February 07, 2005
The 4th Estate
In all the hullabaloo about exactly how depraved a bunch of Stalinists the Main Stream Media (MSM) are, the actual concrete impact of media bias has not received as much attention as I think is warranted.
Sure, we've got the attempt to swing a presidential election, or the handling of the Tet Offensive, but these are pretty visible first-order effects. The implications for Open-Source research and the subsequent effect on the policy community do seem to have gone largely unacknowledged.
Open-source intelligence (OSI), as the term is used here, is the synergistic use of unclassified and non-sensitive materials to draw conclusions and uncover data about a subject for analysis. OSI is used by think tanks, academia, and other policy generating and policy-analysis generating organizations as the raw data for reports, open testimony, and any one of a number of other critical functions in the public policy community.
In OSI, a great deal of emphasis is placed on information generated by the MSM for two reasons. First, a government (or organization) may wish to make something publicly known to inform or influence discussion on a given subject. Thus, governments may leak something through the media that they want to make known without having to put it out into the world on their own letterhead. Second, the MSM provide (at least in theory) a very large, well-funded intelligence gathering organization that provides (hypothetically) unbiased, factual information about events going on around the world. A classic example of this is the Early Bird, a document culling some of the significant stories of the upcoming day and distributing them around Washington and the world. For those of you unfamiliar with the Early Bird, it is generally accepted that the Early Bird provides the minimum daily requirement of relevant foreign policy news for consumers from the Oval Office, to combatant commands, to think tanks, to talking heads. On a broader basis, many of the positions and reports generated by think tanks (and presented later as analysis) are informed very heavily by OSI, and by extent, the MSM.
OSI does have some sort of self-correcting component to it. A news source that, over time, repeatedly trends towards inaccuracy becomes a less valuable and reliable source of OSI. Thus, a source like Bloomberg doesn't really have a very strong following - their reports tend to be far more geared towards being first, rather than being right, and as a result, are more likely to report unconfirmed initial information, rather than well-researched reporting. This rating of sources goes down to individual writers and producers - no reputable outfit will take a position on Robert Fisk's say-so.
However, if the bias in reporting becomes pervasive, then we end up with a problem. If errors in reporting are not exposed later by other outfits, then we have no efficient way of knowing that any given source or sources are unreliable.
To take this a step further, we can include things like official government reports as part of our OSI data stream. If, for sake of argument, the government report is 100% on the level, and the press report disagrees with it, we have no metric to determine the veracity of either report. Naturally the tendency is then to assume that the government report is slanted as much (but in the opposite) direction of the MSM report. Or even that the MSM report is valid, while the government report is a white-wash.
Ultimately, as we might already suspect, the media creates "news," the problem is however, not only does it affect our elected representatives by applying pressure through their constituencies, but also directly changes the way that Washington makes policy. DC is still built on the notion that descriptions like "The Newspaper of Record" actually have some weight. And unfortunately the massive private sector human intelligence operation we call journalism has turned into a mouthpiece for an ideology - and this will continue to put a hand on the tiller of the ship of state.