Withering news



Journalism’s savior or killer? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg/Wikimedia Commons

What a spooky week for news about news.

First comes the Friday announcement that Facebook will launch a new headline-news site to push “deeply-reported and well-sourced” journalism from credible news organizations.

Who could disagree with such a noble idea?

Not long after followed the revelation that the conservative website Breitbart was to be among the news organizations in the “deeply reported and well-sourced” pool along with The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and lots of other traditional, mainstream media.

That touched off a firestorm.

CNN business analyst Oliver Darcy called the Facebook decision “baffling” on Saturday and reported that “CNN Business reached out to some experts in the journalism field to ask them what they thought of Facebook’s decision. None were supportive.”

Columnist Kyle Smith hit back in The Nation two days later in a story headlined “CNN Is Not So Different from Breitbart.”

“Almost everything Brietbart presents is the truth, or at least arguably the truth,” he wrote. “The problem with Breitbart is that it is tendentious, partisan, and biased, relentlessly propagandistic for its side and less interested in the pursuit of truth than in scoring points,” he wrote.

“So is CNN.

“Breitbart plays up true information that advances its worldview while downplaying or pushing back against true information it sees as damaging to its cause.

“So does CNN.”

Smith went on in that vein at length.

Minority view

By the middle of this week, Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi was observing that the media has now fractured so badly that journalists can’t even agree on the rules for reporting.

His focus, however, was not on Facebook but dead terrorist Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, the one-time leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIS as it is otherwise and better known.

“Two sets of headlines over the weekend described the suicide of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” he wrote. “From the Washington Post Sunday morning:

“‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48

“The Post has since rewritten that, though the description of an ‘austere religious scholar with wire-rimmed glasses’ remains in the lead paragraph. Meanwhile, the headline on

“‘Al-Baghdadi kill: how the daring military operation went down’

“The Post headline would fit a quiet academic who died in his sleep, not a genocidal jihadist leader. The Fox headline is less nuts, but still not quite right: al-Baghdadi wasn’t killed but reportedly committed suicide, while pursued by American ‘military dogs.'”

Taibbi’s commentary was headlined simply “Baghdadi Story Reveals Divided — and Broken — News Media

“If you have two sets of news media, you have none”

Taibbi has been one of those old-school journalists unwilling to accept the idea that a liberal media focusing on revealing conservative corruption and a conservative media concentrating on outing liberal corruption spells better journalism.

“From Fox to the New York Timesall of the major commercial outlets this weekend were more consumed with telling audiences who benefited politically from the al-Baghdadi mission, than getting the facts about that mission out,” he wrote.

“This ought to have been a moment to reflect on what’s happened in the last twenty years, and if our policies across multiple administrations have been the right ones. Would we even be launching operations against such a person if we hadn’t invaded Iraq all those years ago? What’s the endgame? What do the people of the region think?

“All of this has been subsumed to the only story left that matters in the United States – who’s winning Twitter at any given moment, Trumpers or anti-Trumpers? News outlets are now so committed to pushing one or the other narrative that they are falling prey to absurdities like the Post’s ‘austere cleric’ headline.

“If papers are going to go this far in an obituary to avoid even the implication of a favorable Trump narrative, how are audiences supposed to trust reporting on super-charged partisan stories like impeachment? There’s more to life, and to the news, than what is or isn’t good for Donald Trump. Can’t we at least get a day or two of facts before we fight over whom they favor?”

The answer to that question is easy: “No.”

Modern journalism has found religion. The Catholics and the Protestants are having at it, and they’re only few explosive devices short of turning the whole news business into Northern Ireland.

Slant, slant and more slant

“Appropriately, many Americans used to roll their eyes at the brazen pettiness of Fox News. During the Obama years, the network seemed constitutionally incapable of reporting positive news of any kind, or even dealing with anodyne developments rationally,” Taibbi wrote. “‘This is proof he’s a Marxist,’ was a famed Fox line about Obama’s decision to wear a tan suit.

“Trump is inspiring similar insanity now with Fox’s opposites at the Times, Post, CNN, MSNBC, etc. I’m no fan of Trump either, but this has gotten to the point where there’s no longer any place to go, if you’re looking for unslanted first-draft takes on news.”

Granted, the news has always been plagued to some extent by subjectivity, for lack of a better word, as Taibbi admits. Journalists are human. None of them (this writer included) can ever be wholly objective because that is impossible for intelligent people, and it doesn’t really work to have morons report the news.

A collection of random facts is nothing but a collection of random facts. It takes a certain amount of intelligence and skill to identify the important facts and craft them into a news story. Sadly, this appears to be on its way to becoming a lost art.

Opinions have become so much more marketable than facts that they now shape the story before it even gets reported.

In Alaska, the Anchorage Daily News (ADN), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting that Alaska Natives are in “peril” because they drink too much, is trying to win another Pulitzer by reporting Alaska Natives are now suffering in “lawless” villages because there isn’t enough law enforcement, as if serious crime is an inherent problem in small communities.

