By Paul Thacker
BBC journalist Andrew Marr: “How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”
Noam Chomsky: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
I’m supposed to tell you about the future of alternative media, but if I did, I would finish this essay feeling certain I had failed. I feel semiconfident I could put something down on paper that would sound important and reasonable—citing studies and examples for several pages that left you 15 minutes later impressed that you had learned something valuable. If I spent even more time on research and called up experts for quotes, emailed journalism professors to get their thoughts and published studies, I might accidentally write an essay that would rate a tweet from Jay Rosen, a media professor at New York University, who is known for thinking big thoughts about journalism.
But it would be a hoax.
Nobody knows what to expect in the future. Anyone telling you otherwise is either lying or on faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School. The highway of history is littered with the flattened carcasses of investor media startups and foundation-backed “news democracy initiatives”—each providing “information that really matters” before getting run over by investor greed, funder apathy, or reader disinterest.
I don’t work at the Harvard Kennedy School, a venture capital fund, nor a well-funded foundation. And I’m not interested in drafting some future of the media plan only to see it look silly in retrospect. I’ve learned that new ideas thrive or die mostly out of luck. More important than blabbing about the future of alternative media, I want to tell you why alternative media matters, and leave the future to sort itself out.
It always does.
Where I’m coming from
First, you should know something about me and how I consume news so that you’ll understand where I’m coming from. I’m American, so I have an American sensibility when it comes to the media, meaning my experiences will differ from people in Europe—which I understand to some degree—and from those getting news in other parts of the world, which I understand even less. By American sensibility, I mean that I’m used to newspapers and TV news that have a political slant that is down the middle and attempts to maintain an objective perspective.
I’ve always followed the news, even as a small boy. One of my first media memories was watching the evening news with my Dad in the 1970s when the broadcast reported that soldiers in South America were fighting gorillas. After the news intro, the program went to a short camera segment with soldiers fighting the gorillas and shooting into the rainforest at an unseen enemy. I kept watching to see if a gorilla would come running out of the jungle firing back with a machine gun. The point is that I can always remember following the news, even before I was old enough to know the difference between a “gorilla” and a “guerilla.”
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In my teens, I started watching even more news, first the regular half-hour evening broadcast and then another full hour of in-depth reporting on the MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour. I also watched 60 Minutes and 20/20, both weekly news programs. Throughout high school, I read many of the weekly magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report, and I occasionally read the newspaper. But in college, I became more serious, reading the newspaper most days, along with magazines that I chose because they were on the Left or the Right, giving me different perspectives. Today, I read the New York Times and the Washington Post every morning, and check in a few times a week with the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
In recent years, I have shifted even more of my reading to the Journal and the FT, because I have become annoyed at the “wokeness” that has invaded American media, and I am more concerned with getting facts than opinion. But more on that in a bit.
Of course, I also get articles, studies, and snippets of news from social media. Overall, I try to get a broad mix of information—probably more than I need—although it comes almost exclusively from sources written in English.
Trying to define alternative media is difficult, maybe impossible, and lists of “alternative” publications will vary depending on any person’s opinions. I wasn’t completely certain myself, so I spoke with 6 different people to get their views: 2 liberal journalists, 2 conservative journalists, and 2 media professors.
Views varied, but a fuzzy theme for “alternative media” began to coalesce: alternative media are outlets that are not legacy like the Washington Post or New York Times, and certainly not cable channels such as CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC. These outlets are referred to as “mainstream media” or MSM. Most felt the conservative channel FOX was part of this MSM ecosystem. Because the internet cuts down on publishing expenses, alternative outlets have flourished in the last decade.
People within this MSM ecosystem often play games by questioning whether MSM even exists, but its presence can be most strongly seen on the boards of various committees that hand out prestigious journalism awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize. Committee members for these prizes are drawn mostly from outlets such as the Atlantic, Washington Post, New Yorker, New York Times, and National Public Radio, as well as a smattering of prestigious foundations and leading universities. The winners of prestigious journalism prizes are also drawn, not surprisingly, from pretty much these same outlets.
The mainstream media has been scrutinized for years, perhaps most effectively in the 1988 book co-authored by Noam Chomsky Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Al Jazeera revisited Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent in 2018, interviewing the MIT academic and asking him how he thinks the book has held up. As Chomsky wrote, the media operates through five filters:
- Media Ownership: mass media firms are big companies often owned by big conglomerates that have other corporate interests, so their end game is profit. Critical journalism takes a back seat to profit and these corporate needs.
