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Making sense of the news in a new media world

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Years ago there was a criminal case where a crooked cop planted evidence against the suspect even though prosecutors already had a pretty tight case against him. One observer described the police officer’s actions as “framing a guilty man,” and I’ve found that to be a useful phrase from time to time since. Sometimes the case against someone or something is strong enough without embellishment, and piling on can actually have the opposite effect.

I actually thought that was the case back in 2008 when Sarah Palin was unable to name a newspaper she read. Sure it was fun to laugh at her when she answered “all of them,” but my reaction was: Hell, how would I answer that question? Twenty years ago I would have been able to, but the rise of the Internet (and the scaling back of newspaper coverage) has led to a situation where instead of subscribing to one source that aspires to give a full snapshot, I pick and choose individual stories from a multitude of sources.

I bring up Palin’s answer because I was reminded of it yet again last Saturday. I read a long article in the City Journal about California’s pension system, and another on the effects of incarceration in the Chicago Reporter. Both were far, far too long for inclusion in the newspaper I used to subscribe to, and in any event I don’t think any kind of syndication deal exists with either outlet.

The City Journal article showed up in the Naked Capitalism link roundup; the Chicago Reporter article showed up in my Twitter feed. I check in with the Stop Fracking Ohio page on Facebook several times a week for the latest there, I get several daily emails from different sources, RSS feeds that let me skim through headlines and just read the posts I want, and so on. In other words, just like Sarah Palin I would not be able to tell Katie Couric what newspapers I read.

That will only be reinforced if recent stories about newspaper consolidation into the hands of the wealthy represents a trend. I sure as hell won’t pay for a rag put out by the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch, and even if the buyer is someone I have a higher opinion of such as Warren Buffett, the concentration of newspapers into fewer and fewer individuals’ hands strikes me as problematic.

Lest anyone start concern trolling about the specter of epistemic closure, a well chosen group of sources offers just as many opportunities for encountering opposing voices as newspapers do. For instance, the City Journal is run by the Manhattan Institute – a notably right wing group. Just because I want to dodge the propaganda catapulted by a plutocrat’s house organ (or the regurgitated conservative talking points that the right wing in Washington has been disgorging for the last thirty years) doesn’t mean I refuse to consider contrary ideas. It just means I refuse to consider thoroughly debunked bullshit. That’s Paul Krugman’s job.

It can also mean piecing together stories from different sources and reviewing competing narratives. For instance, an outlet that uses a City Hall based model of reporting on a police sweep will highlight the police chief’s characterization:

“We called them in, and we gave them a simple message,” said Oakland Police Department Deputy Chief Eric Breshears. “The message was ‘Stop the violence, change your lives or law enforcement will relentlessly make all efforts to shut down or dismantle your gangs.’ Today was the follow through of that promise.”

Here, on the other hand, is the view from someone in the neighborhood:

Later this morning, a neighbor who lives next door to the raided house came over to help with a blue vacuum cleaner, a broom, and willing hands.

Sweeps of all kinds going on this morning in Oakland. Sweeps of all kinds.

One story leads with the Tough On Crime narrative while the other goes into some detail on what exactly that entails. Residents don’t seem nearly as well served in the latter.

Those of us with a keen interest in a particular issue are now able to assemble a fuller picture by analyzing accounts from different perspectives. For instance, there was a protest at a fracking waste storage site in southeastern Ohio a few weeks ago. There’s a local newspaper’s account of it, a pro fracking post that among other things called it “a terrorist action,” and an account from the group that staged it.1

As new sources for this kind of reporting and analysis multiply, people have the ability to weigh the merit of competing versions and decide for themselves what seems right. Sometimes there will not be a local media outlet to report stories. In cases where there is, the outlet might float above the fray as a kind of neutral arbiter; in others it will have its thumb on the scale.

(Bias is often revealed by how much coverage the outlet gives an issue, how prominent the coverage is, what views get represented in the coverage, and where those views are placed in the coverage. For instance, an industry friendly headline with a dissenting voice ten paragraphs in is not balance.)

In an environment like that a newspaper does not exist as a monolith. Many people who would once have been subscribers will increasingly turn to it only when it carries stories of interest. The rest of the time they will cobble together their information about what’s happening in the world from many new and nontraditional sources. What newspapers do you read? Who can tell anymore?


1. From the News And Sentinel article:

some of the protesters, many wearing masks, stormed the GreenHunter office, on Ohio 7 along the Ohio River, said Chief Deputy Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The facility serves as a storage site for the waste generated during the process of hydraulic fracturing. “They (took) some keys, tried to clog up some of the toilets, scared quite a bit of the employees,” said Warden.

From an activism perspective, wearing masks is a bit too close to black bloc for my comfort. If you aren’t willing to show your face while you protest you may want to think twice about the nature of that protest. Also: entering the office and confronting unsuspecting employees gets filed under Definitely Not Cool. And minor vandalism just discredits the action. That said, the office was soon vacated and apparently no worse for the wear:

Using the GreenHunter office as a sort of command center, GreenHunter employees would use binoculars to identify a culprit from the raid and police would travel across the road to where the group of protesters had eventually congregated in the front lawn of a local resident.

Still, direct action and civil disobedience need to be very well organized and disciplined. It looks like this one could have used quite a bit more of both, and the lack of it is precisely what gave opponents the opportunity to make the activists look like extremists. They could have disrupted business there and drawn attention to the proposed transport of toxic fracking waste via barge without giving the pro-fracking side the opening they did. Sloppiness like that is not helpful.

Image by mini-d under Creative Commons license

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