Traditionally, it wasn’t, though that is changing.

“The violent crime rate in rural areas…has climbed above the national average for the first time in 10 years,” Governing magazine reported in July of last year.

Reporting 101

The reportorial thing to do when this happens is to ask “why?” It is a specifically significant question given that police don’t really stop crime. Just ask the inner-city residents of St. Louis or Baltimore or Chicago. They’ll tell you what law enforcement does:

It arrives to pick up the bodies and, in the best case, investigate.

It takes a community to clean up crime. Why this isn’t happening in rural Alaska is a question that needs to be asked. But journalism is less and less about asking questions to try to find out what has gone on and more about trying to dictate what goes on – see The Guardian and its climate-change agenda.

The ADN is unlikely to win a Pulitizer for discovering a rural Alaska with problems similar to those in other rural parts of the country.

The explanations for the new, rural crime wave “are familiar ones,” Alan Greenblatt wrote at Governing. “Not all rural areas are poor, but many have lost jobs as factories have closed and farming has become increasingly consolidated. Lack of employment has naturally led to increases in poverty, which is closely associated with crime. The opioid epidemic has hit rural America particularly hard, and methamphetamine remains a major problem in many small towns.”

Rural America now has some of the same problems as inner-city America. Rural Alaska has long appeared to have some of the same problems as inner-city America, and the ADN has known for decades this warranted investigation.

When the newspaper was reporting its Pulitzer-winning “People in Peril” series 30 years ago, one-time city editor and later well-known columnist Mike Doogan pointed out the lack of jobs in rural Alaska. The economics story, it was decided at that time, was too “complicated” to report, but the newspaper would one day get to it.

Instead of getting to it in 2019, the ADN  went back to the future in the even more agenda-driven journalism world of today. The state’s long-running war on alcohol in rural Alsaka, an idea backed by the newspaper, having failed to solve problems in the villages, the new journalistic goal is to put a cop in every village.

Is the lack of law enforcement really why people in rural Alaska are unhappy and acting out? And if the solution is to put a cop in every village, what happens if it fails? What next? A call for a cop in every home?


Less and less of the business of journalism today is about finding out how and why things are messed up. More and more of the business of journalism today is about trying to direct how things should be tomorrow based on one’s political views.

Journalism has done got religion.
























16 replies »

  1. Any “newsman” left standing in the current media vacuum of political propaganda is careful to pick their stories so as to not ruffle the feathers of the mainstream “establishment”.
    Anyone who dares to challenge the corporate capitalist military industrialized complex is quickly chastised and many times prosecuted just like Jullian Assange and Chelsea Manning.
    Max Blumenthal is the latest casualty in Trump’s current war on the press.

    “Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal, a prominent journalistic critic of US policy toward Venezuela,  was arrested by DC police on Friday, October 25, in connection with a protest at the Venezuelan embassy, and held incommunicado.
    But if you rely on corporate media, or even leading “press freedom” groups, you haven’t heard about this troubling encroachment on freedom of the press.”

    • Steve,

      I have to admit you threw me for a loop on that one. Usually you use the propaganda wing of the Venezuelan government, Telesur, when you spread their talking points. Good on you for mixing it up.

    • Wow Steve S!!! You really threw me on this one:
      “Trump’s current war on the press”.
      Where ya been the last 4yrs ole boy? The current “press” needs to be stomped out. Hope Trump crushes them. I know I am doing my part against those anti-American commies.

  2. If we are banking on facebook, twitter, yahoo, and whatever other social media sources for our news information then we are damned.

    We are damned.

    • Steve O,

      Although the major social media operations are a worry, it has predictably proven to be harder to rub-out contrarian voices than the salesmen of such policies painted it. [Their allies eg thought they would clip Trump’s wings this way.]

      Plus, there are tons of smaller outlets, and putting up one’s own outlet becomes … more effective, all the time. [Websites are like snowmobiles. Once up a time they were simple, small and cheap. Today they are really awesome … but they’re a big investment (both $$ or sweat legal tender).]

      What do you think of Mark Zuckerberg making a place for Breitbart?

      • Ted,

        I don’t think much about Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook. I don’t read Facebook or Breitbart. If Mark wants to allow certain websites on his platform to pretend he is impartial then that’s on him, I’m sure the lefty Facebook patrol is falling all over themselves that Mark is doing so.

      • Steve O,

        I’ve never had an account with Facebook or any other social media, and don’t look at them.

        They’re the dominant thing on the Internet, though. I also never signed up for either the Democratic or the Republican Party … but yeah I do keep track. I read Breitbart … and WaPo, NYT, etc.

        Zuckerberg allowing Breitbart is a big departure. He’s up to something (and it isn’t cheap, since his own leftie workforce is in Derangement mode over it). What’s up? Did Trump offer him a deal he couldn’t refuse? Does he see an opening here, to pull ahead of his competitors (as they’re mired in own-goal self-defacement)?