- Advertising: media costs more than consumers pay, and advertisers fill in this financial hole. Media outlets are not just selling you news, they are also selling you to the advertising companies.
- Media Elite: journalism cannot check power because the system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, and big institutions know how to play the media game, influence coverage, provide experts, and feed scoops. Reporters who challenge this system will lose access and be pushed to the side.
- Flack: those who stray from the consensus will get attacked, sources will be discredited, and the credibility of their narrative will be questioned.
- Common Enemy: bogeymen must be created to corral public opinion and focus attention.
“The myth is that the media are independent, adversarial, courageous, struggling against power,” Chomsky told Al Jazeera. “That’s actually true of some. There are often very fine reporters, correspondents. In fact, the media does a fine job, but within a framework that determines what to discuss, not to discuss.”
Around the same time Chomsky published his book, journalist and author Joan Didion began writing a series of reports for The New York Review of Books that deconstructed journalistic coverage of politics. She published these essays in the 2001 book Political Fictions, which looked at “people inside the process, constituting as they do a self-created and self-referring class, a new kind of managerial elite, [who] tend to speak of the world not necessarily as it is but as they want people out there to believe it is.”
Inside this “process,” Didion discovered that reporting and presenting facts were less important than creating a narrative that would grab the public’s attention while being acceptable to this managerial elite. “The narrative is made up of many such understandings, tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line,” Didion wrote.
While countless other journalists and academics have examined problems within the media, general rules can be drawn that MSM outlets tend to hew to specific narratives that are considered “acceptable,” although acceptance is required more by the media/academic class than by the public. This “gatekeeping” can lock out certain ideas from discussion, and as we will see, elevate others. Gatekeeping has hardened in recent years as “wokeness” has shifted the media class to the Left, making certain stories even less palatable, and causing a schism within journalism that might explain the public’s increasing lack of trust in the news.
The Great Awokening
Any analysis of problems within the American media must discuss the MSM’s recent lurch to the Left. While it is hard to place a finger on the exact moment when society begins to shift, something began occurring around 2016 with the rise of Donald Trump. While he comes from a background of wealth, Trump has always exuded a type of everyman charisma and populist appeal. And something about Trump caused an enormous change among the “managerial elite” as Didion referred to them many years back.
Among the first things one would have noticed was a heightened number of articles about racial justice and racism—whether real or perceived. This new political morality is often referred to as “wokeness,” as in someone who is now awake to racial inequality. Wokeness is a worldview held mostly by hyper-liberal, White, college-educated professionals, who often live in urban areas on either coast of America—the same demographic that most reporters come from.
Explaining the Great Awokening, Georgia State graduate student Zach Goldberg wrote in Tablet that this process involved liberal journalists accessing words that were once obscure parts of academic jargon such as “microaggression” and “white privilege” and making them commonplace topics of reporting. Analyzing the New York Times and the Washington Post beginning in 2011, Goldberg found a gradual increased usage of variations on the term “racism.” By 2019, usage of “racism” had increased 700 percent in the Times and 1,000 percent in the Post. Across the same time span, the number of White liberals who thought racism was a big problem in the United States ballooned from 35 percent in 2011 to 77 percent in 2017.
Goldberg cites another poll in which the number of White Democrats, who reported knowing someone racist, jumped from 45 percent in 2006 to 64 percent in 2015. Among White Republicans, this number remained the same at 41 percent from 2006 to 2015. Meanwhile, the number of Black Democrats and Hispanic Democrats who reported knowing a racist decreased across this same time period—from 52.7 percent to 47.2 percent in Black Democrats, and from 41.1 percent to 33.8 percent among Hispanic Democrats. However, these differences were not statistically significant.
While the world remained the same, Goldberg argues, a steady diet of articles about race and racism encouraged White liberals to label an increasing number of behaviors and people as racist. In effect, ideas and language once confined to obscure academic conferences became normalized within the media, radicalizing both journalists and their readers.
As this reporting shifted in recent years, Pew Research found that journalists were also diverging in their thinking from other Americans about the nature of journalism itself. While 76 percent of Americans think reporters should give equal coverage to all sides of an issue, only 45 percent of reporters agree. This difference is more pronounced among younger reporters with 37 percent stating that all sides deserve equal coverage, and among those who say their audience leans Left, with 31 percent. Reporters who most clearly align with the public on this score work at conservative outlets, where 57 percent agree that journalism should seek all sides.
