I sometimes describe the Weekly Sift as “the political blog for people who don’t have time for political blogs”. It’s aimed at ordinary Americans who want to stay informed without making a full-time job out of it.
That’s why the Sift only comes out weekly (on Mondays) as 4-6 posts that total up to around 3000 words. That’s 6-8 pages of a normal-sized book. If you’re really pressed for time, you can just read the weekly summary post, which has a thematic quote, lists the other posts of the week, and tells you what they’re about in one or two sentences.
Closely related to “Who is the Weekly Sift for?” is “Why does anyone need it?” We are, after all, swamped with news. A generation ago, people got by with half an hour of Walter Cronkite and one or two local newspapers. Now we have several 24/7 cable news channels, countless blogs, and internet access to just about every paper in the world. Staying informed ought to be the least of your problems. It ought to be hard not to be informed.
How’s that been working out for you?
Hype and manipulation. If you feel less informed — or maybe more confused — than you used to, you’re not alone. As the volume of news goes up, what mainly increases is hype and manipulation, not good coverage.
So you can’t avoid hearing about the latest celebrity meltdown or missing co-ed or sensational murder. In fact, you can’t avoid hearing the same facts about those stories over and over again. But because those situations don’t affect you and you can’t affect them, none of them have anything to do with being an informed citizen in a democracy.
The things an informed citizen needs to know — what our government is doing or planning or proposing, which candidates for high office have a clue, and whether the slick talking points you hear have any substance backing them up — are surprisingly hard to get a handle on. The pundit from the Left tells you it’s raining, the one from the Right says it’s sunny, and the journalist/host can’t be bothered to stick his head out the window and tell you what he sees. (That would be “taking sides”. It used to be called “reporting”.) (Watch Jon Stewart skewer CNN for this.)
The problem isn’t that the mainstream media is too liberal or too conservative. It’s that so much of what you see is either lazy or manipulative. Pundits aren’t telling you what they think, they’re trying to get you to do what they want. That’s why it’s so embarrassing when talking heads who think they’re off the air get recorded on an open mic. Suddenly you’re hearing what they really believe rather than what they want you to believe.
Corporate propaganda. An even bigger obstacle for the would-be informed citizen is corporate propaganda. Corporations stand to make or lose vast sums of money depending on what the voting public believes about issues like pollution or product safety or unions or global warming. So if they can shift public opinion by spending a few million or even a few hundred million — to them that’s just smart investing.
And they’ve gotten very good at it. (Two books that I’ve reviewed on the Sift tell the story very well: Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels and Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.)
It’s bad enough when corporate PR departments put out press releases that newspapers republish more-or-less verbatim. But the problem goes deeper than that. Corporate money funds (apparently) independent think tanks whose research (apparently by coincidence) comes to the conclusions the corporation wants.
Sometimes they even manage to build fake research institutes inside well-known universities. So when your favorite newspaper quotes Dr. So-and-So of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, how are you to know that you’re hearing a message sponsored by Koch Industries, a fossil fuel company?
And even if you did hear that once, who can remember which institutes at which universities are suspect? Chances are, you’ll just end up with vague doubts about academic research in general — which is part of what the corporations are trying to accomplish.
How the Weekly Sift can help. First, I filter out stories that are already over-hyped. Sift readers, for example, learned nothing about the death of Michael Jackson. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, I figure you have no trouble finding it without my help.
Second, while I am opinionated (and probably more liberal than you), I try to be honest. If you read something in the Sift, you can be confident that I believe it myself.
Third, I don’t ask for your trust. The links in a post are there so that you can check up on me. If I say something is true, I try to find a trustworthy reference that backs me up. If I say So-and-So said such-and-such, I’ll quote it exactly rather than paraphrase it, and I’ll link to a complete text or video if I can find one. So if you think, “I’ll bet he didn’t really say that” or “Probably in context it isn’t as bad as it sounds” — don’t take my word for it. Click the link. See for yourself.
Breadth and depth. I’ve spent enough time wandering around the blogosphere that I’ve gotten plugged in to an unofficial network of bloggers who have similar standards. Their work, like mine, is easy to check.
So I don’t have to be (or pretend to be) a universal expert who reads everything. I just know people who know people who (collectively) read everything — or almost everything. And because we preserve links to the original sources, information can bounce through a bunch of blogs without degrading the way rumors do.
Personally, I add two things to the mix: I’m a good popularizer, which means that I come up with analogies, images, and metaphors that simplify ideas without losing their essence. And second, I’m good at making connections. The Sift is at its best when I manage to convince you that what you thought were two stories are actually two parts of the same story.