Saturday, February 4, 2017

Socrates and Current Events?

Whenever I need a little shake-up in my day, I like to post on Facebook something interesting that I have come across in my reading. I don't comment. Just put it out there and watch everyone react. It's entertaining. Most recently, I did this with a couple of quotes, one from U.S. President Kennedy and one from U.S. President Reagan. Although both quotes came from speeches delivered more than half a century ago, they were thought provoking within the context of the current political situation in the United States.

Shortly after putting up these two quotes, U.S. President Trump made his first statement regarding the Palestinian occupied territories, in response to two policy decisions by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Since I frequently expressed exasperation that during the campaign Trump neglected to comment on the Israeli/Palestinian situation--long a cornerstone of U.S. Middle Eastern policy--I received a number of messages today asking me what I thought of President Trump's message.

Responses to my Facebook quote posts earlier in the week and the questions from my friends on President Trump's statement, as diverse as those two things might seem, actually brought to mind a blog post that a number of homeschool moms (and a few of my friends in general) have asked me, numerous times over the years, to write. What, you might ask, could those two things have in common? The answer is critical thinking, and more specifically, using the Socratic Method and concurrent study of various news sources to reach a well-reasoned truth.

The catalyst was a comment made on one of my posts. The statement made was "Don't feed into the liberal media paranoia." Those of you who know me well are laughing right now. I know. I got a pretty good laugh out of it myself. However, let's be honest here, it is a statement made frequently by many people, from both sides of the fence; tacked on to another post it might well have been "Don't feed into the conservative media paranoia." The first is posited by conservatives and the second by liberals. In this case, with regards to me, it brought to mind a twist on an old phrase that a wise friend used to use frequently: don't assume, it invariably makes a bigger ass out of you than your target.

So how, and here begins the tie-in with my friends' questions today, do we as homeschool parents (or parents in general) teach our kids not to be influenced by the media? Or for that matter, how do we ourselves know when we are being fed the unvarnished truth?

I always find it very interesting that few of my friends tend to ask me to tell them WHY I might feel the way I do or from which sources I derive my conclusion, such as regarding today's example about the Israeli settlement statement from our president. Those who know my method for reading the news every day knew that it would be a subject that I would gravitate towards and decided that my opinion would suffice. How many of us do this every day with the news? You get perhaps ten minutes of talking-heads on the subject, and you decide that you have an educated opinion, that what they say sounds reasonable. So you don their sound bite as your stand on the issue.

No. Just no.

Yes, I have a scholarly interest in the Middle East. Those guys on TV or who write the newspaper articles also have a scholarly interest in their subjects. So what? Today, I am going to share with you my method for reading the news so that you can arrive at your own conclusions and teach your children to do the same. There is absolutely no reason why any person with beyond a sixth grade education needs to listen to talking-heads go on and on about their ONE opinion when there are a world of perspectives out there, just waiting to broaden your horizons.

And this is where we get to Socrates. (You knew I had to get to him sooner or later, because that's the way I educate.) The first rule of a Socratic education is to QUESTION EVERYTHING. That is so central to the point, that I'm going to say it again. QUESTION EVERYTHING. I love chatting Middle East foreign policy with my friends, and you might love your favorite talking-head, but seriously people, don't embrace what either the talking-heads or I say. QUESTION EVERYTHING (sorry, couldn't resist!). 

For those of you who aren't familiar with Socratic Method, it is a teaching method that doesn't involve lecture. It involves discussion where the leader asks a lot of probing questions in order to coax the students to their own opinions and conclusions. Sometimes the most difficult part of Socratic teaching is avoiding becoming a talking-head. My method for reading the news each day is simply to put myself in the role of both teacher and student. I ask myself the questions that I know need to be answered in order to arrive at a balanced understanding of the topic I am studying that day. Notice I said topic, singular, not topics, plural.

Another tenet of Socratic teaching is that you GO DEEP. No, sorry, there are no footballs here (Cut me some slack, it's Superbowl weekend). GO DEEP means touching on fewer topics and studying them more thoroughly, as opposed to skimming the surface of a lot of topics (which would be going wider). As a Socratic student of the news, I pick one or two topics that are boiling over in the media that day and study them thoroughly. This is very different from how most people approach the news, which is to watch it on TV or skim through the whole paper. When you do that, you are only getting what that particular media outlet wants you to have, in sound bites, with their spin on it. Essentially, what my friend meant when he felt I was letting the liberal media influence me. (I am accused in almost equal measure of the inverse to that--letting the conservative media influence me. I just cannot win.)

