For me, the real danger is in assuming there is an objective viewpoint behind these fundamentally subjective editorial decisions, or even that such a viewpoint is a type of unattainable goal that is still worth striving for.
Of the many under-appreciated gems in The Corbett Report archive, my podcast episode on "The Myth of Journalistic Objectivity" may be one of the most important. Not only does it expose a few of the many examples of bias in the mainstream media (from Bilderberger Charlie Rose to World Federalist Walter Cronkite to CIA Anderson Cooper), it also lays out in detail why the idea that journalism can ever be "objective" at all is not just a pipe dream, but a dangerous delusion.
Following on from that expose, I was recently contacted by John Wielenga about a research project on 'Mainstream Media Bias and Propaganda' that he is conducting for a class that he is enrolled in. The Q&A that he conducted with me for that class is instructive about the ways that the media can shape and distort our view of reality, and why subjectivity in journalism is unavoidable, why it should be embraced, and how the onus is on each of us to temper our own biases by avoiding the online echo chamber. To that end, I present that Q&A here in its entirety.
JOHN WIELENGA: You are an independent journalist with your own website and many videos on YouTube that cover a broad array of subjects. How long have you been a journalist? Why is it that you chose to become an independent journalist? What are some of the benefits and detriments?
JAMES CORBETT: Let me start with the straightforward answers to these questions. I founded The Corbett Report in 2007 and it has been my full time occupation since 2011. I have talked at some length in the past about why I became an independent journalist, perhaps most notably in the lecture I delivered at TEDxGroningen in 2014. In short, I was motivated by the outrage I felt at the discrepancy between the information I was able to find online and the information I had been force fed by mainstream media my whole life. Luckily, we live in an age where I was able to do something about that problem (namely, start my own website), and now my reports have been viewed tens of millions of times by people around the world.
But it seems your questions beg a more fundamental question: what really is a "journalist?" Am I one? Are you? I'm not being facetious here. The concept had a more defined outline in the days of radio and TV and newspapers, but with the advent of blogs and vlogs and cell phone cameras and social media, the line between capital J "Journalist" and mere "civilian" has become blurrier.
I've toyed with the idea that we're all journalists now, but perhaps it's better to say that we're all editors now. Instead of relying on the editorial decisions of a few trusted media outlets to spoon-feed us the daily news, we can now turn to literally millions of online sources from anywhere on the planet to sort through information and construct the daily news for ourselves. Perhaps an "independent journalist" like myself is just someone who publishes their own editorial content to the web instead of keeping it to themselves?
At this point I'm not sure how useful any of these labels are in describing the information gathering/sorting/sharing processes that modern technology has enabled. But for the sake of ease I just put "Editor" on my business card.
JW: After that I watched one of your videos, where you explain that truly Objective coverage is an impossible feat for humans. Would you agree though that Objective and Ideological coverage are really a spectrum, and we should strive to be more Objective to get to a more middle ground?
JC: Nope. Let me be as explicit as I can be: there is no such thing as "objective journalism." There are only admitted biases and hidden biases.
Don't believe me? Here's a test: you have to edit a 30 minute news program tonight that objectively presents the news of the day. What stories do you include? Who do you talk to for each story? Whose responses do you present and how do you present them? Every single one of these choices and all the millions of smaller decisions that arise in the making of such a program all stem from a subjective, ideologically informed worldview. Every one of them.
I think what most people believe to be the ideal of "objective" journalism is merely "he said/she said" journalism, where the journalist presents one side, then the other, then throws their hands up and tells the audience to decide. That is not objective journalism. Again, why this story instead of another? Who chooses how the story is framed, contextualized and presented to the audience? What do you assume the audience already knows, and what do you have to tell them? Which sources do you contact for comment? If there is an issue in the history of the world that only has two sides to it I have yet to encounter it, but assuming such a two-sided (and only two-sided!) issue exists, who gets to speak for each side? Again, all of this is subjective and ideologically informed.