  3. Craig , you hit on some of the most important topics of our current time . Few could do them justice. You are one of the rare few . I wonder if readers are keeping pace with your writing-thoughts? I hope you have time to start teaching younger journalists . Especially if Alaska has a university class for journalism. Our founders made good protections for the press for good reasons. Sadly a large percentage of media outlets are not living up to the first rule of freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Rural Alaska could use a good investigative journalist like you to get to bottom of what’s causing social decay within Alaska’s bush then perhaps other parts of the nation as well . Keep up the good work.

  4. Americans are bombarded with propaganda these days…social media, tv, radio, magazines, newspapers, email providers, unsolicited text messages on our phones, etc.
    I checked my email today and Yahoo’s top story was about the new “Burger Wars”.
    As plant based diets gain traction in America, the corporate agricultural industry will pay “news writers” to push the meat industry’s agenda.
    This is no different from any other liberal vs. conservative arguments these days which seem to fill the vacuum that was once occupied by the “news”.

    “Call it the all-out battle of the burger…

    With vegan foods surging into the mainstream — the U.S. plant-based food space grew 11 percent between 2018 and 2019 to $4.5 billion — pushback has grown among those who oppose the shift.”

    • Steve Stine,

      #1. Veggie burgers are tasty, but any implication that rising sales point to rising veggie-vegan lifestyles is another propaganda bombardment. Even beef-consumption is holding steady, and other meats are climbing. Veggie burgers are basically another case of Doritos and Cheetos … novelties.

      #2. Eating too much remains the chief problem. Both health & ethics-wise, this is where the real opportunity lies. So if meat sales do taper off, it’s because folks are eating it more sensibly, not adopting the vegan creed.

      #3. PETA’s quixotic hostility to the no-kill shelter movement is clobbering both their core-reputation, and their meatless diet message. It’s a fascinating own-goal hit, and if they keep it up PETA could go the way of other fads.

  5. Matt Taibbi’s “we are in a permanent coup” article is worth reading.

    Re: Rural Alaska – the gift that keeps on giving for the social services sector. It occurs to me that people have fewer problems when their lives have some meaning. Rural AK used to be less of a cash economy where men provided food and materials. Women raised children, made food and clothing. Now rural AK is mostly cash but jobs are few. Jobs are few but money shows up on the card. Throw in media and substance abuse and you have the mess we are in. On a net basis, religion might make things less bad, but most of the money (which comes from government) is not supportive.

    • Erak, DEPENDENT is the word you are looking for.. All by design. Think about it, today people are lazy by nature. They just want their cellphone and to be left alone with it. Promise them free stuff for a vote and you will get it. Make them dependent and you will get a lifetime of votes. All about dangling just enough carrots in front of your face. Not enough to fill you, just enough to feed the hunger. If I take everything from you, you will no longer be my slave.

      • “Promise them free stuff for a vote and you will get it.”

        Sounds a lot like last November in Alaska…

  6. Journalism has done got religion.

    It sticks in folks’ craw, that Press and Speech are 2nd-rate Guarantees. But it’s true.

    The First Amendment is first in the Bill of Rights, aka the first 10 amendments, because it addresses the most important matters.

    Within the First are several discrete matters, and they too are arranged in order of importance.

    Religion has priority over Press & Speech. It’s not a formatting-artifact.

    Reporters & journalists shouldn’t feel too pregnant, or put-upon. Environmentalism beat the Press to becoming religious, and they’re a lot deeper into it. PETA pose as Rights-advocates, but they’re just a (Fundamentalist) Eco-church. They’re the American version of Indian Sacred Cow worshipers.

    The Left took on Guns first, because they thought Religion was down for the count. It took a helluva blow and went down hard, alright, in the 1960s. A serious transition had taken place in society; pews were evacuated like someone was spewing Ebola from every orifice.

    Others certainly knew better. History tells us, even from the strictly secular viewpoint, not to count religion out. Closer familiarity with religious/church dynamics counsels against any premature burial.

    But the key operational malfunction is pretty clear. Even the left-lite believed in Nurture Over Nature. It was a matter of Faith. Partially it was inherited from the Humanism School, which in the same Transition had been dethroned by Science. It had taken a century for that to happen, following Darwin … as had the Churches’ loss of social dominance.

    Societal Institutions badly need to think they aren’t fooling themselves, in term of what can (and can’t) be done with the human animal. By embracing Nurture, they could convince themselves that people could be the way they wished they were.

    Specifically, non-religious. That if you can raise a generation of kids without religious dogma getting to them first … they won’t go there. But in fact, yeah they will.

    And it started happening within the Left itself, quite early. You see, religion is an expression of human nature. It’s hardwired in & ain’t going anywhere. Nurture is good stuff, and very valuable … but it’s trumped by Nature.

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