People often ask me where to find good information on various topics. Here are some thoughts on various sources of “news”, and a bit about how I assimilate and interpret them. Be aware that a couple of these sources are blocked by the social media watchdogs so you won’t find some links here – you’ll have to type them in. Note that citing a source or reading it is NOT endorsement or belief – in fact, a few of these are outright propaganda outlets (Xinhau as an example). In other cases, they may express views that are somewhat repugnant but are important to understand what the people who sponsor those sites are thinking, or to be able to have discussions with people who get their information from them so as to be able to discuss events with them and perhaps persuade them to reconsider their views.
For hurricane and earthquake hazard information it’s easy and not controversial: the US National Weather Service is the place to go. Few news/weather sources do their own global numerical weather modeling; the rest just regurgitate, interpret (sometimes badly), and dramatize NWS and other national and regional meteorological center data (like the European Center). So if you want solid, drama free forecasts, just go to the source – you already paid for it with your taxes anyway! For earthquakes, the US Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program is the ultimate source.
On the pandemic, it gets a bit trickier. Most of the sources are pushing an agenda and/or cheerleading (even if it’s an agenda that I agree with and is mostly “good”, I’m nervous that it’s sometimes driven a lot by politics), and the reliable neutral information is often technical and requires a lot of specialized knowledge, changes rapidly, and is occasionally contradictory. The best bets are the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). You won’t go much wrong following their guidance (THEIR guidance, not what some talking head tells you their guidance is!). I also check in on what the European Medicines Agency, National Health Service (NHS, the UK health system), and the German medical authorities are saying to see what their treatment guidelines are, and how/why they differ from US guidelines.
For other news topics, sadly, most of the time my answer to “what’s the best source of news” is “there isn’t one.” Almost every source has biases, distortions, and these days outright lies of both omission and comission. That situation has changed for the worse over the last 20 years and the balance has shifted from “biased within the limits of the facts” to “pushing a specific narrative with little regard for the facts.” However, as Garek, a character from Star Trek DS-9 would say: Knowledge is knowing someone is lying to you. Wisdom is knowing the truth in the lies.
So, do you think you’re informed about key issues by reading US big name media sources (be it on the CNN/NYT, Fox News/NYP “sides” of the spectrum)? Let’s take one critical story that was used last year to discredit Trump (who hardly needed help in that regard), inflame tensions with Russia, and paint legislators into a corner. On June 26th the New York Times ran the above the fold headline “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.” Wow. If true, that’s, um, exactly what the US did in the mid 1980’s when the Soviets occupied the place, but I guess that’s besides the point. It would be a dangerous escalation, and if the narrative that Trump was Putin’s Puppet were true a serious embarrassment or worse. However, by August the narrative had changed: the headlines were now “US Intelligence indicates Iran paid bounties to Kill US Troops, Intelligence Says.” Of course, no serious discussion that a mere two months previously it was the ebil Rooskies who were behind US troop deaths. By December needs had changed, and the headlines were “Trump Administration declassifies unconfirmed intel on Chinese Bounties.” (NB here the word “unconfirmed” was thrown in – although in all three cases there was no independent or neutral confirmation, just leaks or unattributed backgrounders from intelligence officials – which is the same thing.) Each story was carefully was placed at the time when it was “needed” to support the narrative of the moment – and for whatever reasons, most reporters failed to provide context, even to note up front the shifting, evidence-free narrative.
In any event, with all those bounties on our soldiers heads, casualties must be through the roof. The truth? Well, since negotiations with the Taliban began in earnest over a US withdrawal, and the cease fire implemented on 29 February 2020 (over a year ago), there have been no US combat deaths in Afghanistan. Zero. Even prior to that the pattern of attacks and casualties do not suggest bounties. The most reasonable conclusion is there were no bounties, at least not in the sense the stories tried to convey (it’s business as usual in conflicts to tell militias and irregular forces that their supplies and payments are contingent on performance – is that really a “bounty”? The US is doing exactly that in Syria as I write this …) There are, however, elements within the State Department, Intelligence Community, and Military who are vehemently opposed to the troop pullout, and trying to connect our forces there with some wider geopolitical struggle (Russia, China, and/or Iran), so the bounty story is a great narrative to defeat the withdrawal policy, impune this or that “potential adversary,” and paint the incoming Biden administration in a corner. While the “spin” was different, both CNN and FoxNews viewers more than likely believe the “bounty” story – albeit for different payees, and even though there is zero evidence for it.
