should improve the center, or that the government should abolish the center.

Written by Will

January 24th, 2012 at 11:07 pm