Making Sense of the News in a New Media World

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Years ago there was a criminal case where a crooked cop planted evidence against the suspect even though prosecutors already had a pretty tight case against him. One observer described the police officer’s actions as “framing a guilty man,” and I’ve found that to be a useful phrase from time to time since. Sometimes the case against someone or something is strong enough without embellishment, and piling on can actually have the opposite effect.

I actually thought that was the case back in 2008 when Sarah Palin was unable to name a newspaper she read. Sure it was fun to laugh at her when she answered “all of them,” but my reaction was: Hell, how would I answer that question? Twenty years ago I would have been able to, but the rise of the Internet (and the scaling back of newspaper coverage) has led to a situation where instead of subscribing to one source that aspires to give a full snapshot, I pick and choose individual stories from a multitude of sources.

I bring up Palin’s answer because I was reminded of it yet again last Saturday. I read a long article in the City Journal about California’s pension system, and another on the effects of incarceration in the Chicago Reporter. Both were far, far too long for inclusion in the newspaper I used to subscribe to, and in any event I don’t think any kind of syndication deal exists with either outlet.

The City Journal article showed up in the Naked Capitalism link roundup; the Chicago Reporter article showed up in my Twitter feed. I check in with the Stop Fracking Ohio page on Facebook several times a week for the latest there, I get several daily emails from different sources, RSS feeds that let me skim through headlines and just read the posts I want, and so on. In other words, just like Sarah Palin I would not be able to tell Katie Couric what newspapers I read.

That will only be reinforced if recent stories about newspaper consolidation into the hands of the wealthy represents a trend. I sure as hell won’t pay for a rag put out by the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch, and even if the buyer is someone I have a higher opinion of such as Warren Buffett, the concentration of newspapers into fewer and fewer individuals’ hands strikes me as problematic.

Lest anyone start concern trolling about the specter of epistemic closure, a well chosen group of sources offers just as many opportunities for encountering opposing voices as newspapers do. For instance, the City Journal is run by the Manhattan Institute – a notably right wing group. Just because I want to dodge the propaganda catapulted by a plutocrat’s house organ (or the regurgitated conservative talking points that the right wing in Washington has been disgorging for the last thirty years) doesn’t mean I refuse to consider contrary ideas. It just means I refuse to consider thoroughly debunked bullshit. That’s Paul Krugman’s job.

It can also mean piecing together stories from different sources and reviewing competing narratives. For instance, an outlet that uses a City Hall based model of reporting on a police sweep will highlight the police chief’s characterization: