Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Censored or not, news is always biased

  • In an interview with comedian-podcaster Russell Brand, famous linguist Noam Chomsky has caused a furore by claiming news censorship in the United States today is worse than that of the former Soviet Union. He may have a point – or not

Two of my favourite towering intellects spoke with each other last month: linguist-philosopher Noam Chomsky and comedian-podcaster Russell Brand. They discussed fake news and how the Western mainstream news media manipulates information consumption. This led to the by now controversial statement from Chomsky that censorship in the United States today is worse than that of the former Soviet Union.

Chomsky fans are, of course, used to hearing such pronouncements from the prophet of MIT. Indeed, with his long untrimmed white hair and heavy beard nowadays, he looks a lot like the Hollywood version of Moses. The US mainstream media used to ignore Chomsky. Now, for some reason, he is back in fashion. Newsweek even ran a whole “fact check” article to rebut Chomsky’s claim.

Both Brand and Chomsky have always been critical of the mainstream news media. I am too, but am a lot more forgiving. Perhaps it’s because I am in the same business; but then so is Brand. Or rather I am just as biased, only in the opposite direction. As I always say, if you can be pro-American, why can’t I be pro-China? But that’s not what I want to argue about today.

Let me lay my cards down at the outset. For the record, I don’t think Chomsky is right. It’s interesting he didn’t say the United States today is more censored than Russia. That comparison would have been more relevant.

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But let’s dive a little deeper. For me, news is always already biased, even when it is supposed to be purely factual. That’s by its very nature. “Important” news, that is, developments or happenings in the “real” world that will have an impact on you and your family and their well-being, will reach you one way or another – you will always know in time – even if you don’t read Google news aggregations or subscribe to online or cable TV channels.

The 24/7 news cycles or recycling have to do with commerce and consumer psychology, and very little – or rather nothing – to do with informing you what you need to know to survive and prosper in your world. In fact, they distract you from paying attention to things that matter to you – these include intellectual, literary or artistic pursuits. Worse, they lessen your ability to concentrate and focus on a relevant subject. The struggle for contemporary media groups to be “relevant” only makes them come up with topics and coverage that are more irrelevant and ultimately distract you from attending to things that really matter.

You think I am talking nonsense? Maybe I am, in which case, you should stop reading. But think of these news stories that you and I – most people – will no doubt consider “relevant”: the war in Ukraine; the economies of China and the US; the status of the two countries as superpowers; the status quo or fundamental change in the political position of Taiwan.

Do you know for a fact that Russia is winning or losing? Do you think China or the US is a declining power or the opposite? Does Taiwan want independence or just the way things are now? Is the world going into a recession? The honest answer is, we don’t know; and you won’t know by reading the news. However, not just opinion pieces such as those from yours truly, but endless news stories try to sway you towards one view or the other.

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Of course, there is ignorance and then ignorance. Someone can say “I don’t know” to all that about Taiwan, yet has the background knowledge about the US Taiwan Relations Act and three US-China Communiques.

There are those who know what they don’t know and those who don’t know what they don’t know. Sadly, it’s often the case that people in the latter group are more passionate, judgmental and committed to a definite position with the subject in question. Meanwhile, the former group tends to be more provisional in its judgments and conclusions, and more willing and ready to change opinions when circumstances alter.

The great Canadian historian and media theorist Harold Innis once quoted a deep question asked by his philosophy professor at McMaster University: Why do we attend to the things we attend to? Indeed, why do we pay an inordinate amount of attention to a war in some part of the world but not another in a different part? Why do we think the suffering of some people is more noteworthy than that of others? Why do the most respected news outlets in your country give prominence – putting them on the front page – to some stories but not others? Are we journalists not telling you that you should pay attention to this but not that? But why should you or why should we? Who do we think we are anyway?

Generally, people think a free press is essential to democracy and is better than a regulated or an unfree heavily censored press. They may well be right; and I can well be convinced of that. What I am not convinced of is that it necessarily gets people closer to the true states of affairs in the world today. In fact, I don’t think you are better informed at all.

Consider these general statements that I consider true. In a democratic and free market-driven society, bad news is good news. Or as Marshall McLuhan used to say, in the news industry, bad news such as a plane crash or a massacre drives good news, which is advertisements. Advertisers need to attract eyeballs, and terrible, even horrifying news, say, serial killers, attracts readers.

In a totalitarian or authoritarian society, good news is good news. You may not want to read it, but the state wants you to. The problem is obvious. For example, an active serial killer has been killing teenagers in your district but as a father of a teen daughter, you know nothing about it, and you let her go out at night.

But consider the rise of China and the “bad news is good news” business model, which some of my colleagues consider to be “speaking truth to power”. That may be the case but not always.

I used to work with a senior subeditor who liked to shout: “it’s all fake”, referring to official Chinese economic data, to such an extent he often questioned why we even published it. To him, good news is bad news. But not just him, but probably the entire Western news media: bad news about China is not just good news, but the only real news. What’s the result of that on the rest of Western society after such coverage over decades?

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Over the years, I have come across many Westerners who have never been to China but who have read the usual news reports over the past three decades. Almost all of them have been surprised by China’s “sudden” ascent to becoming the second or the biggest economy in the world. If all or most of the China news you read in the past few decades had been bad or terrible, you too would be confused about how a country so screwed up could prosper? Shouldn’t it have collapsed already?

Just this morning, an elderly lady complimented how cute my dog Snowflake was. When I told her we flew her over to Toronto from Hong Kong, she was surprised. “China let you ship pets over?”

Because the West and the Western media in particular were so outraged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine many were surprised that people in the rest of the world may have other things to worry or be outraged about. Many have been reading for months how bad things were going for the Russians that they are now surprised Ukraine is actually not winning.

How can we survive in this (dis)information age? It’s actually both simple and hard. Always pay attention to what you pay attention to. It’s the effective cure. And go and read a book, the longer and heavier the better. Personally, I prefer those in multi-volumes, on obscure subjects by obscure authors. Those take me months to work through and discourage me from randomly clicking on the websites of the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and if you like, China Daily and RT. And watching cute animal clips on YouTube.