Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
One of the peripheral issues in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the pro-Russia reporting by Russia Today’s news outlet RT.com. There were many expressions of surprise (with varying sincerity) that RT would have such an unabashedly biased slant. One of its reporters actually quit on the air in protest, which if nothing else allowed DSWright to get off a memorable headline (“Liz Wahl Just Realized The R In RT Stands For Russia”).
Glenn Greenwald responded by pointing out that American reporting has not exactly been adversarial towards American foreign policy, so criticism from US outlets is at best myopic and at worst hypocritical. In fact, the whole episode has produced an abundance of hilarious cluelessness.
The most influential American outlets have a long history of advancing government-friendly narratives, particularly at crucial moments. When the US wanted to launch its war against Iraq the New York Times notoriously let Judith Miller launder Bush administration propaganda on its front pages. The Washington Post put a 100,000 person strong antiwar march on its Metro page.
Wild, unsubstantiated claims were put front and center, dissenting views off to the side (“the Page A18 problem”). Knight-Ridder was the sole exception, and full credit to them for it. The Post and the Times did some nice reporting at times once the war was underway, but in that critical period when the US was debating whether or not to invade Iraq there was a completely government-friendly narrative.
The fact that RT is not a credible outlet on the Ukraine war does not mean it isn’t credible at all though, just not in areas of urgent importance to its sponsor. While US outlets aren’t state sponsored, the heavy emphasis on access journalism amounts to a kind of quasi-sponsorship. (If self-censorship seems too crude a description, substitute this from 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 if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”)
For instance, RT did a very nice job covering the protests in Wisconsin over Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation in 2011. And as the linked video shows, it did so at a time when American coverage was scant or non-existent. The corporate sponsors of American media were not interested in coverage of it, so it largely went uncovered. Similarly, Al Jazeera America focuses more on those farther down the economic scale than its upscale competitors have incentive to. You might not want to make Al Jazeera your go-to source for hard hitting news on Qatar, though.
Newer outlets are not immune to the pressures of sponsorship either. Greenwald’s new home, First Look, promises to be adversarial towards government in ways traditional outlets have often failed to be. Yet last month Pando Daily reported that First Look sponsor Pierre Omidyar has jointly funded Ukranian opposition groups with the US Agency for International Development. Greenwald responded at length but did not, as Erik Wemple noted, address the core issue.
And before you think Pando is the above the fray (it seems to be trying to re-invent itself as that), founder Sarah Lacy has generally run it as an uncritically pro-Silicon Valley trade site as chronicled by Sam Biddle here, here, here, here and here among other places. They have their own sponsors to answer to as well. In other words, getting a good picture of the news requires knowing who or what each outlet’s sponsors are and adjusting your estimation accordingly.
That is what makes an independently sponsored blogosphere so important. Operations that run actually – not just theoretically – on reader donations have the great virtue of not being dependent on substantial patronage from anywhere. The proprietors might still be stupid or crazy of course, but at least you know it’s their own native stupid or crazy and not some other factor.
Sites like Hullabaloo, Eschaton and Naked Capitalism run mainly off of reader donations, and maybe some additional modest ad revenue. Agree or disagree with them, they run their own shops. Independent sites like theirs will probably never be wildly profitable, but it’s important for them to do well enough to keep running. No one of them is indispensable, but together they are able to provide analysis and reporting unencumbered by the kind of considerations inherent in sponsored outlets. That makes them an essential part of an informed citizen’s news diet.
Photo by cliff1066 released under a Creative Commons license.