Monday, May 28, 2007

Arms to Lebanon and its converage in the US media

This is an email I received from my brother Kurt, posted here with his consent.

I know this is everyones favorite subject: politics and what the US does abroad (or at home for that matter), but this article kind of stuck out to me because I was happy that someone was answering the obvious question that comes up when browsing the headlines about whats going on in Lebanon these days: why does the US need to make emergency military arms shipments to the Lebanese army so it can fight a tiny militant group in a refugee camp?

I don’t know why I am sending it to you all in particular, I guess because its something interesting and a bit different maybe from what we usually think about as a family.

Is anyone following this at all? Is there any discussion in the news about why the US needs to send arms to Lebanon? I’m curious.


Alan Rosenwinkel said...

This is my brother Eric's response, posted with his consent:

Interesting stuff. First time I've heard about it.

In medicine, there's a tendency to approach the scientific literature with skepticism and never base clinical practice on the outcome of just one scientific study. The idea is that any scientific truth should be able to be replicated by a separate observer. I tend to approach journalism the same way.

So, although what the article says may indeed be true, I will suspend belief until it is validated somewhere else. As to why it is true and the motivation behind it, well who the heck really knows? Any conclusion about the motivation behind a US political decision based on one article would be laden with my own bias about how things operate in this f***ed up country. The chance that my conclusion would be true would be fairly remote.

That being said, where do I get my news from? What do I accept as fact? That is a question I've grappled with for years. These days I tend to start with the New York Times. Yes it's corporate and big business, but it is also widely regarded as the best newspaper in the country (i.e., upholding the best standards of journalism). If I read something of interest there, I usually next cross-check it with the BBC. Basically the European NYT, but at least it's European. Other sources I like: Reuters and Associated Press newswires, the Economist... What sources do you tend to trust?

My point is, be careful where you get your facts from. Always approach what you read with scrutiny and ask whether the source is biased before you believe it and form conclusions based on it.

My $0.02..

dave hiller said...

The US doesn't need to send arms to anyone, but we have a tendency to choose sides, and we greatly prefer the current Lebanese leadership to the militant group.

I definitely agree with Eric's comment. I think even high-end sources like the nyt are often drastically wrong, both because of time pressures and inherent bias and combinations of both. The great thing is that it's very easy to double-check a story, and if it's wrong someone will probably figure it out, thus making it even easier to check...Be careful about finding the same article picked up in several sources, though - that only counts for one.

Oddly, in my little corner of science, it's very important for results to be reproducible, but very rarely does anyone actually reproduce anything.

Alan Rosenwinkel said...

I don't know much about the Lebanon situation. It hasn't gotten much press at all here. I suspect that the Lebanese government has been cooperative in "helping" the US and thus gets our military support. US foreign policy seems to work like this:

1) Will country A do what the US tells them to. If yes, give them money and/or arms to keep the government in power. If no, goto (2)

2) Do they have nuclear weapons? If no, assassinate their leader and install one that will do what the US wants. If yes goto (3)

3) Are they economically devastated? If yes, give money but only if they promise to do what the US wants. If no, goto (4)

4) Apply economic sanctions to economically devastate the country. Goto (3).

As for getting reliable news, I agree 100% with Dave that even "reputable" sources are far from unbiased. The US press has done a horrific job covering Venezuela and it's president Hugo Chavez (read about that here) and here is a story about the removal of a NYT reporter from the Duke/Nifong story because he was defending the accused players, who were later declared factually innocent.

Alan Rosenwinkel said...

My Dad's response, posted with his consent:

1. I believe, and there is some supporting evidence to back me up, that we hear what we want to hear. Below is a web address discussing this:

2. In order to be completely objective, it is not necessary to be informed from the marginal viewpoints, but the extreme viewpoints. Consider the Palestinians who define our "terror" as their patriotism.

3. I tend to be moralistic in my judgments, but they seem to have no origin. Again the Palestinian example, I tend to agree with their side as I think it was ethnocentricity to usurp their homeland and give it to the Jews. But where did they get the land, and then were did the people before them get the land, all the way back to Moses?? The history of the "Middle East" (a Western term) abounds with this conundrum.

4. So one question is how to resolve these historical terrors - what is the responsibility of "Americans to African Americans, Indians, etc.., all of whom have been related to unjustly - and who is to blame? Because I am a white Anglo-Saxon, am I to assume old wrongs? I don't think so. But I do think the population in general (the public) does have responsibility for the "good".