So how do I avoid falling into that sucking whirlpool of media spin? Once I have chosen my one or two topics for the day--usually first thing in the morning, as in Alaska most often things have hit the fan overnight, as the rest of the world awakes long before we do--I scroll through my favorite news sites on my phone and save things directly related to those topics to be read as the day progresses and time allows. This brings up another tenet of Socratic Method. The most important HOW question when dealing with news. HOW can I ensure that I am forming an educated, well-reasoned opinion? Since no news source is ever unbiased, you need to read the exact same story in many, many sources. What? You ask, how can I read the exact same story in a number of sources?

Someone has to break the story first. Many other media outlets will then use their breaking story as the base for their own report. Usually, that someone who breaks the story is Reuters, Associated Press (AP), Agency France Presse (AFP), or, believe it or not, Al Jazeera's English edition. (I kid you not. My husband told me Al Jazeera broke the Tom Brady under-inflated football scandal.) As you begin to follow my method, you will learn to easily spot the origin of a given story because everyone else will give them credit at the beginning of their article. Right under the headline you will see AFP, AP, etc. Do not be thrown off by the headline; quite often it will be different from article to article. Generally, they will list the breaking story's headline beneath their own, in a smaller font. Scan the intro sentences to the first few paragraphs; if they are the same or very similar, you have a match. Your next question is probably "Why would I want to read the exact same story over and over again?"

Interestingly enough, as you do this a few days, you will come to see that the stories are not all exactly the same. And where they differ is where the game begins. Here you start asking yourself why certain sources left out certain paragraphs or added others in. You will notice that some media outlets will add in quotes from certain sources but neglect the other side. You will see very subtle changes in wording that slightly change the connotation of the sentence. In short, you will see the spin. After reading this breaking story, floated through a variety of lenses, you are ready to branch out and read the original report that each of your sources has put together regarding the same story. This is usually a follow-up story that comes later in the day, although if you are going deep on a Middle Eastern situation, given they are many hours ahead of the United States, you will often see those stories listed very close to the breaking headline on the media outlet's homepage or hyperlinked within the breaking story.

Two things are absolutely crucial. You must read both the breaking and the original reporting for each story in every media source you select. It is there that you will really see how each newspaper spins the story for their own readers. The second thing is that you must read, in equal numbers, sources that are considered "left," "right," and "centrist." Generally, I tend to read between eight and twelve separate sources.

One question that I get all the time is how a person can know going into reading an article whether they are going to be faced with a liberal or a conservative slant or if the paper manages to ride the fence. There is no better source for that information than Eddy Elmer's painstakingly constructed "Editorial slants of major newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media." He just revised it this week to reflect any bias changes due to changes in editorial staff, management, or ownership. His phenomenal chart covers news media from all around the globe and is, I think, one of the most accurate. Take a look at the chart, click on a couple links from each of the "slants," and find the relevant articles to your topic for the day.

The first ones that I read are the breaking outlet's original report and the closest major local paper to the event. Let's look at the story I followed today. The breaking outlet was Agency France Presse Jerusalem, so other outlets credited AFP below their chosen headline, which in some cases matched AFP's "US settlement remarks challenge Israel, alarm Palestinians." Sadly, for being one of the most outstanding outlets for Middle Eastern news, AFP has a truly terrible website and app. However, as you read through the versions printed on other outlets, it is easy to see what the original AFP story was. Because they are such a stellar source, it is not at all uncommon for many other organizations to run an AFP breaking story unaltered on their sites.

The largest local newspaper, printed in English, for the Palestinian side of the story would be the Lebanese paper The Daily Star (To read the stories, click on the highlights to be linked). As a point of interest, that first link for The Daily Star is for their widely broadcast ".net" site, which is read around the globe. There is another. This "" site is the one read by English speakers in Lebanon. It's rather interesting to compare those two stories.

