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Throw away the newspaper,
This review is from: Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media (Paperback)There are plenty of good books out there - and sadly probably even more bad books. But there are few genuinely important books. This is one of them.
I've been wrestling with the whole idea of the news media for a while now. Like a lot of idealistic young people, especially those with 60s era parents, I grew up assuming that the media was part of the solution. Ok, there were the right wing tabloids, boo hiss. But generally journalists were numbered among the good guys. Yes, they drank and smoked and swore; but they also put their necks on the line to root out corruption and cast light into dark corners. See countless films with Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart for details.
I even considered becoming a journalist myself. Then, sadly, I met a few. Now I realise they're part of the problem.
I've come across a few newspaper sceptics before. Nassim Taleb, for example, in `Fooled by Randomness' comes out as a media avoider. His view is that reading the news is a waste of time because any genuinely important facts will rise to the surface and he'll find out about them, while the rest is noise - opinion, PR guff, `infotainment' and dubious `facts' that will be contradicted within the week. The time we spend consuming this visual junk food could be better spent elsewhere. But Taleb isn't a newspaper insider. Davies is.
Nick Davies has done us all a huge service with `Flat Earth News'. We probably all know about some of the cases, like the `Hitler diaries' where newspapers have been proved spectacularly wrong or taken in by conmen, or where they have been led by the biases of their editors and owners to distort or conceal the truth. What I suspect most people don't realise is just how the systemic weaknesses of news organisations leave them prey to those agencies who want to control the national agenda. Foremost among these is simply that they have cut staffing to the bone, leaving inexperienced journalists to fill huge amounts of space each day.
Journalism, in short, has become a treadmill. So forget the image of Humphrey Bogart treading the mean streets on the trail of town hall corruption. Town hall corruption takes too long to root out, and attracts too many writs in the process. Instead imagine a 23 year old stuck at a desk all day copying out press releases about Paris Hilton.
Why does this matter? It matters because there's ample psychological evidence that we as a species are terrible at assessing risk through analysing statistics, so we tend to rely on crude judgements of frequency. So, if all the papers go off on a crusade about, say, paedophiles, or gang violence, or drugs, or hospital caught infections (usually because a single incident sets them off) and that's all we see for months, we tend to assume the issue in question is a serious risk, even when the risks are in fact minimal, or even negligible. But if an issue looks like it has legs, the politicians have to get involved and then we can get ill-considered, expensive, and even damaging legislation. National debate suffers and we all get a little stupider.
If this makes Davies' book sound like a worthy tome dedicated to newsgathering as an industry, then never fear: there are plenty of great stories about the awful things journos get up to. And he is admirably even-handed - the Observer comes in for just as much stick as the tabloids, and probably deserves it.
So, if you fancy thinking for yourself rather than consuming the unreliable, biased, prepackaged news-style infotainment currently on offer, stop buying the papers and use the money you save to buy good books. Start with this one.