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Journalism School

It'll seem obvious to many, but a sheepdog should move around sheep without disturbing them unduly. He should have the "power" to bring or drive them wherever you want him to without unduly stressing or damaging them in any way. - The Working Sheepdog Website

This past weekend hundreds of journalists gathered in Boston for The Nieman Conference for Narrative Journalism.

I consume a lot of news. I frequently mutter things like, "Are these people for real? Do they believe this shit? How can they not see what's going on?" and things like that. I feel like a bitchy restaurant critic ripping apart the Chicken Marsala at one place and the Steak au Poivre at the next. So I confess that I have really been wondering about the journalists who churn this stuff out.

This weekend I walked among them with my "freelancer" badge hanging off my shirt, learning about their craft and learning about them.

I'm not a journalist now, never was one, didn't go to school for it, etc. In many ways I find journalists very admirable and possessing qualities that would place a horrible strain on my personality. For example, there were no awkward pauses after any of the sessions I attended. Journalists step right up to the microphone after a talk and pose wonderful, thoughtful questions. Many of them have sufficient nerve to boldly venture into places where they don't belong, sneaking in when necessary, and hanging around for hours taking surreptitious notes. They have patience to work with sources for weeks and months when necessary, building trust and eliciting the story one nugget at a time. They can witness terrible, sad things without ceasing to function. And they write on deadline.

On the other hand, a few moments revealed some general weaknesses. Many of them are accustomed to having everything they write vetted, edited and laid out by others. They don't bear ultimate responsibility for their work and thus enjoy a measure of safety and support. This came through in a blogging talk when several journalists new to blogging seemed rather incredulous that they can just hit 'publish' and have their work exposed, errors and all. They weren't at all sure about working without a safety net...too dangerous.

I chuckled to myself. Here I am, too stupid and reckless to know or care and with nobody watching my back, mouthing off and slinging darts at the government, the military, Israel. Let me tell you, you don't know scared shit until you have a Pentagon or DOJ visitor pop up on your personal blog stats. So in that sense, I felt slightly more courageous if not much more stupid that these professional journalists.

Over the course of the weekend I began to understand what I'm doing and what they're doing. You've all heard the sheeple narrative, right? It's the one that says Americans are like sheep. We mill around mindlessly, believing what we're told by the corporate media. We don't think for ourselves, etc. This is a narrative, which just means it's a story. There are many other familiar narratives: Republicans are stronger at national security than Democrats, the surge is working, we support the troops, Israel is a democracy and needs our support and protection, Al Qaeda did it, Iran is working on developing nuclear weapons, the liberal media won't tell you the truth, etc.

Now the sheeple narrative actually has some merit. Many Americans really do just follow along blindly behind their favorite talking heads. I don't know who first said, "Hey, we're all acting like a bunch of sheep," but the American people had already been turned into sheeple before anyone apparently noticed. So the sheeple narrative merely names a phenomenon that had already been created by...well, by who?

Let me explain with an analogy. A few years ago I watched a documentary on sheepdogs. It was filmed in Scotland. In one scene the dog handler showed how he could stand on a hillside and direct his dogs. Now the dogs were very far off, perhaps two miles away. He could see them because the beautiful Scottish countryside was more or less devoid of trees. The man stood on a grassy hillside and his sheep and dogs were milling around on another hillside across a valley. He had trained the dogs to work with signals he gave through a dog whistle, and he literally just stood there giving signals that nobody but the dogs could hear, and honest to God, the dogs knew exactly what to do with those sheep. It was quite amazing.

Now the sheeple analogy says that we people are the sheep, and the talking heads are the dogs. OK, well...who is the handler? Who directs the dogs? You see, the narrative has to start somewhere.

I'm suggesting we view the analogy this way instead: the journalists are the sheep, their editors are the dogs, and the handlers are a small group of people who stand too far off to recognize but who deftly wield the secret dog whistles.

Let me give you an example. Recently the Israeli Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, used the word shoah to describe the Occupation. From Media Monitors Network:

Vilnai, a former general, was interviewed by Army Radio as Israel was in the midst of unleashing a series of air and ground strikes on populated areas of Gaza that killed more than 100 Palestinians, at least half of whom were civilians and 25 of whom were children, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

The interview also took place in the wake of a rocket fired from Gaza that killed a student in Sderot and other rockets that hit the centre of the southern city of Ashkelon. Vilnai stated: “The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they [the Palestinians of Gaza] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.”
This is a scandalous remark. Vilnai spoke openly and revealed his twisted logic (the Palestinians are responsible for Israeli actions) and his moral depravity (Israel will commit a holocaust if necessary to defend itself). Of course, these remarks align quite accurately with Israel's actual brutal occupation, indiscriminate killing and excessive force against the Palestinians, so it should have been reported as an accurate expression of official Israeli policy. But tsk tsk! That would not help the master narrative that Israel is a democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, a tiny, just and helpless nation amid a sea of violent Arabs. So this remark had to be fixed somehow. And so it was.