In short, you can’t really trust the major news sources of either inclination in the US, especially on issues where US Government Policies are at stake or, I would add, “hot button” social issues. Even the so-called “raw” sources like AP, Reuters, etc. are more often than not stenographers for government or political sources if you scratch the surface. As for “processed” news, I laugh when people use the phrase “state sponsored” in connection with Russia Today (RT) for example. At least they get money for it; when CNN or Fox News piously and uncritically repeats some statement by the US Government, they don’t even get (directly) payed for it! And of course the pervasive corporate influence is self evident from the number of drug adverts. What is worse, with the advent of Advocacy Journalism, the vast majority of reporters now feel they have an obligation to have a point of view in any given story, and objectivity is increasingly seen as a vice rather than a virtue. So let’s stop pretending that CNN is morally or ethically significantly better than RT just because they are pushing a “US Government” perspective, much less the perspective of any given political movement (be it “Progressives”, “Neoconservatives”, or “Trumpsters”). That’s not to say CNN can’t do good reports from time to time (like one I saw recently on Yemen). The problem is you just can’t trust them not to spin stories to fit a narrative, especially if it is one the prevailing political or corporate powers favor.
So what to do? How to we figure out what is really going on? As The Man With No Name said before the final gunfight of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, “We’re gonna have to earn it.”
My morning routine for global events is to check my in-house dashboard (which tracks natural and some anthropogenic hazards) for anything that stands out and to see if I need to run into the office to deal with a breaking disaster. Then I go through the following process. The key is to scan conflicting sources and look for commonality, and see if that commonality makes sense from a historical and physical standpoint. Unfortunately that takes time. Sources in bold below are primary English language go-to’s; the rest I read if time permits or if something is going on that warrants it. But I start by scanning the following sources to see what the headlines look like:
- Deutche World (for a European Perspective, dw.com)
- Xinhau (For the Chinese Party line, xinhaunet.com)
If a story catches my eye as important, I’ll read or skim it, then check against one of the other sources to see if they report it and how. If there is a breaking/important US story, I’ll skim:
- CNN – be sure to compare US, International, and if you understand Spanish, the Spanish version – very “interesting” the differences between the three even for the “same” story … 😮
- Fox News
- Bloomberg (if there is a financial element)
and if it involves US politics and elections, Real Clear Politics (realclearpolitics dot com) to see what the “tenor” of the discussion and/or polling indicates. Mostly I’m looking at common themes and conflicting emphasis to try to figure out what each source wants me to believe and, just as importantly, ignore. Once a week or so I’ll steel myself and skim DailyKos and RedState/Townhall to see what the batcrap crazy elements in the Democrat and Republican Parties are “thinking.” Zerohedge can also be a fun source of what the fringe is up to.
To get a handle on conflict zones I also visit SouthFront dot org just about daily. It has a lot of annoying ads and “we’re about to go away” fundraising, but the conflict zone graphics and reporting are quite good. Another source of analysis on US-Russia as well as China opinion and commentary is also The Saker (www.thesaker dot is). Be aware that these two sources are tagged as being Russian disinformation and linking to them will be blocked and get can you a warning for violating community standards on Facebook and other social media like Twitter – even in private messages! Calling them disinformation is very simplistic worldview – they certainly have a pro Russia standpoint, and are likely fed to greater or lesser degrees from info from sources in the Russian Government – but if you want to know what is going in from a military perspective in Syria or Ukraine, as well as the war in Yemen, SouthFront is indispensable. The Saker is a cleaner web page, often reprints some SouthFront stories, but is geared more towards commentary. It is sometimes called antisemitic. It seems to me more anti-Zionist than anti-Jewish from a racist or ethnic perspective, but I have to say some terminology and commentary makes me cringe. This is a touchy and complex area – the Israeli government and its supporters have done a nice PR job of equating being against the policies of the State of Israel as being automatically antisemitic; likewise, there are people out there who hate Israel for the obvious reason.