Israel has a number of papers, each with their own agenda; at one point, virtually every one of their many political parties had their own media mouthpiece--thankfully that is no longer the case. Unfortunately for English readers, Israel's leading newspaper is only published in Hebrew. Because of this fact, the few English options available, despite their comparatively minimal local print circulation, command a very large online stage for influencing opinions in the United States. Although it tends to be very uneven in its coverage, sometimes taking strong stands in one direction or another, my preferred Israeli newspaper is Haaretz. Of the two major translated Israeli papers they seem to make more of an effort to ride the unbiased impossible line. Today, they ran two original stories. It is not uncommon for a local paper to decide against running a wire service story when the topic is very close to home. Often, this is because their writers have access to great local sources and they use that to give local quotes and opinions. Their first story unpacked President Trump's statement. Another story links President Trump, through financial contributions, both personal and from family, to one particular Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Ynet, a more liberal paper, used the AP and Reuters wire stories to form their main story on this topic. For a more conservative viewpoint (Remember that "conservative Israeli news source" isn't necessarily synonymous with "Trump supporter.") The Times of Israel's Washington correspondent put together an excellent article that clearly shows the prevailing feeling in Israel with regards to President Trump: they have no idea what to make of him.

After you have run through local papers, both liberal and conservative and papers that come at the issue from all angles, you should have a good feel for the temperature on the ground, and you can branch out. In the Middle East, that usually means Al Jazeera. Many Americans think violent, bloody videos when they hear Al Jazeera and flatly refuse to sully their browsers with the very name. That is really a shame, because their English language site has top notch reporting, both in the Middle East and beyond, and is in no way a mouthpiece for radical extremists. I also encourage regular reading of their opinion pieces, which draw contributors of all faiths and ethnicities from around the globe and are thoughtful, relevant pieces of journalism. They are as close as I will get to a talking-head.

As you branch further afield, another absolutely outstanding source is the United Kingdom's BBC. If AFP has the worst website, without a doubt the Beebs has the best. Their reporting rarely rides the coattails of others' stories, and they infuse their report with historical facts needed to put things in perspective and visual aids, such as today's maps, that lay the issue bare. Another very good source is The Economist, also out of the U.K.; however, they do not engage in daily flash journalism, so if they cover it, the story will not show up until it has had time to percolate its way through each layer of the issue at hand. If you want to get a feel for how the French, Germans, or other European nations are reacting to your story, you can go there next. If not, head for the U.S. news agencies and see what the reaction is here at home.

The first news source I always check in the U.S. is the Christian Science Monitor (CSM). Despite their name, their reporting is universally acknowledged to be among the least biased of any U.S. news source of any kind. Conservatives frequently complain they are "too liberal" and liberals frequently complain they are "too conservative"--usually a sign that a media outlet is doing their job. Today, instead of writing on the impact of President Trump's statement, the CSM opted to focus on the event that caused his statement: the forced removal of the inhabitants of an illegal Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory. After the CSM, pull Eddy Elmer's chart back up and work your way through at least a couple U.S. papers from each column, finding the relevant stories in each.

When I explain how I research my news and why, people often tell me that if they spent that much time on one topic they would be totally ignorant of everything else that is going on in the world because they wouldn't have time to follow any other stories even superficially. Interestingly enough, that isn't at all true because as you are scanning headlines for your primary topic or two, you are also reading the little blurbs under the headlines from newspapers of every stripe from across the U.S. and the rest of the globe. And, I admit, often getting side-tracked by other topics, which isn't a bad thing, because you feel it when the vibrations begins to pulse through another topic and can often predict what is going to go haywire next.

If you do current events with your kids, or if you just want to give them a lesson in spin, follow this daily news research method with them, even if you just do it for a single topic for one day. They will learn about how a story breaks and is shared on the wire. Even more important, they will learn how various outlets strip or augment a wire story and how that affects the impression that the reader receives.

Which brings us to my friends' questions. You know I wrote this whole thing to encourage you to arrive at your own opinion, but if you really want mine, here it is: I think that Trump really needs to be far more cautious in what he releases with regards to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. My reading today clearly showed that his statement was so nebulous, so open to interpretation, that nobody knows what to make of it and is therefore interpreting it to suit their own journalistic or political aims. On such a volatile issue the results of that kind of fast and loose diplomacy could be catastrophic.