For me, the real danger is in assuming there is an "objective" viewpoint behind these fundamentally subjective editorial decisions, or even that such a viewpoint is a type of unattainable goal that is still worth striving for. That assumption enables many outlets to hide their ideological perspective under a veneer of "objectivity." The more up-front that outlets are about their worldview and their perspective, then the easier it is for the public (which, you'll remember, now consists of a multitude of individual editors) to account for those biases and seek alternate perspective from another outlet.
JW: You also highlighted some features and instances of Propaganda. I envision that branching off from Ideological coverage there is a sub spectrum between (subjective) Truth and Propaganda. Is this an accurate description?
JC: Well I do concede (without, I hope you'll forgive me, offering proof) that there is an externally existing independent reality, and as such it is possible to make statements of fact about the world that are objectively true or false. But I take it that we can all agree that statements of facts about the world ("Politician A said 'xyz' today") are not journalism. Journalism is when we put those facts into a narrative consisting of a series of such facts that together tell a story of some sort.
The upshot of this is that all journalism is "propaganda" in its original sense of "an attempt to persuade the reader of some viewpoint." That propaganda can either take the explicit form ("Bashar al-Assad is a madman who just likes killing his own citizens and the moderate rebels are freedom fighters who are just hungry for democracy") or the implicit form ("No conversation about the money trail of 9/11 is ever relevant to a discussion of what happened that day.")
JW: According to data collected from my survey, a large number of millennials get their news from Facebook. Around the same amount use YouTube, blogs and alternative sites to get news. How 'Objective' do you feel the Facebook news feed is, regarding the new controversy?
JC: The ironic thing about the new Facebook newsfeed scandal is that Facebook is being lambasted for doing what every other news outlet in the world does, namely curating their news feed. The only difference is that they have been pretending that there is some neutral algorithm that is automatically generating the list of "trending" stories instead of a team of editors deciding which content should or should not be included.
This is a problem that seems unique to outlets in the age of social media, which promises the ability to be truly “democratic” in the sense that they can actually rank content objectively by views or likes or shares. However, no major social media outlet has delivered on this promise yet.
Google Video had the "problem" of "problematic" videos about 9/11 truth and the Federal Reserve and other non-mainstream topics showing up in their "Top 10" videos each day, so they shifted their top 10 ranking off their front page and shunted it into a difficult-to-access sidebar. Then they changed the algorithm. Then they scrapped the top 10 altogether. Then they shut down Google Videos, bought out YouTube, and scrapped YouTube's front page in favor of individually-tailored front pages full of videos from channels you're already subscribed to or videos that YouTube "recommends" based on your past history.
Digg was an extremely popular social content aggregator that allowed visitors to vote up posts that they thought were important. Again, there was the "problem" of the "wrong" kinds of stories being voted up (i.e. stories promoting Ron Paul's 2008 presidential run) so they began using "bury brigades" and assigning certain promoted users the powers to single-handedly veto trending stories off the site's homepage.
Reddit has also had its share of controversy, with various subreddits having controversial policies about what websites users can or can't submit content from, what topics are or are not allowed, or how certain topics are to be debated. There have been controversies involving paid content being promoted as a type of covert advertising for corporations and controversial topics being suppressed.
Twitter has also recently been exposed for the practice of "shadowbanning" users who post controversial or sensitive content, with their tweets routinely failing to show up in the timelines of their followers. This is on top of the politicization of the "verified" tag for preferred celebrity users and the establishment of a "Trust and Safety Council" to police the platform for content that might hurt people's feelings.
So, if anything Facebook is in good company. There is no major social media platform that does not engage in curation, censorship or policing of content in some shape or form. This is not to say that a truly "objective" popularity-based newsfeed is something to strive for, either. "LAUGHING CHEWBACCA MASK LADY" has been shared millions of times in the past week and is likely one of the most shared pieces of media online at the moment. That does not mean I would appreciate seeing it in a "newsfeed."
And once again we are back to the myth of objectivity, where even deciding whether something is or is not news is an editorial decision informed by an ideological worldview.
JW: Could you list some recent or current examples of Propaganda produced by the Mainstream Media? What would you consider to be some "Buzz Words" or "Talking Points" the media uses, and what's their effect in society?