Local news in the US has been under enormous pressure, and Savannah Georgia is no exception. The Savannah Morning News (the local paper, on the web as savannahnow.com) has undergone a change of ownership and editor recently, and has been evolving over the last year or so. I’ll sometimes check the local TV station news pages to see what the Savannah Chamber of Commerce feels is important. Finally, I’ll check OrthoChristian dot com to see what is up in the Orthodox Church, who the saint of the day is, that sort of thing (although not flagged as far as I know, it is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church and is sometimes falsely accused of pushing Russian propaganda). All this above takes maybe 45 minutes to an hour, normally done while eating my morning oatmeal and apple 😛
During the day, when I have a few minutes, I’ll check AP, Reuters, and/or Tass for breaking news. If you want to try to keep up with the Arab world and Africa, Al Jazzera (aljazzera dot com) is a must review source. It is biased towards the Arabic Gulf States point of view, but often reports somewhat objectively on events and coverage elsewhere in the developing world. If Reuters, AP, or TASS mentions an Africa story, I’ll check AJ to see what they have to say.
Every couple of days I check Consortium News – it is a fantastic source for perspective and singes both Democrats and Republicans equally. They got in to trouble with YouTube for a piece because they quoted a QAnon supporter – FOR THE PURPOSE OF DEBUNKING THEIR CLAIMS!!! That shows you the outrageous levels of censorship that have come to the social media platforms – even quoting someone you disagree with potentially results in the banhammer. Yet what is more responsible – saying “Q said this stupid thing but I can’t let you see it because you might get infected” or saying “Q said this stupid thing – here is the reference so you can see if my quote is correct.”
I also scan other sites such as journals I receive (like Foreign Affairs – which requires a subscription, but is the ultimate “establishment” insider view in the foreign policy realm). I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times last year. There was a time it was essential reading, as it was (and remains) the viewpoint and voice of what the US “establishment” insiders (senior business and political leaders) want the world to be. But anything available there is available elsewhere, and I just can’t justify sending them money. The last straw was their recruiting a new Moscow bureau chief; fluency in Russian was not a hard requirement. Imagine what the quality of a Washington DC reporter would be if they could not speak English! So I have come to question the background and knowledge of their reporters in many areas (of which I’ve dealt with a few over the years, and noticed a significant decline in knowledge and quality especially since 2010 or so.) For TV, I do quick checks on CNN and Fox News from time to time to see what the narrative being fed to people might be at the moment, or video from live events. I finally got CNBC back on my streaming feed, so am looking forward to seeing what Shepard Smith is doing with his evening news program (The News, at 7pm). So far it seems pretty good.
For search engines, I often run the same search on Google, Bing, and Yandex if is an information/news related search. They will provide different results, especially about touchy topics, and that difference is information in and of itself. I usually do news searches in “incognito” mode to try to prevent the engines from trying to anticipate what I might want to see based on location or past results, rather than what I need to see based on the situation. Be aware that your news searches and sites are being tracked, and that can produce significant biases in what you see. Clean out your cookies regularly, and be sure to use incognito or private browsing modes.
Finally, you can’t understand today unless you have a good grasp on yesterday. If there is a topic you care about, research the history behind it – actually, read several histories from different perspectives and try to figure out the commonalities and why a particular news story may be biased depending on periodization. How you interpret the news of today often depends on when you start history. The Middle East is notorious for this problem. If you start history in Roman times, perhaps that favors Israel. If you start the narrative in the early 1900’s, perhaps the Palestinian Arabs. 1948? Israel. 1987? Palestinan Arabs. And so on. There is a legend in the region that a hill dweller found a bee hive, and took the honeycomb to the village in the lowlands to sell to a merchant. The honey attracted flies. Birds came and ate the flies. The villager’s cat came and killed a bird. The hill dweller’s dog kill the cat. The merchant killed the dog. The hill dweller killed the merchant. The villagers raided and killed the family of the hill dweller, who’s clan sacked the village. The lowland king invaded the mountains, and so on: the Arab Israeli conflict was in full swing …
So that’s a quick 😛 overview. Staying informed is work, and requires you to seek out different, contradictory sources to get the full picture. Always look to see who is really behind the story and what/why it is being presented to you; it’s rarely the reporter, although the outlet may(will) provide a spin; it’s the “source” feeding information to the “reporter”. Don’t fall into the trap of reading only sources that present a perspective you already agree with. People you disagree with are rarely completely wrong; they have reasons, often valid, for their perspective, even if their conclusions or desired policies are “wrong”.
In short, staying informed is lots of work and an open – but not gullible – mind.