Alan Rosenwinkel said...

Kurt's response to those comments:

Good points!

I agree that sources need credibility and shouldn’t necessarily be believed until validated. Especially in politics and media where groups are trying to influence specific outcomes and perceptions.


“it is no easy task to gain some understanding of human affairs. In some respects, the task is harder than in the natural sciences. Mother Nature doesn’t provide the answers on a silver platter, but at least she does not go out of her way to set up barriers to understanding. In human affairs, such barriers are the norm. it is necessary to dismantle the structures of deception erected by doctrinal systems, which adopt a range of devices that flow very naturally from the ways in which power is concentrated.”

The New York Times admitted it was biased in its articles leading up to the Iraq war. It admitted that it reiterated the assumptions and conclusions of the US government without question or examination. There are many other examples of this tendency, consistently enough for me to apply the same doubt to that venue. I think the biggest problem is not about what you get from these traditional sources, its about what you do not get. Theres the right story and the wrong story. And its here where political influence is effective. Can you imagine a reuters story-

“Saddam Hussein is being tried by the US installed government in Iraq for the horrendous crimes he committed against his own people which he did with our direct political and military support, including giving him the biological and chemical weapons which he used to carry out the same crimes, under the guidance of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney at the time”? nothing factually controversial there, just too much in the picture to keep ourselves clean. Much better to say we got rid of a bad guy and call it a day.

its hard to figure out who is spinning you in the media, but when theres a big gorilla in the room and not one person in the press pool is even adressing the obvious questions, I start to turn that principle of examining the credibility of my sources on our mainstream media.

I look at google news cause you can survey lots of different originally generated articles about the same subject, sometimes with different information. And also for the big picture and better historical awareness I have found I can rely at least on Noam Chomsky, who is beyond question in his scholarship and his adherence to these principles that Eric lays down. I would recommend his latest book “Failed States”. Harpers magazine is also a credible in depth source.

dave hiller said...

Speaking on the subject of bias (which I am certainly not immune from), it's kinda funny that we can tell each other's political views by our views of particular sources.

Underneath this though, I think there is inherent truth - it's not all just a matter of perspective. For instance, I'd address in a general way the saying "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." I believe this to be untrue - you can define someone not only based on what they are fighting for but also how they fight. I'm not a hardcore pacifist, but I do think there is no justification for intentionally targeting civilians. Guerrilla warfare is one thing and terrorism is another. Not everything is relative.

I think the best way to address the biases we have and find the truth underneath isn't to try to cover your bias but instead to play devil's advocate (or have someone else play it for you). Really challenge your ideas, and specifically look for evidence that is contradictory to what you believe. I think that is something anyone can honestly achieve, and if you do then you can be confident in your ideas.

Alan Rosenwinkel said...

Does that mean everyone thinks I'm a Republican cause I busted on the NYT? (yeah you heard me. I said 'busted on') But I was supportive of Chavez, right? That must make me a socialist/dictator/republican. Well, I did ride in on a Stalin-red elephant.

jaideep said...

There's alot of good stuff here and it's tempting to jump in, but I won't right now. Let me just post a couple of relevant links on media bias to the important works of the late David Shaw of the L.A. Times:

Iraqgate--A Case Study of a Big Story With Little Impact

Despite hundreds of news reports, no public outrage has erupted over secret U.S. aid to Iraq.

October 27, 1992

Abortion Bias Seeps Into News

A comprehensive Times study finds that the press often favors abortion rights in its coverage, even though journalists say they make every effort to be fair.

July 1, 1990

dave hiller said...

Maybe the story wasn't big because it had the retarded name "iraqgate"? Also, it's funny how that article has a huge amount of bias. I presume it was in the opinion section originally, but it still presumes all sorts of things that aren't facts.

jaideep said...

Dave: i agree about "iraqgate" and i would take it a step further. i dislike the "-gate"ing of everything and anything potentially politically scandalous these days.

what do you think was the worst case of bias on the part of Shaw in that article?

dave hiller said...

I think the most common source of bias is presenting opinion or disputed claims as uncontested fact. For instance, the beginning of the article has a couple paragraphs on Reagan that make a huge number of unsupported claims in a short period. It was especially charming to see a statement on why Reagan was re-elected, supported only by a meaningless quote by the NYT's Howell Raines. These people (as well as the rest of it) are usually not trying to be biased, they just can't imagine that any intelligent person would believe something different.

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