-1Everyone Reads the Same Newspaper
The news is like dog food. It comes under hundreds of labels, hundreds of brands, all with different identities, and even differing listed parent companies, but the product is the same. An observant person must have noticed during the recent pet food scare that all the actual content comes from one or two sources, yet hundreds of different brands were recalled for the same reason. We've been living under the illusion that we've actually got choices, but they all work from the same hub. The first thing we have to do is point and laugh at the people that thought they were taking extra care by purchasing the premium blends. But then we need to come to terms with the cold fact that we've been defrauded. "Up market" and "down market" were consuming the same slop from different troughs.
Newspapers work the same way. We have several competing papers in all the metropolitan areas, competing broadcast news stations, cable, radio, and a giant ecosystem of world wide web media, and everyone's top story is the same thing picked up from the Associated Press. Most casual consumers of news don't know what a newswire is, and may not grasp the enormity of the phenomenon if told too casually.
A compelling example of how a news brand is not an independent news source is the so-called Yahoo News. At my last check on the statistics, Yahoo is still the world's most popular homepage ( that is to say, the "home" on one's browser). It stands to reason, then, that Yahoo's news stories influence web users more than others. But look carefully at all their top stories. You'll almost certainly see the letters "AP." That means the article was actually written by someone in the largest news wire, the Associated Press. The AP was established in 1846 in the United States to create national and international coverage for a coalition of newspapers. The cooperative cut down the cost of reporting for all involved, but it also meant everyone was reporting the same news. They became known as a "newswire", obviously, because their reporters wired stories in through the telegraph system (later, teletype). They've since expanded into radio and television.
Now, the AP cooperative is a powerful resource, but only if consumers of information understand that all major media outlets are reporting from the exact same source, and that this information is rarely independently verified. A story can circulate across fifteen hundred papers, and be absolutely fictional, without an ounce of suspicion. That's because casual consumers of news never think of the wires. They saw it on CNN, so they believe CNN did that reporting. Then they see it on Slate (an online paper started by Microsoft in 1996), and think Slate did the reporting. Then they see the same stories on papers with a different editorial slant, and figure it isn't a mass conspiracy by one ideological movement.
But they're all the same report sent down the wire! The result becomes obvious; shenanigans by one reporter enters the public consciousness.
But the newswires aren't the only pipelines siphoning content into the scrapbooks posing as original products we call newspapers, syndicated columns and comics also supply filler for your paper. Universal Press Syndicate provides many of the comics in the paper, the crossword puzzle, some of the columns, and the editorial cartoons. Still others come from King Features Syndicate (serving nearly 5000 newspapers), or the newer service, Creators Syndicate. Look through the opinion columns, comic strips, games, advice, horoscope, weather, lifestyles, or trivia, and you'll find that three companies supply it all for all the papers, including the ones that have the effrontery to add "independent " to their paper's appellation.
Clearly, newspapers aren't created locally, they're customized through checking a few boxes. Editors are little more newsmen than your daughters are web page designers for selecting a few options on their social networking pages. Only, with your news services, the issue is more serious. How the public understands the larger world is shaped by the information transmitted to them through the wires and syndication services. Reuters, a British rival of the AP, shaped your view of the Lebanon War of 2006, but the freelance photographer sending dispatches through the wire, Adnan Hajj, manipulated the images digitally. Salam Daher, AKA "Green Helmet Guy" operated as a media manipulator, staging scenes in Southern Lebanon. Daily activities included emptying graveyards to supply dead civilians atop targets struck by the Israeli Defense Force. Norddeutscher Run funk (North German Broadcasting), a Hamburg-based broadcaster, eventually released video footage of Green Helmet directing photo shoots. His macabre work was routinely picked up by wire services like Reuters, AP, and Agence France-Presse (AFP). Reuters ended up firing Adnan Hajj for his photo manipulations.
These wires, AP, AFP, United Press International (UPI), Reuters, and the syndicates, provide us with our perception of the world. They inform us of our opinions about our own nation, and its place among all the others. It shapes our most important views. Yet it isn't peer-reviewed. It has little to no independent verification. And these pipelines have shaped us before broadcasting and the media consolidation that's altered the noosphere (sphere of human thought) since the First World War. Much has been made of the "big three" evening news broadcasts that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, now that we've discussed syndication, the situation is even more grave. Picking ABC over NBC or CBS was merely picking a different tone, for the most part. There was little original reporting (and that little got Dan Rather fired). Then one considers the canned segments in the local news broadcasts. Your Area will give several minutes to canned video segments from its major broadcast affiliate. For radio, it's a packaged audio segment. And sometimes, the affiliate won't produce them independently, but will outsource, and air press release videos posing as journalism, without attribution.
Science couldn't work this way. With science, everything has to be independently verifiable through observation. Everything published in a scientific journal must be reviewed by peers (there are some cracks in this process, to be explained another time). Law also works this way. A single witness can't indict someone. This dates back to Mosaic Law, and any justice system operating with a lower system isn't deemed civilized (again, there are cracks in this system). Only journalism expects to be regarded as a disciplined search for truth without safeguards to insure discipline. Journalism expects to get by on writing in a "just the facts" style, as if not being upfront about held opinions relieves one of actually having biases that guide observations. It's as sure to fail as the puritan practice of never displaying a propensity to sin. The human will fail every time. Famously, checks and balances become safeguards against error, but as explained, syndicated news doesn't have any.