As the people making up journalism became less like America in their thinking, confidence in the profession was also decreasing. Gallup found in 1977 that 72 percent of Americans had trust in the news media. However, Americans’ trust has plummeted recently to just 16 percent, and this decrease is most pronounced on the Right, with only 5 percent of Republicans saying they have confidence in newspapers, compared to 35 percent of Democrats.
And a study by Pew in 2019 found that almost three-fourths of Republicans and two-thirds of all respondents without a college degree felt that the media did not understand people like them. The demographic that felt most comfortable with the media were college-educated Democrats at 71 percent. Today, almost 9 in 10 of the subscribers to the New York Times are Democrats.
Other critiques have come from journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon who wrote “Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy.” In her analysis, Ungar-Sargon said that the main split between reporters and the public is not politics but class, and this class division is undermining American democracy. While the media was more partisan decades in the past, this was also a time when journalism was a working-class trade and the ideas reporters were fighting over still concerned Americans of all classes.
Education among reporters also aligns them more closely with Democratic voters.
In 1930, less than a third of journalists had been to college, but the majority today have a graduate degree. According to Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty, Democrats are now “mostly the party of the master’s degree.”
“You have a liberal media that’s really geared towards the 6% of Americans who are progressive, who have a college degree and a graduate degree and live in the cities,” said Ungar-Saragon. “That is who the target audience is of the vast majority of the elite and even now not-so-elite liberal media.”
For the journalists specifically reporting on science and medicine, their removal by class and education from the rest of society is compounded by another problem: closeness to their sources, who often are academics. In many cases, the people who report on science and medicine view themselves as assistants to the academic scientists they cover—voices they must amplify to ensure that the unwashed masses understand the beauty and importance of science.
In short, they report for, not on science.
This closeness to academic scientists further alienates science writers, not just from the public, but from others in the media. Clues to their differences from others in the media are often giggled about, sometimes in private, sometimes in public, with the label “scicomm.” The term scicomm is short for “science communication,” which often involves programs and sessions to train scientists how to explain their complicated work to others. Science reporters also deploy the term scicomm, underlining how many in this field see their job as explaining science, not reporting science.
Writers who cover science and medicine often tweet with the #scicomm hashtag, signaling to others that they are part of this club.
Scicomm source capture
To reiterate, science writers differ from the public in their partisan and class alignment—coming almost exclusively from a liberal background, with high education levels—and they compound these problems with cozy ties to their sources, in this case academic scientists and physicians.
Being too close to sources can blind a reporter to biases, including their own. This was demonstrated most aptly by the 2008 economic meltdown which appears to have snuck up on the public. In “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark,” investigative reporter Dean Starkman wrote that access journalism in finance lessened reporters’ appetite to dig into systemic corruption on Wall Street. Instead of asking tough questions of bankers and investors, journalists began focusing on profiling executives and providing investment advice to readers.
In one glaring example, reporters at O’Dwyers, which covers the public relations industry, reported that financial reporters in New York attend an annual “Financial Follies” dinner. “The spectacle of more than 400 writers employed by the biggest names in financial journalism (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Reuters, etc.) being wined and dined at a $400-a-ticket dinner (plus drinks before, during and after) certainly gives the appearance of coziness.”
Just like financial reporters, science writers seem incapable of allowing any daylight between themselves and their subjects. One such example is an organization called SciLine, which attempts to enhance the quality and amount of scientific evidence in news. However, SciLine is hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a society and lobbying organization for scientists.
SciLine is run by a former science reporter who joined the organization after first covering AAAS for the Washington Post. The board is made up of reporters from National Public Radio, CNN, Scientific American, and PBS. Other board members include the former head of the FDA, as well as professors of science and science communication, and an official at an organization that teaches scientists how to better communicate their research.
Without any sense of irony or thoughtful need to separate reporters from their sources, SciLine provides advice to both scientists and science writers. It offers science writers “a one-stop shop where you can find rigorously vetted, research-backed information and quickly get connected to excellent scientists with solid communication skills.” SciLine also offers help to scientists: “SciLine offers a variety of pathways to interact with and support journalists covering science-related topics. And if you’re interested in getting more practice, we are also here to help you improve your media-communication skills.”
