Newsflash: The News Sucks

Politics by Adam on 2005-12-15 04:10

Recently a friend wrote me to say he wanted to get involved politically, but didn’t know where to start. In particular he asked: “Can you recommend some reliable, truthful (as can be anyway) sources to get acquainted with current events, issues, etc?”

Now that is one hell of a question.

Truth?

The concept of “truth” when it comes to politics is a very slippery one. Unlike most other topics of serious study, politics is really all about opinion. So any information source that I (or anyone) might recommend would tend to reflect my (their) own views. There is really no such thing as “unbiased” information about current public policy, because we are simply too close to it all. This myopic view is all we’ve got, but it doesn’t offer the kind of big-picture perspective that grants true wisdom. So, the best you can hope for in a source of current events news is to know the bias of the source up front. Then you can take into account when considering the information it provides.

To counterpoint that a little bit, I do believe strongly that, although scientific method can’t be applied to politics itself, it can be used to provide supporting data. That is to say, once you have decided on a political goal, you can use data from different fields of study to determine how best to achieve that goal.

I’ll illustrate with an example that just happens to be one of my own hot-button issues: the War on Drugs. The political goal here is “reduce drug abuse, especially among young people.” The approach for most of the last century has been criminalization (prohibition with strict penalties) combined with aggressive anti-recreational drug use marketing campaigns. Since these policies have been in place for some time, we can examine data to confirm or deny their relative effectiveness. For example: polls which have been collected over the years showing general trends in recreational drug use and abuse, availability and purity of prohibited substances on the black market, and even opinions and attitudes of both teens and adults towards prohibited substances.

Most of this data seems to indicate that the prohibition + anti-drug marketing approach has actually increased use of recreational drugs, especially among teenagers, and had little effect one way or the other on abuse. In the meantime it has produced many negative side effects including health issues, damaged or destroyed lives, distrust of government among youth, and vast enforcement costs. I can rant for hours on this subject, though, so I’ll close this example for now.

Who me, digress?

Anyway, returning to the original question: I formed my own views based more on the reading of history than on analysis of current events. History provides us with a perspective that we cannot have on events in our own time. History gives us the opportunity to spectate on long-term trends and effects of public policy, with a distant, dispassionate, big-picture view. Hindsight is 20/20, and history is our chance to make use of that. It allows the formation of a more cogent and pragmatic understanding of what works and what doesn’t, than does a perspective that is necessarily fenced in by its own time and culture.

Although many works influenced my eventual outlook, if I had to name one I would pick The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes. Like anything, a history book will reflect the bias of its author, and this one is no exception. But a good historian will present known facts and analyze from as many perspectives as possible. This book achieves that well, and eventually I drew conclusions from the material presented that varied quite a bit from the author’s own analysis.

For current events, the bias is always going to be enormous. The author of a news or commentary piece simply does not have the long-term view that retrospect provides. So everything is always viewed through their own lens. With that in mind, however, I will recommend the following magazines within the context of their respective viewpoints:

Mother Jones (progressive/liberal)
National Review (conservative)
Reason (liberatian/classical liberal)

When reading each of these news sources, you have to keep in mind the bias:

You can see the lenses of these three worldviews in effect when you look at a recent major news item like Hurricane Katrina. The responses can be summarized sort of like this:

Liberal: “We need more government programs, more government spending, to provide relief to those harmed by the hurricane!”

Conservative: “That’s what they get for decided to live on a below sea-level swamp. Maybe God is punishing them for Burboun St.”

Reason: “Government needs to get out of the way of the many private individuals and organizations who are trying to provide relief.”

There’s some truth to all of these, of course. The trick is trying to both take into account and also look past the worldview which frames the information.

If I did have to name some relatively “balanced” sources, I would suggest The Week, which also has the uncommon advantage of being a very short, weekly publication that makes it feasible to stay on top of current events with only 30 minutes or so of reading per week. They make an effort to include clips from many sources which produces a fairly balanced result.

For online sources, you might try Kurohin (pronounced “kuroshin”), which is a blog with many contributors so the views represented tend to be diverse. Hence any given article may not be balanced, but overall you’ll get a fair mix of views.

Of course I have to mention Wiki News, a sister project to the marvel that is Wikipedia. Although it is not quite as mature, in theory Wiki News will give you Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy on current events reporting.

Ultimately, though, I tend to avoid current events reporting. I feel that the media spends way too much time on catastrophe (”Five killed in landslide” is news, “Ten thousand healthy babies born today” is not). When it’s not that, then it is the same stupid shit over and over (Michael Jackson this, Bush that…*yawn*). There are lots of interesting things going on in the world, and substantive debates about public policy questions that really do need to be answered. Unfortunately that sort of thing gets hardly any time from most major news sources.

How will emerging technologies change our world? How will the next generation be educated? How can we learn from the lessons of the past to create a better tomorrow? Those are the questions that interest me, and I think the ones that really matter for everyone.

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