Flak Attack

My familiarity with the Herman-Chomsky propaganda model has left me largely hostile to what the authors refer to as “flak”, a.k.a. routine criticism of the media by other powerful institutions. If anything, it seems that the problem has only gotten worse in the time since that paper was written, since now institutions have sprung up on both the Right and the Left that seem to have no purpose other than to whine about coverage they see as inadequate.

As it turns out, it’s kind of a tricky line here, though, because sometimes the media’s coverage is, in fact, bad. I’m not talking about straight up lying and plagiarism here, (although that has happened), but more about coverage that is sensationalist, meant to stoke fear, or meant to push a false narrative. Most of this flies under the radar, but, once again, we’ve seen significant scandals involving this as well, culminating in the Time’s apology for their coverage in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

In this sense, perhaps flak does actually serve an purpose in the media landscape. In my mind, they’re sort of the media equivalent to short sellers: People that some of us love to hate, but actually can perform a specific and useful regulatory function.

For some examples, we now turn to the website of FAIR, who I essentially consider a flak organisation, specifically, of the liberal persuasion. I did, however, come across this article, which I think brings up some legitimate concerns about the Times coverage of the most recent Virginia mass-shooting. I think the reason that I found this particularly relevant was because I actually read the article that they’re criticizing, and, I must admit, would have probably continued on believing its core thesis, had they not pointed out some of the glaring gaps in the coverage.

For reference, the article in question is essentially about how the fact that the gunman in this incident was a vehement Sanders supporter raises some tough questions for the continuing Sanders movement. Okay, well, that seems reasonable. The problem is, it’s not really.

Mostly, what the FAIR article is up-in-arms about is the fact that the Times report essentially equates the Sanders movement’s actions with the Trump campaign’s inciting of violence. While this is kind of bogus, (after all, Sanders never called for protesters to be roughed up at his rallies), I think we can cut the NYT some slack on this one. After all, this seems to me like a classic example of a structural “fairness bias”. In the interest of good, objective, reporting, the Times is trying to, essentially, provide “both sides”. In this case, it skews the article a little, but it’s not too egregious, because it at least advances a legitimate point: Sanders supporters will have to do more to ensure that their movement remains a positive, constructive force going forward.

But do they? The FAIR article mentions two critical facts that cast significant doubt on this claim. The first is that the gunman had a history of domestic violence. As it turns out, this is crucial to understanding this tragedy, because domestic violence happens to be a good predictor of crimes like this, more so than any specific ideology. Even so, however, one could argue anyway that ideology was a crucial factor in this crime.

I think the second fact, then, is more damning: The man was obsessed with the notion that Trump was a Russian “traitor”. Now, you can speculate all you want about how the Russians might have been connected to the Trump campaign, but, as it stands, these are the facts: The only crime we have any reasonable evidence for here is obstruction of justice, which has nothing to do with Russians, and everything to do with Trump shooting himself in the foot, as per uzh. Other than that, there are some disturbing links to particular individuals (Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn) that render them unfit to serve in the government, but no one has actually been charged with a crime at this point. As for Trump himself, all we have at the moment is a salacious and unsubstantiated dossier, and a slightly disquieting wannabe-bromance with Putin. It’s more than enough to get the conspiracy-theory gears turning, but not much more than that.

The reason the NYT probably doesn’t want to admit this is because they, along with all the rest of the media, has been busy feeding off of every minor tidbit of information relating to the Trump-Russia scandal. In the most egregious cases, the media has been busy normalizing what are, essentially conspiracy theories. Again, this is not surprising, because the media will attempt to squeeze what little narrative they can out of anything. In this case, then, it’s much easier to just beat up on Sanders again than to admit that their sensationalist coverage might have been part of the problem.

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