As in pretty much any case involving science writing, the wall between reporter and source—journalist and advocate—disappears. Reporters and academic scientists thrive together as one happy family.
Social media fact-check fallacies
Space must be given to address the recent rise of the fact-checking industry, in part because it is intertwined with the media, and has become a new gatekeeper. According to the Duke Reporter’s Lab, there are now 378 fact-checking groups, up from 168 in 2016. Many fact-checking groups have been organized under the International Fact-Checking Network, whose advisory board included Glenn Kessler, resident fact-check guru at the Washington Post.
However, fact-check groups regularly make mistakes, often attacking legitimate reporting. The most infamous example of misplaced “fact-checking” occurred outside of science and involved stories about Hunter Biden, the son of President Biden. During the 2020 election, the New York Post published a blockbuster expose on emails found on the laptop of Hunter Biden, who had dropped the computer off at a repair shop. The emails implied that Biden’s son was peddling access to his father, and with only weeks before Biden’s electoral faceoff against Trump, Facebook labeled the article false and stopped people from sharing the article. Twitter also blocked sharing.
But a year after the election, multiple outlets confirmed the emails’ authenticity, and Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, tweeted that suspending the New York Post for reporting on the emails was “incredibly inappropriate.”
While this Hunter Biden laptop fake fact-check shut down critical reporting, similarly suspect fact-checks have attacked science reporting with less public scrutiny. I was also the victim of a fact-check by an organization that is one of Facebook’s lead fact-checkers, when I wrote an investigation for The British Medical Journal about problems with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. The fact-check found no errors but, nevertheless, labeled the BMJ investigation “incomplete” and a “hoax.” The BMJ later sent Mark Zuckerberg an open letter complaining about this “inaccurate, incompetent and irresponsible” fact-check. Multiple articles covered this controversy, noting that Facebook fact-checks narratives, not facts. The Association of British Science Writers later named the BMJ investigation a finalist for an investigative reporting award.
Many other examples have gone under the radar. Several times, these fact-checking groups have denigrated information about natural immunity in order to favor vaccines, even though some research finds that natural immunity provides greater protection than vaccines. And multiple fact-checking sites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org falsely stated that the pandemic could not have started in a lab in Wuhan, China, although some later changed their view. Understanding if the pandemic started in a lab or through a natural spillover event is critical to preventing the next outbreak.
Online fact-checkers seem obsessed with regulating vaccine information. In one example, a reporter was banned from Twitter for tweeting “misleading” vaccine information that stated the Pfizer vaccine clinical trial only found 80 percent efficacy based on 10 children. Her account was later restored when others notified Twitter that she had copied the information directly from Pfizer’s own press release. In another example, Facebook’s fact-checker denigrated a preprint on vaccine side effects by accusing researchers of using data they didn’t actually use.
COVID-19 crash and burn
Since the pandemic’s beginning, two major questions have loomed in the background: first, how did the pandemic start so that we can prevent the next one? Second, how do we effectively manage the virus? With so much baggage—partisanship, class and education differences, and collusion with sources—it’s not surprising that science writers failed in both cases, often putting out misinformation that has now confused the public.
In the case of vaccines, reporters often parroted back statements or press releases that came from companies or federal agencies. This became clear in March 2022, when CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave a talk where she admitted that, in retrospect, reporting in late 2020 by CNN that found 95 percent efficacy for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine had made her too confident that vaccines would end the pandemic.
What is remarkable about that CNN story, which the CDC Director said influenced her thinking, is that CNN merely republished the facts, figures, and quotes from Pfizer’s press release sent out earlier that same day. CNN’s article contained no independent experts analyzing Pfizer’s statement, which was just a self-report of the company’s vaccine data—data that had not been submitted to any agency or journal for independent verification.
To further emphasize the coziness between reporters and sources, the CNN reporter who wrote the article—with no critical scrutiny of Pfizer’s information—is on the board of SciLine, the organization that works to teach reporters how to report accurately.
Other examples of awkward reporting can be found in a handbook to teach reporters and editors how to cover science put out by the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. (This program is run by Deborah Blum, who is a former president of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). More about Blum later.) In a chapter of the handbook on “scientific controversies,” Laura Helmuth wrote that reporters should “expose the politicization and false controversies” because “controversies about where the novel coronavirus originated have fueled racism.”
