Consuming Media: Choosing and Cultivating Sources
A good friend of mine is going to be teaching a course on “Media & Society”. We’ve had a few interesting discussions on how to be a discerning consumer of information and how to build a stable of reliable sources.
As an avid follower of myriad topics, I’ve spent decades doing just this. As an avid writer on this blog, I’ve spent decades trying to create content that presents information in a way that doesn’t come to unwarranted or unreasonable conclusions.
YMMV, of course, but I’m assiduous about linking and citing sources, making it clear what’s a citation and whence and from whom I obtained it.
I’m not a journalist and I have no obligation to be so scrupulous, other than a strong interest in Enlightenment principles. That, and an overarching in interest in not being a hypocrite when I complain about how sloppy everyone else is in mixing facts and opinions into a slurry of useless noise.
If I can’t prove to myself why I ended up believing what I believe, then what’s the point of even writing it down? Why should anyone even read it? How does one even build a base of knowledge without … a base?
Perhaps it’s also a way of trying to do what I can to perhaps decrease the entropy of the maelstrom of quasi-intellectual chaos that is the Internet.
I’ve written down a few more thoughts about consuming media below.
You have to build a stable of known and reliable sources. They won’t always be reliable and they won’t be 100% on everything. They will change over time. They may go crazy. Weed out sources that no longer provide value. Trust individuals, not organizations. You’ll have to bootstrap at some point: incubate seemingly reliable sources—those that agree with what you already believe are those that end up on the initial list—and keep an eye on them.
Organizations vs. Individuals
Though it’s impossible not to have an opinion of an organization (e.g. mainstream, commercial sources like CNN or the NY Times, or a smaller, reader-supported magazine like CounterPunch), it’s much more useful to focus on individuals within—or who publish for—those organizations.
This is mostly because sources are generally quite large and often have motivations that conflict with reporting facts and deriving reasonable and comprehensible theories from them. That is, they purport to be reporting, but are not actually going to “analyze complex situations with some reasonable degree of detached accuracy.”
Organizations will have different reasons for publishing content:
- Selling Ads?
- A minimum of content to seem viable?
For many sources and individuals, the likely motive is a late-stage-capitalism amalgam of all of the above, having nothing at all to do with moving knowledge forward and having everything to do with drawing attention and profits.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t extract value from such sources, but that you should be aware of their purpose so you know how to treat the information they provide. Sometimes sources are very useful as a window into what the rest of the world or country is thinking.
Some sources are just terrible—pure swill from top to bottom—but most will have decent content sometimes. Keep an open mind about the source if the information seems to be on the level. You might learn something that you wouldn’t have had you not visited an alternate source.
To name a few examples, the site Antiwar.com publishes Andrew Napolitano and Patrick Buchanan, who both have some very troubling opinions, but who can both be very reasonable authors. I wouldn’t watch them on an interview show, but their written content is decent and often thought-provoking.
The site reason.com leans libertarian, but also has a stable of writers who are rational and reasonable, for the most part. Foreign Policy, the Economist, and so on—they all have some value. Even the NY Times can provide information although their faux-progressive/neo-liberal slant is more difficult to purge—it infuses everything they write. Even Fox News sometimes publishes factual articles, when they think no-one’s looking.
If you’re more wary of a source, then you should also be wary of material they publish from individuals you trust … their work has likely been edited to at least lean closer to the acceptable ideology of the source.
Different Styles and Intents
It’s also good to remember that shows and interviews will have different focuses:
- Is it meant to be serious news?
- Is it meant to be opinion?
- Is it reality TV?
- Is it “based on” TV?
Basically, are you reading or watching something that’s explicitly an opinion? Or does it purport to have journalistic character? The likelihood that it is slanted is the same, but it will affect how you view and consume and store the information in it.
- Do the people presenting the information have any qualifications related to the subject?
- Do they have any journalistic, scientific, or logical qualifications at all?
- Are they prepared to treat the material or interview subject seriously?
