Thursday, 10 March 2011

When the News in Not the Truth...

Warning: Today's post is not politically correct.  It deals with a set of key issues involved in personal resilience, it may challenge some of your assumptions and even make you a bit uncomfortable.  We live in a very complex world and facing that complexity is not for the faint of heart.  

I remember it as if it were yesterday... Working for the Canadian government in late 2002, as the Bush administration was furiously building its case for invading Iraq, I was sifting through various publications that regularly came across my desk, including the Russian daily, Pravda, and the Washington Post.

As I read both newspapers' accounts of the Bush administration's attempts to coerce its allies to join in this ultimately disastrous crusade, I was shocked to see that Pravda's account was more objective than the Washington Post's.  

Can you imagine my shock?  Here I was, a seasoned intelligence analyst and former Soviet specialist used to thinking of Pravda as a propaganda rag of the worst variety.  The Soviet Union, after all, had two main newspapers only - Pravda ("The Truth") and Izvestiya ("The News").  Hence the old saying in Russia, "Pravda nye Izvestiya, Izvestiya nye Pravda" - "The Truth is not The News and The News is not The Truth." 

The Media and Political Agendas 

One of the upsides of working in the intelligence community was that you sometimes found yourself on the "inside" of world events and you got used to the fact that what appeared in the media was not the whole story.  And, to be fair, there are factors the media just doesn't have access to on a timely basis.  

However, this was very different.  This was a deliberate attempt to bury the facts and present the story in a very different light.  One way the Bush administration did that was to strongly imply that Saddam's regime in Iraq was somehow linked to the events of 9/11.  By that time, any self-respecting analyst - with or without access to classified information - could have told you that Baghdad had absolutely nothing to do with planes flying into the World Trade Center.  Saddam may have been crazy, but he was independently crazy.  

To a certain extent, the events of 9/11 enabled the administration and its media lackeys to use one of the most time-tested of all manipulation techniques - "wrapping it in the flag".  You simply form a spurious link between your viewpoint and the alleged good of the nation, thus automatically casting all dissenting points of view as "unpatriotic", if not actually treasonous.  This diverts attention from the huge flaws in your own position and prevents people from paying serious attention to the valid points your opposition is making.  Works almost every time...

The Media and Corporate Agendas

Is the mainstream media subject to corporate agendas?  Well just ask yourself what the permissible range of opinion in the mainstream media is on a major public policy issue such as health care?  Are you allowed to say the whole debate misses the point?  That allopathic medicine is a proven disaster?  That we need a new medical paradigm?  That pharmaceutical drugs are not making us healthier?  No, of course not.  And if you find anything about so-called "alternative medicine" in the mainstream press, it's more than likely been edited for political correctness.  

Along these lines we also need to ask ourselves why there's so much fear-mongering in the media.  How many terrifying threats to your health has the media told you about this week?  And what about the last several years, when we've been told to cower in fear from West Nile virus, Avian Flu, Swine Flu, and several other pandemics-that-weren't?

Media Consolidation

"Media consolidation" - a seemingly benign phrase if you say it fast.  What it really means is that in contemporary society, more and more major media outlets are owned by fewer and fewer conglomerates.  In other words, there is less and less competition and more likelihood that the interests of those who do own the media outlets will coincide more with each other than with those of the average citizen.  

As citizens in what we're used to thinking of as "free countries", we don't think much about this, and yet it's a pressing concern.  If we want to become resilient people, we need to be very aware of how our viewpoints are being manipulated.  

Warning: the video that follows is far from politically correct.  It may make you angry.  Or you may love it.  Below I'll tell you why I'm posting it...

Personal Resilience and Media Exposure

One of the hallmarks of personal resilience is the ability to focus your attention on what really matters.  Yet in a society of "information overload" where the vast majority of that information is functionally irrelevant to you or so dumbed down as to be meaningless, your efforts to cultivate personal resilience lead to a couple of logical conclusions.  As Tim Ferriss recently put it:

"Most information is time consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence.  I challenge you to look at whatever you read or watch today and tell me that it wasn't at least two of the four." (in The 4 Hour Work Week, p.87.)

Conclusion One: Reduce your overall media exposure.  This will free up your mind, banish irrelevant data, and leave you free to devote more time to truly meaningful pursuits.

Conclusion Two: Cultivate alternate sources of information.  Once you've concluded you really want to get to the bottom of a particular issue or set of issues, go looking for dissenting points of view and specialized pools of information on that subject.

For example, I personally like to keep up with geopolitical trends.  To do that I regularly consult the output of numerous specialized think-tanks on these issues, knowing that what's in the mainstream media is a) lacking depth and b) lacking a spread of opinions. 

Beware the Narrow Range of Opinions

In our Western democracies, there's an increasing tendency for the mainstream media to severely limit the range of available opinion.  This makes it easier to dismiss competing views completely, paint them as absurd and hope they don't come up again.  Thus the prevailing view is a manufactured consensus and becomes the politically correct view, the norm.  

This can be especially worrying in the United States, where the range of publicly acceptable opinions on a given issue tends to be narrower than in other Western countries.  The political arena is just one example of this, since the US lacks any serious voice on the left (socialist) or the right (conservative) of the political spectrum (In case you didn't know, what passes for "liberal" or "conservative" in the US are simply two slightly different takes on classical liberalism).

Another problem in the US is the lack of a tradition of non-acrimonious public debate, of a serious intellectual attempt to deal with issues in constructive ways, rather than allowing competing ideologies to emotionalize the debate, obscure the issues and derail the whole process.  

The bottom line here is the need for all of us to preserve our intellectual independence from the increasingly intrusive and decreasingly useful mainstream media.  We may not live in the Soviet Union, but nevertheless we need to face the fact that "the news is not the truth and the truth is not the news". 

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger  

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