Information is power. There’s a good reason why one of the first things despots, fascists and dictators do is control the press and other news media in their area of influence; an informed citizenry demands responsible leadership. But if people feel they can’t trust the information they get in the media, they’ll be much more susceptible to believing whatever the despot tells them. We in the West may be used to thinking of this situation as existing only in another time, or in other places, and those of us who haven’t lived under a repressive regime may not appreciate that a free press needs defending from those who would take advantage. Institutions do not defend themselves. Recent events have made it clear that we no longer have the luxury of disengagement, and being informed is one of the best ways to be engaged.
2016 was a terrible year for those who value liberal democracy, and the two biggest political disasters for liberals – the UK’s Brexit vote and the Presidential election in the USA – would have been a lot less likely in a more responsible media environment. A generation or so ago, before newsrooms were made into profit centers by their corporate owners, ‘the news’ was not a partisan issue; people watched Walter Cronkite or listened to the BBC or read The New York Times and maybe even their local paper. People didn’t deny factual information, even when their political opinions about the facts differed. And people usually agreed on what the problems were, even if they didn’t always agree on how to solve them. Nowadays, with corporate media owners rewarding writers for click totals rather than adherence to journalistic standards, and with people’s increasing ability to live in a ‘bubble’ where they get only the information that conforms with their world view, it’s difficult to know how to be informed. If news editors aren’t doing their jobs, do we have to, essentially, do it for them if we aren’t going to succumb to propaganda? And, just as important, who has time to spend doing what can seem like another job?
Since the middle of 2016 I’ve been finding a community of people on Twitter who oppose Brexit, abhor the person who ‘won’ the US presidential election, and recognise the role that irresponsible media played in both the UK and the US. In 2017 there are important elections in Europe which could be an opportunity for liberals like us to turn back the tide of propaganda-fuelled populism, and meanwhile we need to resist the pull of propaganda under the Tories in the UK and the incoming Republican government in Washington. Recent conversations, both online and off, have prompted me to gather a list of articles and sources of information I personally have found useful. While it’s important for everyone to decide for themselves what sources they trust, it shouldn’t be necessary for every individual person to ‘reinvent the wheel’ either.
Recently a friend posted a link to a graphic that laid out some well-known news sources based on a left-right grid. While there are some notable errors (for example, in its coverage of Brexit, the BBC has arguably become much less centrist than is shown), this is a helpful place to begin, if only to begin to mentally map out the media landscape. For those who’ve been getting their news only from, say, links posted in their Facebook feed, this chart is a great corrective to the ‘curation’ that results from the Facebook algorithm selecting what each user sees. For one thing, it’s helpful to at least know the names of sources that lean strongly one way or another when approaching content posted by (or liked by) Facebook friends.
But we need to go much farther than this. At one time, the Fairness Doctrine in the US ensured that broadcast journalism presented a more balanced view of the news. The work of a journalist was not considered to be subject to the profit motive; indeed, in many newspapers, for example, the newsrooms in US television networks were essentially ‘loss leaders’. Now, with the Fairness Doctrine long gone and with a growing proliferation of media outlets and platforms, not only are newsrooms expected to please their audience, even ‘serious’ media at times fall short in their role as the Fourth Estate. The UK situation is a little different. There is a range of national newspapers espousing a range of political views, which help each one stand out in the competitive market. But lately even the supposedly centrist BBC, accused of a left slant by Conservatives, in fact shows a bias towards right-wing views. All this means that, time-saving though it is, choosing one source for news information may well not be a guarantee that you’ll get all objectivity, all the time.
So, what to do? Following the US election and in advance of the inauguration of the new ‘president’, there has been concern about a coming repression of press freedom. Trump famously spoke of ‘opening up’ the libel laws in the US (which differ significantly from those in the UK) and he has incited violence at his rallies – encouragement which his supporters have not ignored. And a recent YouGov survey found that the press in the UK was the ‘most right-wing’ in Europe.
For one thing – and this is aimed in particular at those in the US under the coming Trump administration – one should not feel helpless. There are ways to fight back even under an authoritarian government. Here are some links I found helpful:
A Yale history professor on defending democracy under Trump (Quartz)
Resolutions for newsroom managers in 2017 (if you have to think like an editor, why not read some advice for them?) (Columbia Journalism Review)
Prospects for the American press under Trump, part two (PressThink, by Jay Rosen)
How to Counter Fake News (Foreign Affairs)
But let’s be serious. If we are to be our own news editors, we need to assemble our own group of sources we personally trust. And ultimately, each person needs to make this list for themselves. As noted, though, this is a time-consuming exercise. So my suggestion for getting started is to make a list on Twitter. Not every journalist will be on Twitter, but many are, as well as scholars, lawyers and government officials. If you aren’t on Twitter, consider making yourself an account. Some people have even made Twitter accounts for their elderly and/or computer-illiterate friends or relatives who mostly consume biased news, in order to give them an easy way to get more balanced information. And to get you started, or for comparison with a list you may already have, here are some suggestions from my own Twitter feed.
David Fahrenthold, reporter, Washington Post. Covered the Trump campaign. On his Twitter feed are four public lists that are themselves worth following.
Jay Rosen, professor of journalism, NYU; media critic.
Sarah Kendzior, writer on politics, economy and media. Researcher on Central Asia (and thus knowledgeable about dictatorships and life under them). Twitter feed links to her website, which in turn links to her writings.
Christopher Stroop, PhD, Stanford, Russian history; currently teaching in the history department at the University of South Florida.
Garry Kasparov, Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. Visiting fellow at Oxford Martin. Author, speaker, 13th World Chess Champion.
Jolyon Maugham QC. Specialises in tax cases; listed as Leading Practitioner in Who’s Who Legal. Committed to equality and diversity, and supports the UK staying in the EU.
Faisal Islam, Sky News (UK) Political Editor.
Dan Rather, formerly of CBS News and one of the world’s best known journalists.
Kurt Eichenwald, journalist: Newsweek, Vanity Fair; author.
LSE Brexit, a collection of posts about Brexit from the London School of Economics.
LSE Politics and Policy, similar to the above but more general in scope.
Conor James McKinney, legal writer (UK).
Soviet Sergey, spoof account (re Sergey Lavrov, currently Foreign Minister of Russia) with, nevertheless, a lot of insight into Russia.
Evan McMullin, former independent presidential candidate (USA).
Guy Verhofstadt, President of the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe
Matthew Scott, Barrister (UK).
Danny Blanchflower, economist, Dartmouth.
ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) Journalists committed to fighting corruption.
Ezra Klein, founder, Vox.com.
Alberto Nardelli, editor, BuzzFeed UK.
Robert Costa, national political reporter, The Washington Post.
John Harris, journalist, The Guardian.
Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times.
Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, Alabama, USA. Combats hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation.
Alec MacGillis, journalist; covers politics and government for ProPublica. Formerly of The New Republic and The Washington Post.
ThinkProgress, a political news blog project by the Center for American Progress.
Finally, I’d suggest that, if you’re able, you consider subscribing or making a donation to one or more newspapers or other news outlets. Even though access can often be had to journalistic content for free, employing journalists costs money. And put the editor’s email address in your contacts, so that if their coverage falls short of standards, you can let them know you’re not okay with it.