- Have they familiarized themselves with material relevant to the topic so that they can ask insightful questions?
- Or do they simply amplify knee-jerk reactions, perhaps ping-ponging with co-hosts? A show like The View is in this category, but so is something like Joe Rogan.
Be aware of the type of media and how it was produced and adjust your judgment and expectations accordingly. Remember that very few things are Freudian slips that show an individual’s true self, despite literally ever other thing they’ve ever said or written. Repeated slips, though, may indicate a true opinion.
- An essay in a major magazine is likely to have actually been edited from its original form.
- The title of an article has likely been changed from the original that the author suggested, especially on mainstream sources.
- For books, this is less the case, but still something to think about.
- Don’t judge too harshly for knee-jerk statements that seem at odds with a rational, cautious approach. E.g. I just heard Chuck Mertz from This is Hell! say to a guest that it was “good that he didn’t raise a prosecutor” when a guest mentioned that his daughter was a PD in Miami. Is it truly Chuck’s opinion that all prosecutors are monsters? Did his guest’s chuckling agreement express his actual opinion? Probably not. They were just bantering. Maybe they should have been more careful, but the ensuing discussion put the lie to the likelihood that either of them actually holds such an extreme position.
- Live interviews are not everyone’s thing. Some individuals are much more at home with more time to think about answers. They might agree with something an interview subject or interviewer says because that’s how interviews work. Just because they didn’t yell RACIST! immediately doesn’t mean that they agree with the other sentiment.
- If you’re reading an interview, was it live? Or it based on an email exchange? Email exchanges generally allow more time for thought and consideration before replying. If the interview was live, has the transcript been “edited for length and clarity”?
- Has the interview been edited? Was it edited to make the subject look better? Or worse?
- How scripted is the situation?
Evaluating an individual
The following questions and procedures apply to both new individuals and to individuals whom you’ve already evaluated and in whom you’ve perhaps placed a modicum of trust. There are standard tropes about “always remaining vigilant”, but you don’t have to overdo it. Once an individual has proven themselves, you can lower your guard a bit or you’ll both drive yourself crazy and also waste a lot of your time on unwarranted hyper-vigilance and suspicion.
Also remember that individuals exist over time. They may be quite interesting and rational for a time before they dive into a deep, dark place from which they never emerge. For example, David Cay Johnston is an excellent accountant/journalist and has written a lot about Trump’s finances that makes sense. However, he’s gone over the edge on Russiagate to an alarming degree and, even now, won’t acknowledge that not only is it dead in the water, but that it was a chimera from the very beginning. He’s totally invested in it and there’s no going back. This should perhaps make you a bit more wary about other things he’s written, but it doesn’t completely obviate it.
On the other hand, someone may start off their career unreasonably and then slowly grow—reëvaluating an individual means giving that individual another chance. Sometimes, you can leave it to another individual you trust to given that other person another chance.
Remember, thought, that it should take time to learn to trust an individual.
- Do they sound reasonable?
- Are they rational in their argumentation?
- Do they use valid reasoning techniques?
- Do they link references?
- Do the mix hyperbole with facts?
- Do they even cite facts?
- Have they published anything? A book? Essays? Are they just tweeting?
- Does what they write jibe with the reality you both experience?
- How consistent are they?
- Do they ever admit error?
- Are they reporting before anyone could know any facts? Or did they wait to see what the situation really is?
- Are they being careful about anecdotes vs. statistics?
- Do they sound reasonable in interviews?
- Are they writing about something that they might know about? (E.g. a classic example is journalists writing about countries they’ve never visited, whose languages and cultures they don’t know and whose histories they haven’t bothered to learn.)
- Are they able to discuss various topics with people who do not share (all of or any of) their views?
- How militant/viable are their proposed solutions? I.e. if the natural consequence of believing what they say is that we have to eradicate 30% of mankind, then they better be very convincing that there is no alternative
- To what degree might they be personally invested in promulgating the viewpoint that they have? It’s not that they they’re not allowed to make money from it, but does what they say seem to be primarily based on what their employers, their shareholders, or their donors seem to want them to say?
- Finally, does what they say gibe with other information you’ve curated?
Categorizing Individuals and Sources
It’s also important to help people distinguish where on a sliding scale to place individuals. Each individual gets a checklist. The checks they have determines whether you read, watch, or listen to them at all—and what you do with the information they provide.
- Strong writing
- Reliable facts
- Not obviously contradictory to reality
- Reliable reading of history
- Empathy to non-tribe members (E.g. seeing things from other countries’ or groups’ viewpoints)
- Holistic solutions (E.g. solutions and ideas are scalable and don’t require believing in artificial cohorts. For example, someone whose ideas only seem to work for millionaires isn’t a good source for society-level solutions because almost everyone will be disadvantaged, by definition. Similarly, anyone who militantly thinks that a certain race should be privileged above others suffers from the same deficit.)
I read and use information from people all along the scale, being careful who to cite or what to use it for. Some people are good to read to keep your finger on the pulse of the broad spectrum of what passes for thought in the intellectual desert of America.
What are bad reasons for accepting someone’s opinion?
- They’re good-looking.
- They flatter me.
- They have a sexy voice.
- They write wonderfully.
- They’re on the right network.
- They work for the right source.
- They’re gay.
- They’re female.
- They’re black.
- They have the right identity.
- They agree with me. (I.e. this can’t be the only reason you accept their opinion. You still have to fact-check and evaluate their reasoning.)
What are bad reasons for not listening to someone?
- They’re ugly.
- They annoy me.
- They have an annoying voice.
- They’re terrible writers. (There is a limit to this. If their writing is so bad that you can’t elicit the point or it puts the onus of information extrication purely on the reader, then you can ignore them and move on.)
- They’re on the wrong network.
- They work for the wrong source.
- They’re gay.
- They’re female.
- They’re black.
- They have the wrong identity.
- They disagree with me.
Reading Between the Lines
Sometimes information will make an effort to seem unbiased, but you still have to be careful. Sometimes the bias is in what is not said, or what is assumed by the writer or speaker. There is a lot of this in the mainstream media.
For example, the NY Times will rarely, if ever, even consider that there is any alternative to the neoliberal capitalism that the U.S. has adopted, despite ample evidence to the contrary in the rest of the world.
They also have an official enemies list: their journalistic standards for article targeting those enemies are negligible. That is, they will simply assume that everyone else also hates Russia without really asking any questions. The cartoon Whatever Happened to Basic Standards at Newspapers? by Ted Rall sums up the latest broadside against Russia:
“It’s just like the Ukraine story that failed to impeach Donald Trump. Anonymous sources tell major newspapers that second hand or thirdhand source is based in the intelligence community, which is tasked with lying, that Russia may be paying bounties to the Taliban in order to kill United States troops in occupied Afghanistan. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, but why pay attention to a story that has no evidence or sourcing?”
Honing Your Skills
Read stuff that you don’t agree with, as well. See if you can find writers who explain bad points-of-view eloquently or with rational argumentation. Train to figure out the hole in the argument.
A good practice with individuals you’ve got in your “stable” is to find a topic on which you disagree with them. Unless the topic is a true deal-breaker (e.g. they promote anthropophagy), you’ll probably want to keep listening to them but know that they are human, just like the rest of us, and will not always be rational or reasonable.
- Take someone whose writing or ideas you admire and find something that you would criticize about them (e.g. Chomsky’s lesser-evilism).
- Do the same for someone whose ideas you generally loathe (e.g. Trump’s squashing of the TPP or Betsy Devos’s realignment of Title IX enforcement with realistic notions of justice and due process).
Good ‘ol Correlation vs. Causation
A good number of people seem to know something about correlation and causation and are able to detect the coarser transgressions of failing to properly distinguish between them. As with nearly everything else, there are gradations, subtle variations that can trap you into believing that certain information leads inevitably to a given conclusion.
A good way to combat this trap is to constantly play devil’s advocate. Always ask whether there might be another reason than the one given to explain a particular event or fact or quote from an individual. Empathy is quite helpful in more easily finding alternative explanations. This will help you figure out how something can be technically true, but still misleading.
For example, looking at the data in early June, COVID cases in the U.S. are climbing, but deaths are proportionately decreasing.
- Conclusion: COVID is not as deadly as we thought. Proof?
- Conclusion: COVID death numbers are being suppressed. Too Harsh?
- Conclusion: COVID deaths are being counted differently. Getting there…
- Hypothesis: COVID deaths is not a very precise measure. Is there another number worth more? Excess mortality does the trick. If excess mortality is higher, then you have to account for why. COVID fills the bill as the only thing on the radar this year. So, if official COVID deaths are down, but pneumonia numbers are up 500% (see Florida), then you’ve found propaganda … someone is manipulating real data to lead you to a conclusion not supported by that data.
- Hypothesis: Mark Twain was right about statistics. There are many ways to group data. The U.S. is huge and taking averages over 330m people is not a good way of examining data about a disease the spreads in flare-ups. See the article The trillion dollar question: why are COVID cases increasing in the US. while deaths seem to be decreasing? The answer is simple: “Simpson’s paradox” by Gregory Bufithis, which warns that “If you pool data without regard to the underlying causality, you’ll get erroneous results.” and concludes that “[w]e are about to have dozens of NYCs around the country.”
You can use this trick with unemployment, inflation, financial news. The facts are often technically correct (e.g. the stock market did go up) but the conclusion is bogus (it was a reaction to recent job numbers).
It’s perfectly valid to accept facts from an author without accepting the conclusions they draw.
For example, in episode ~298~ The TRUTH About Epstein, & How Corporations Take Lives by Redacted Tonight on July 3rd, 2020 (from 2:00–08:30), Lee Camp discusses the Jeffrey Epstein documentary on Netflix. The documentary concedes that Epstein was a terrible person, but acts to keep you focused on his having been a bad apple, a local maximum—it covers up information at the same time it’s convinced you that is revealing information.
Camp goes on to discuss that the laser-like focus on Epstein’s badness covers up the further revelations that Epstein was working very closely with Israeli military intelligence and that his perversions were therefore very likely part of a scheme to amass blackmail data on high-level leaders from around the world.
That the mainstream media would focus on the more salacious and easily understood part is not surprising. That they would avoid discussing the possibility that America’s very close ally Israel was engaged in nefarious machinations to leverage power through blackmail is also not surprising. Is it true? Unknown. Is it plausible? Absolutely. One can’t dismiss it out of hand, especially considering the available information and sources.
In the next segment in the same show, Camp reports that PG&E has pled guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in the “Camp Fire Case” in California. Once again, the mainstream media claims that it’s the highest number of counts that a company has “copped to”. They reported the case and seem to be admonishing corporate America, but they’re actually protecting it by claiming it to be the “worst”, a bad apple, a local maximum.
In reality, there are giant corporations whose only reason for existence is to produce weapons that kill millions per year. That’s literally their job. Raytheon, McDonnel Douglass, Lockheed Martin, etc. Pharmaceutical companies started and continue the opioid epidemic, killing hundreds of thousands. DuPont made Napalm and Agent Orange. Union Carbide killed thousands in Bhopal. Chevron eradicated vast swaths of the rainforest, along with its denizens.
Companies pollute water and air all the time, killing millions per year. Many of these companies advertise relentlessly on American media, right alongside the news purporting to bring companies to justice. As Camp says, “it’s like having 60-second spots telling the nation what a great gardener John Wayne Gacy was.”
But PG&E has now seen some form of justice and they were the worst. The facts presented the case against PG&E are true, but the conclusion—that we’ve seen justice in any realistic way whatsoever and can now relax—is the propaganda.