By all means you should click through and read for yourself how this 'mistake' was 'handled'. Various explanations came forth, from he didn't mean it that way, to it was just a warning, to shoah also means disaster, etc. The Boston Globe ran two stories that referenced this remark. The first (from Reuters) ran on March 1, 2008.
Israel warns of Gaza disaster amid rocket fire

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli forces killed three Palestinians - two militants and a 17-year-old girl - during clashes in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip today, medical workers and the Islamist group said.

Israel's deputy defense minister warned of disaster in Gaza after Hamas launched a rocket attack this week on Ashkelon, a major Israeli city near the border, but Hamas leaders yesterday vowed to keep fighting.

A total of 37 Palestinians have been killed in four days of Israeli raids and air strikes in the coastal territory. Israel launched the attacks after an Israeli civilian was killed Wednesday in a Palestinian cross-border rocket attack on Sderot.

That doesn't seem so bad, right? It's just a 'warning' of 'disaster' after 'clashes' and Hamas rocket attacks. Also, an Israeli citizen was killed, please note right up front, which is why Israel launched the attacks. If you stopped reading after a few paragraphs (under the assumption that reporters put the nut up front), you would miss the real story. Only after many paragraphs does the actual quote appear, along with the damage-control explanation:

Yesterday, Israel's deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, warned Gazans they risked a "shoah" if rocket fire did not end.

"As the rocket fire grows, and the range increases . . . they are bringing upon themselves a greater shoah because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate, whether in air strikes or on the ground," Vilnai told Army Radio. The Hebrew word is rarely used in Israel beyond discussions of the Nazi Holocaust, but an aide said Vilnai had used the word only to mean "disaster." The strength of his language, however, reflected mounting anger after the killing of the Israeli civilian on Wednesday.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, a former prime minister, said: "They want the world to condemn what they call the Holocaust and now they are threatening our people with a holocaust."

At least it got in there. By the next day the quote had become even more vague. The Boston Globe ran a story from the LA Times in which, for some now unknown reason, the Arab world had just taken to calling this bloodshed a 'holocaust'. Go figure.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, condemned the Israeli incursion as "state terrorism" and called on the Security Council to press Israel to end it. Militant leaders and commentators across the Arab world referred to the bloodshed as a "holocaust."

Israeli government spokesman David Baker said Hamas and other militant groups bore responsibility for the civilian deaths. "They hide behind their own civilians, using them as human shields, while actively targeting Israeli population centers," he said.

Israel is "compelled to take these defensive measures" to protect 200,000 Israelis living within Palestinian rocket range, he added.

This is just one very small example of how the dog handlers use the whistle. Surely the reporters knew that Vilnai made the comment and what it really means, but the editors must obey the handlers, and the handlers say to move the sheep away from there. And so it goes. This happens as a matter of course. You will not notice it unless you have consumed enough news to see where the narrative diverges from the facts.

By the end of the weekend I came to understand that reporters are pretty busy with their jobs. It's not really their fault. They get the story and someone edits it. If a reporter keeps sending stories in that have the wrong narrative, true though it may be, the reporter makes extra work for the editors. That person may not advance in his or her career. So the reporter learns to stay within the confines of the narrative. It's economics. The editors, likewise, need to keep their jobs.

We must focus on the dog handlers. Who are they and how do we get away from them? I'm not sure that people writing within the corporate media can do it, though some may try, because the narratives are powerful and journalists get rewarded for following them. Bob Somerby has been banging this drum for ages. Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, Maureen Dowd and so on ad nauseum - these people got where they are because they stick to the approved narratives. You will never know what's going on in the world as long as you rely on these people to tell you.

By simply recognizing the narratives confining our discourse, we begin to be able to stand outside them. We are not sheep, we are human beings. We must learn to find the facts ourselves and figure out the true narrative, the Truth. That's what I'm trying to do here on this blog, and I'm not alone. Anyone who wants to figure out what's going on can now do so with a little effort, and I highly recommend it. Read alternative news.

Think your own thoughts.