Navigating the News Stream

Widen your news stream to get a better perspective.

I’ve been reading a book of essays that E. B. White wrote for the New Yorker magazine from 1926 to 1976. It’s a remarkable collection, not simply for the quality of its writing — Mr. White was one of the last century’s great literary stylists, whose writing largely shaped the magazine’s flavor — but for the insights he had regarding the world he was living in, and for the world it was shaping up to be.

news stream, compassOn September 11, 1948, he wrote about Presidential candidate Harry A. Wallace’s opinion of the press. “He keeps saying that you can’t learn the truth from the papers,” White wrote. “We agree. You can’t learn the truth from the papers. You can, however, buy at any newsstand a ten-cent assortment of biased and unbiased facts and fancies and reports and opinions, and from them you are allowed to try to assemble something that is a reasonable facsimile of the truth. And that’s the way we like it, too.”

Of course, the price of those papers nowadays will be more in the range of ten dollars than ten cents, and the number of daily newspapers has become vanishingly small, but we have sources of news from radio and television and the Internet that somewhat counterbalance that dearth. And they have the same range of bias. But the burden of assembling a reasonable facsimile of the truth still falls to us; as war is too important to be left to the generals, journalism is too important to be left to the pundits.

The difference between his era and ours, however, is that much of this news comes already filtered for us. For example, Facebook has identified me as of the liberal persuasion, and has tailored its feed to include mostly sources such as the Other 98%, Occupy Democrats, and the Resistance Report. (I should point out that I didn’t “friend” any of these services, but that doesn’t prevent them from popping up on my Facebook feed. I probably clicked on one of their links, and that brands me as a leftist.) Unless a friend specifically shares a post from a right-wing site, I’ll never see it, and never know that there was a difference of opinion on the matter. Similarly, I doubt if my friend sees anything that doesn’t support his own conservative viewpoint unless I send it to him. He lives in a world of Fox News, Breitbart, Red State and InfoWars. Is it any surprise that his view of the world differs so much from mine?

Earlier that same year, White published a column in which he described what he considered a disturbing trend. He quoted an article that appeared in Editor & Publisher:

San Francisco — Public opinion polls are scientific tools which should be used by newspapers to prevent editorial errors of judgment, Dr. Chilton Bush, head of the Division of Journalism at Stanford University, believes.

‘A publisher is smart to take a poll before he gets his neck out too far,’ he said. ‘Polls provide a better idea of acceptance of newspaper policies.’

Now I’m quoting Mr. White’s response:

We have read this statement half a dozen times, probably in the faint hope that Editor & Publisher might be misquoting Dr. Bush or that we had failed to understand him. But there it stands — a clear guide to the life of expediency, a simple formula for journalism by acceptance, a short essay on how to run a newspaper by saying only the words the public wants to hear said. It seems to us that Dr. Bush hands his students not a sword but a weather vane. Under such conditions, the fourth estate becomes a mere parody of the human intelligence, and had best be turned over to bright birds with split tongues or to monkeys who can make change.

It has taken close to seventy years, but we seem to be on the verge of the victory over journalism that White had envisioned. More than ever, we get our news from sources who do not wish to disturb our world-view. I’ll quote another writer, George Orwell, who said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” To which I might add another quote whose source I cannot trace: “Journalism consists of telling people nor what they want to hear but what they need to hear.”

So where should one go for news? For me, the best sources fall into three categories. First are those newspapers that have shown some degree of journalistic integrity, such as the New York Times or England’s Guardian. In my area, I have the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, which routinely win awards for investigative reporting. Conservatives may dismiss them as “liberal” publications, which they probably deserve in some measure, because editors tend to be more liberal than their readership. But they print other viewpoints than those of their editorial staff, and invite comment on their articles.

The best thing about these sources is the diversity of their subject matter. My mother used to tell me that she made a point of reading the first two paragraphs of any news article in the newspaper, whether the subject interested her or not. (I presume that this did not include the sports pages.) She said that it gave her some insight into what other people consider important enough to report on. I can’t say that I’ve followed that regimen, but I do try to read every headline.

The second family of sources consists of magazines that do in-depth articles on current events. Of these, the New Yorker magazine is most valuable to me, because I trust their fact checking and their ability to cover a story in ways that newspapers, television and radio cannot. If it takes them ten pages to get the full story out in a way that makes sense, that’s what they’ll use. (They once gave an entire issue to printing John Hersey’s book Hiroshima in full, rather than condensing or serializing it.) And any public library worth its salt has a subscription, although I subscribe as a way of keeping them in business. Mother Jones is another such magazine; while they have never tried to hide their progressive agenda, their stories are well researched and have stood up to the worst that their adversaries have thrown at them.

The third source is from independent, non-sponsored radio, which includes National Public Radio and Democracy Now. These agencies get almost all their funding from contributions of their member stations, which in turn depend on support from you and me and a few corporations willing to give them grants. They don’t look for commercial revenue to subsidize their news-gathering staff, which allows them to go where the story leads them.

Which brings me to a final point: in news as in anything else, you get what you pay for. If you’re not paying for it, somebody else is, and they’re telling what they want you to know, which all too often is not what you need to know. That goes for local newspapers, too, if they’re serious about reportage. You can usually gauge their commitment to journalism by noting which ones have their own reporters, and which ones simply print press releases and articles off the news service feeds.

I see the information-screening process as a form of navigation. Pilots will tell you that a single beacon is next to useless, because you only get limited information from it: its direction from you, and possibly its distance from you. To get a more accurate fix on your location, you need at least two beacons, widely spaced apart. For maximum accuracy, you need three beacons, so that you can use triangulation to determine where you are. News sources are your beacons; too few of them, spaced too closely together, will not get you where you need to go.

So read as much as you can, from as many different viewpoints as you can. Subscribe to newspapers and magazines, so they have the revenue to continue to report the news. Check your facts with sites like Wikipedia, Snopes, and Politifact. and give them your financial support as well as your patronage. Do the same for NPR and Democracy Now, because they can’t do their jobs without your money.

And here’s the hardest one: go out of your way to talk with people who disagree with you, and find out what your common interests and goals are. I remember folksinger/activist Pete Seeger’s response to somebody who asked him if he subscribed to the Daily Worker, the U.S. Communist Party’s paper. “Yes, I do,” he said. “And I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. And what I would like to do someday is get the editors of both publications in the same room, and start a discussion.”

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