JC: Do you have a few hundred hours? My mind spins at the idea of itemizing a list of stories that clearly demonstrate the bias of the mainstream media.
How about the White House-produced "Video News Reports" that were blended in with the nightly news in direct contradiction to long-standing laws against just such government-funded domestic propaganda? But maybe that doesn't matter because Congress retroactively passed a law to make the practice legal.
OK then, how about the "Pentagon Pundit" scandal where the Pentagon fed talking points for selling the Iraq War to personnel who then appeared as frequent guests on the cable news networks without disclosing their Pentagon ties?
How about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which purchases favorable coverage of its activities from outlets like ABC, NPR and The Guardian? Coverage that then promotes the commercial interests of companies like Monsanto that Gates is a shareholder in.
How about the mainstream media's near universal reliance on sources like the Syrian Obersvatory for Human Rights and praise for the humanitarian work of the so-called White Helmets with no investigation into what these organizations are, where they come from or what they represent?
Need I go on?
JW: I have noticed a lot of Liberal folks who rebut arguments by saying things like "Stop getting all your news from Fox and Hannity". This statement would suggest a sort of ignorance or denial of the bias of leftist news outlets. Do you have any thoughts on this?
JC: To contextualize these statements, those on the left will cite the many many many many surveys, polls and studies that have been conducted over the past decade showing that Fox News viewers are the least informed segment of the American population while viewers of more liberal programming like NPR and the old Jon Stewart Daily Show are the best informed.
As you may have guessed by now, though, the categories of "informed" and "uninformed" viewers are, like everything else, subjective, ideologically-driven constructs that necessarily reflect the biases of the researchers. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly how right-leaning media outlets have refuted these studies in the past.
The opposite could easily be done to show that those who consume left-leaning media are woefully uninformed on issues surrounding Benghazigate, the Clinton's many scandals, Obama's kill list, the R2P doctrine used to justify left-liberal wars of aggression or any number of other issues that would be dismissed as unimportant, overblown or phantoms of Hillary's infamous "vast right-wing conspiracy."
So in the end, leftists are woefully uninformed on those issues their critics think are important and vice versa. But there are many issues that both left and right-leaning mainstream media ignore completely. I bet I could construct a questionnaire about 9/11 that demonstrates that those who consume mainstream media know almost nothing about the events of that day or the subsequent "investigation" into those events.
JW: The biggest problem I am having in my research is finding a way to distinguish the difference between a person being drawn towards ideological coverage based on confirmation bias, and the effects that Propaganda has on the reinforcement of the bias of the person. It seems like a bit of a continuum? Do you have any thoughts on this matter?
JC: A very insightful question. Rather than a continuum, however, I would picture it as a feedback loop. Someone has an affinity to a certain ideology so they are attracted to media outlets that share that viewpoint. As a result, they tend not to be exposed to information that goes against this worldview, thus further strengthening the already existing beliefs of the person and ensuring that they will be less interested in media that does not share that worldview.
It's a dangerous feedback loop, especially now that we live in the online world where everyone is their own editor. With thousands of websites catering to every niche in the political universe it is now possible to insulate oneself from opposing viewpoints in a way that simply was not feasible in the era of radio/TV/newspaper media. The worst part is that while everyone feels that they are immune from this phenomenon, in reality we are all prone to the "echo chamber" effect.
This is why it is exceptionally important for news outlets to be upfront with their worldview, their biases and the ideological constructs through which they determine what constitutes "news" and how it should be covered. They also need to be up front with their funding sources so the audience can determine who any given outlet's customers are and how that might sway their coverage.
I'll say it again; in this era we are all our own editors. This is at once an incredibly freeing and an exceptionally burdensome realization. We can now sidestep would-be gatekeepers with a few clicks of the mouse. But at the same time we are now all subject to the whims of our own internal gatekeepers that would like to keep us within our mental comfort zone at any cost. It is only by being conscious of inherent media biases and our own ideological position that we can make the conscious effort to seek out information from a variety of sources, including those that we disagree with.