Helmuth offered no credible reason why reporters shouldn’t question where the virus came from; apparently, merely asking such questions was fueling racism. After Helmuth wrote this piece, the State Department announced that the Chinese lab in Wuhan had engaged in “gain-of-function” research to engineer chimeric viruses and had worked on secret projects for the Chinese military. President Biden then called for an open investigation of the pandemic’s origin.
Like Blum, Helmuth is a former president of the NASW and is now editor of Scientific American, a platform she has used to attack anyone who links the pandemic’s origin to scientific mishaps. To clarify, Helmuth attacks anyone and everyone, even Dr. Robert Redfield, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). After Redfield told CNN that he thought the pandemic started in a Wuhan lab, Helmuth tweeted, “On CNN, former CDC director Robert Redfield shared the conspiracy theory that the virus came from the Wuhan lab.” The following day, Scientific American ran an essay calling the lab-leak theory “evidence free.”
A month after Helmuth attacked the former CDC Director, New York Times science writer Apoorva Mandavilli tweeted, “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here.”
In fact, science reporters at several media outlets such as MIT’s UnDark Magazine (run by Deborah Blum), the New York Times, Science, and Nature all ran stories calling or hinting that anyone who questioned if the pandemic came from a Wuhan lab was a “conspiracy theorist.” Only the Washington Post later corrected their coverage.
Science writers have often bent over backwards to direct attention away from a possible lab accident in Wuhan. In one example, reporters at Nature, Science, and the New York Times wrote articles arguing that viruses found in Laos—and closely related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus—added further evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic could not have started from a lab leak in Wuhan, China. However, all three reporters ignored documents that found scientists had been shipping viruses from Laos to Wuhan for several years.
In most cases during the pandemic, when the subject turned to vaccines or how the pandemic started, science writers lined up to support science agencies or industry positions, aligning themselves with the research community.
Commenting on the train wreck coverage of the pandemic, veteran science reporter Nicholas Wade wrote that science writers often act as PR agents for their sources instead of holding them to account:
Why are science writers so little able to report objectively on the origin of the virus? Innocent of most journalists’ skepticism about human motives, science writers regard scientists, their authoritative sources, as too Olympian ever to be moved by trivial matters of self-interest. Their daily job is to relay claims of impressive new discoveries, such as advances toward curing cancer or making paralyzed rats walk. Most of these claims come to nothing—research is not an efficient process—but science writers and scientists alike benefit from creating a stream of pleasant illusions. The journalists get their stories, while media coverage helps researchers attract government grants.
Dulled by the advantages of this collusion, science writers pay little attention to in-house problems that seriously detract from the credibility of the scientific research enterprise, such as the astounding fact that less than half the high-profile findings in some fields can be replicated in other laboratories. Fraud and error in scientific papers are hard to detect, yet nonetheless some 32,000 papers have been retracted for various reasons. The reliability of scientific claims is a formidable problem but one of strangely little interest to many science writers.
Need for alternative media
The possibility of reforming the science writing profession seems very unlikely, as science writers remain locked inside their own community—constrained by partisanship, class, education, and cozy ties to their sources. Any criticism pointing this out is often either ignored or deemed to be proof that the critic is politically conservative, lacks education, or does not have the contacts in science to understand the complexities of research.
However, points of view from outside this closed circle remain vital to educate the public about scientific controversies and to maintain journalistic values that might increase reader trust in both the media and science. But while alternative media is critical for journalism and the public, how this alternative media remains available to the broad masses is uncertain.
I would like to thank the following people for speaking with me for this essay about their thoughts and concerns on journalism and the importance of an alternative media: Tom Elliott (journalist and CEO of Grabien), Mollie Hemingway (editor-in-chief of the Federalist), Justin Schlosberg (professor of journalism at Birbeck), Joe Stephens (professor of journalism at Princeton), Matt Taibbi (journalist and author).
This essay originally appeared as a chapter in “Voorbij de Pandemische Chaos: Goed op weg?” or in English “After the Pandemic Chaos: Are We Heading the Right Way?” The book is a collection of essays by leading academics and journalists discussing how the COVID pandemic changed national policies and offers advice on reforms.
Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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Source: Brownstone Institute
Paul D. Thacker is an Investigative Reporter; Former Investigator United States Senate; Former Fellow Safra Ethics Center, Harvard University
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