How to Follow the News Intelligently

Philip Coates published the following on the OWL discussion forum. It’s one of the best commentaries I’ve seen on the subject of how to critically absorb the information handed down by the mass media.

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Every few years, I break my rule about not following the news week in and week out (repetitious, lame, stupid, biased, non-essential) and follow an entire current event with complete thoroughness until it winds down.
I do this when it seems to tell me something about the culture or when something which could affect my life is at issue.
I did this with the OJ trial because I was interested in the philosophy of law and how the legal process works. I did this for similar reasons with the ‘Florida battle’ over whether Bush or Gore won fairly in that state. Today I did it one more time with Condoleeza Rice’s testimony before the 9-11 Commission on whether or not the Bush Administration did enough about terrorism prior to 9-11 and whether they could have prevented it or were warned about it.

There were few bias issues in the first of these three events because the political and ideological issues were not as heightened or polarized or emotional. (Liberal and conservative journalists and intellectuals who followed the legal proceedings agreed OJ was guilty.)
There was nothing but bias in the presentation of the last two (so far in the last case):
It has now become part of current conventional wisdom (and threatens to enter the history books) that Bush gained the Florida vote and thus the Presidency unfairly with the aid of a partisan U.S. Supreme Court. They stole a Presidential election.
As someone who followed the matter in great detail it was clear beyond a doubt that what really happened was that a partisan Florida Supreme Court had been repeatedly throwing out and recounting the Florida vote each time Gore lost. And what the U.S. Supreme Court did was put a stop to it after there had already been a remedial recount process. (It was the Florida S.C. which had tried to steal the election.)
This is never discussed by the liberal press or by college professors or magazine writers or mainstream academics and historians. And was not at the time.
In today’s testimony, Rice made a number of very good points: most of the danger warnings pointed to an attack overseas, no danger warnings of attacks in the U.S. gave any specific people or place or time that could be acted on to prevent it.
But by the time it made the evening news (I watched two of them–both ABC and CBS twisted it in the same way), only the pointed questions she was asked were broadcast and none of her good answers. The whole thing was slanted to make her look like an idiot. And to unfairly edit, sensationalize, and misrepresent what I actually saw on television. I had watched all three hours.
What is the point of all this? It is epistemological for us as information consumers:
i) In today’s world, there is a strong and constant liberal to left to nihilist to anti-American bias in most of the news, magazines, universities. It is not just on the level of ideology. It infects the level of everyday facts you take for granted (Gore won Florida, the Bush Administration was warned about 9-11, most Iraqis hate us, global warming has started.)
ii) The bias and ingestion of junk and wrong facts started in college (with your history courses, for example.)
iii) You are irresponsible as a thinker about the world if you do not take steps to filter these out (including retroactively as time permits).
iv) It’s not just about philosophy. You have to take responsibility for what you know on every level.
Having the right political and economic philosophy doesn’t protect you from being a patsy and spouting lies someone planted into your head (perhaps years or decades ago when you were a feckless college student and a relatively immature logician or critic).
If some Rothbardo-lefto-Chomsky-crazy claims that the U.S. is the greatest imperialist threat and has plans for world conquest and gives a half dozen bizarre school of America-black helicopter-manipulating Latin American democracies-genocide in Vietnam arguments, you have to be skeptical enough to know what constitutes an arbitrary claim and to seek out the evidence before giving it any credence whatsoever.
And then you have to be able to read what you find with your b.s. filter firmly in place and your red pencil in your hand.
And, most important, you have to seek out the other side on complex factual or detailed issues. Would you hand in a verdict in a trial after only having heard the prosecution? “Okay. I’m convinced.I don’t have to listen to the defense.”
Here’s an example of how to protect yourself epistemologically (currently):
i) I had stopped reading the conservatives. I started again with the war on terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq–where they really are saying something different and pointing out facts and issues completely overlooked by the establishment intellectuals. And the facts and details about the new world conflict, the cultures, the nature of Islam, the enemies, foreign policy details are highly complex. And (as I implied above) you just can’t trust the establishment press on anything on which the reporters and writers have strong emotions or positions.
ii) Example on the war or on terrorism: My routine now is to read the NYT online (the fountainhead of the establishment left ‘line’, which will be repeated the next night in dozens of other television news programs or newspapers and will become the conventional wisdom — as did its position on Florida). Then I surf the web over to one of the best writers on the other side: Andrew Sullivan or Charles Krauthammer or Victor Davis Hanson or someone else on NRO.
iii) Whether you are pro-Iraq war or anti-Iraq war, what you will find is how the same factual events can so often be seen utterly differently. That in itself will sensitize you to how many facts and details you were taking for granted before you followed both sides. (There is not a fraction as much difference between the left and right perspectives on the welfare state as there are on issues of defense and war.)
iv) If you haven’t read someone like Bernard Lewis or his equivalent on the Middle East and Islam and the goals of the new terrorists, I don’t think you will be able to interpret the facts. You can’t rationalistically deduce what these particular adversaries are after and what would end the threat of American cities being bombed from pure philosophy.
You have to learn some detailed information about them.
Sorry about that.
–Philip Coates
P.S., Even though I have mentioned two occasions in this post in which the establishment has twisted the facts unfairly against the Bushies, that doesn’t change the fact that Bush is a bad President as far as domestic affairs, the size of government, religious-nutism and most other issues are concerned. Again, this post is about epistemology (bias detection) … not about politics.