The Free Press Is Broken - The Pursuance Project Aims To Fix It
Friday, September 13, 2019
features | culture | media | press
When considering the ingredients for a healthy, properly functioning democracy, you can’t get very far without including a correctly informed population as a crucial component. For what good is the vote if the people doing the voting are ignorant, and what quality of representative will be installed into government by such a population? Since it is impossible, especially in a world as complicated as ours, for individuals to properly research each and every complex issue under the purview of government, we must rely instead on the press to do it for us in most cases. We depend, by necessity, on this institution to provide us with the information we need to make informed choices.
Even in the best of times, this has been a problem. The press is composed of human beings, and human beings are flawed creatures. Even individuals that set out, in their own minds, to be honest and objective in their reporting are subject to a variety of pressures that make this goal nearly impossible to achieve in practice. We are all subject to biases, the most devastating of which are unconscious biases known not even to the holder of them. These crippling inclinations color the facts we see, causing us to dismiss valid data that contradicts our prejudices while seizing onto irrelevancies that support them.
For the modern press, the problems don’t stop there. For the press, like most human endeavors of our time, has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. And with industry comes additional pressures. Market pressure is the most natural of these, the requirement that to stay in business, a publication must remain profitable. Then, as in any workplace, there is pressure from above, from the people signing the paycheck, which subjects individual reporters to the biases of their employer in addition to their own. It’s a hard job under ideal conditions, and even the best of us would find it hard to walk the line under the far from ideal conditions of our modern existence.
This modern experience moves, for most, at the speed of light. Technological progress has allowed us to connect up the entire world, increasing the pace of events and therefore the pace of reporting. This creates an additional pressure on the press, requiring them to keep up with this ungodly pace if they are to stay relevant. Our modern news cycle admits little room for research, analysis, or study of the facts being presented, and is reminiscent of the “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy attempts to work on a conveyor belt in a candy factory. The belt reaches speed, and Lucy can’t keep up.
Similarly, even in the absence of bad intentions, overt bias and deliberate deception, this is the condition of the modern press. Even those with clean hands simply cannot keep up with the churn. And it shows in the results. Every day, articles are published with little to no research, minimal fact checking and, in many cases, core concepts that simply parrot “news” reported by other organizations. Bad copies of bad originals. All wrapped up in biases and hidden agendas, and then force-fed to the public.
Compounding this is the fact that most hands in this industry are not clean. The pressures mentioned above are simply too great, and the temptation to influence others too compelling, for many to resist. The modern media not only deliberately obfuscates the facts, such as they are, but seeks to control the agenda of society through omission by excluding voices, facts and narratives that do not support their favored agenda. The selection of what to not report on is as significant an influencer of public opinion as what they actually do report on. As such, the modern media hides many important issues under a veil of manufactured irrelevance.
These combined failures impact not only the industry, and they represent more than a quality-control issue. Because our democratic systems rely on the press for accurate information, these shortcomings are affecting, some might say helping to destroy, that democracy. Indeed, the effects are so profound that we are increasingly seeing a return of the attitude, popular among elites, that the “masses” are simply too ignorant to rule themselves. Such an argument ignores one of the primary reasons people have become so ignorant – they are not being served by the institution meant to combat that ignorance. They are acting on bad information, thus magnifying the human flaws already at work in each of us as we try to make sense of the world around us.
Fortunately for the future, not everyone is content with these results. One reaction to this state of affairs has been the rise of organizations like Wikileaks, collectives like Anonymous, and other independent groups and individuals that have the goal of supplying cold, hard and verified facts rather than narratives. These entities thrive not on hearsay or groupthink, but on documented evidence that has been leaked or, in some cases, stolen. In other words, incontrovertible proof. And while there is a limit to what these entities are able to uncover, what they do uncover is usually indisputable, a rare quality for public information to possess these days.
One of the most promising and compelling incarnations of this model is the Pursuance Project. Founded by Barrett Brown, Pursuance aims to attack the problem on two fronts. First, by coordinating the meticulous examination of actual documents to find compelling material. But more crucially, Pursuance is looking to expand the footprint of people performing these important activities by providing tools and procedures to make the job more manageable, secure and accessible for others. It’s the old adage at work: give people fish and they can eat for a day; teach them to fish and they can feed themselves.
Brown is a controversial figure in the space, and he has lost many friends since the Project PM and Anonymous days that brought him notoriety and prison time. A dispute on the board of the Wikileaks affiliated Courage Foundation occured after Brown publicly criticized Julian Assange while he was holed up in the embassy of Ecuador. The controversy resulted in one of the Foundation's Directors, Naomi Colvin, choosing to resign rather than act to cut Brown's funding as a beneficiary of the Foundation. Assange supporters felt that choosing to criticize Assange, particularly at that time, represented a breach of personal loyalty. However, some might point out that the issues at stake justifiably transcend personal loyalty. That principles matter, even in the worst of times and especially for our heroes.
The causes underlying this fallout are also the reason why Brown is the perfect person to spearhead these efforts. And that is because Barrett Brown is a principled individual, much more so than some of the others working on these types of problems. His reputation as a “hothead” is not properly understood without pointing out that in every case, it was principles driving his temper. Brown recognizes that corruption begins with and thrives on loyalty to people, rather than principles, and he rightly rejects the idea that anyone should be above accountability.
This is the type of individual we need working on these problems. An always pleasant, corruptible and dog-loyal dishrag may be more palatable to some, but this illusory comfort is a dangerous pallative. In this game, the public benefits from honesty, not personal loyalty in the face of malfeasance. If you agree, then Barrett Brown is your man.
If you have been moved by any of this, and if you agree that the public, and democracy, requires accurate information in order to function, then you must support this work. Pursuance requires funding in order to function, and though Brown runs a tight ship, some things must be paid for. The Pursuance website contains information and videos to learn more about the project, and accepts donations directly in fiat currencies and cryptocurrencies. This author has made several donations, and asks you, the reader, to do the same. Freedom isn’t free, and this is a tremendous problem to solve.