The question I am most often asked isn’t, ‘how did you get into the CIA’ or ‘what was it like working in counterterrorism at the CIA’ or ‘did you have to have sex to get secrets’ (yes that is really a question, and, no, I did not). Rather, in the top two questions at every speaking engagement or film festival has been, ‘what news outlet do you watch or listen too?’
As an intelligence analyst, I crave information, including opposing points of view—especially opposing points of view that test my understanding of any subject. I am always stumped, however, by the question of which news outlet to recommend. I use different outlets for different things, some just for pure entertainment knowing that they aren’t accurate. It seems that the America that I interact with is craving a news source that doesn’t yet exist, or maybe something from the past.
News typically relies on sound bytes, which may or may not capture the broader argument. The media outlet, the speaker of the sound byte, and the talking head are typically without context. This contributes to ideological echo chambers that hurt America. Analysts read a ton of various forms of journalism and intelligence, we don’t trust that one source has the answer, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all. Long-form journalism, which happens to be my favorite form, is sometimes able to capture, not only the broader argument, but provide analysis of an opposing view.
News that is delivered to the consumer is subject to the same biases and opinions as products produced by the intelligence community and CIA—the difference being that today’s opinion pieces are more and more likely to be parading as news. Don’t get me wrong; OpEds are an important part of a discussion, especially those by experts in their field. There is a difference between a declared opinion piece and opinion-infused news.
Sherman Kent—the father of intelligence analysis– taught analysts to resist the tendency to see what they expect to see in the information and avoid personal bias. “Kent would have agreed with a policy official who advised analysts to provide assessments that serve to help all players iron out their differences in the often-adversarial policy game.”
So maybe it isn’t just the journalism of today, it’s also our interpretation of journalism. Was it ever really as objective (because being unbiased is almost impossible) as we remember, or is it just less obvious? Matt Taibbi explained why ‘The Daily Show’ was possibly the most trusted news source today.
Opinion can’t be extracted from reporting. The only question is whether it’s hidden. Stewart made his views clear and his reporting true.
To clarify, discussing opposing viewpoints isn’t the same as the scream matches we have become accustomed too on TV. Hearing qualified opposing points of view is essential to objective news. Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire in 2004 and exclaimed there is a difference between these types of shows and debate. ‘The thing is, you’re doing theater when you should be doing debate.”
If journalists were to more obviously declare areas of opinion vs. facts, we, as consumers would have a clear understanding of where the line is drawn. There is also a tech solution to this problem too-but more on that later. Kent recommended identifying and evaluating alternatives, leaving to policy clients the responsibility to recommend and choose. If news outlets today would make their unbiased fact sources obvious and highlight opinions, maybe we, as the consumer, could feel confident enough to decipher our own opinion.