Several years ago, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, complained to Congress that the U.S. was losing the information war to Russia Today (RT), as well as other English-language news sources owned by foreign governments. Arguably, however, what truly bothered Ms. Clinton wasn’t the idea that the U.S. has been losing the information war, but that there now is a war. Thanks to advances in telecommunications, especially the advent of the Internet, we now have access to numerous news sources that challenge dominant U.S.-government narratives on foreign issues.
Being, as most of us claim to be, open-minded, we must be celebrating the existence of RT and other alternative media, right? Well, actually, we’ve been quite contemptuous of such outlets. On more than one occasion, friends have ridiculed me for posting RT articles on Facebook. To them, it’s so self-evident that RT isn’t worth serious consideration. After all, it’s funded and controlled by [gasp!] the Russian government, and must therefore be biased. Underlying this rationale is the assumption that corporate-controlled media is somehow free of bias, and I can think of no one better than Glenn Greenwald to express the absurdity of this assumption:
There is apparently a rule that says it’s perfectly OK for a journalist to work for a media outlet owned and controlled by a weapons manufacturer (GE/NBC/MSNBC), or by the U.S. and British governments (BBC/Stars & Stripes/Voice of America), or by Rupert Murdoch and Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal (Wall St. Journal/Fox News), or by a banking corporation with long-standing ties to right-wing governments (Politico), or by for-profit corporations whose profits depend upon staying in the good graces of the U.S. government (Kaplan/The Washington Post), or by loyalists to one of the two major political parties (National Review/TPM/countless others), but it’s an intrinsic violation of journalistic integrity to work for a media outlet owned by the Russian government. Where did that rule come from?
The notion that such forms of corporate and political control compromise journalistic integrity isn’t based on mere speculation. Last January, Politifact reported that more than a fifth (21%) of the claims made on CNN were mostly false or worse. The comparable figures for MSNBC and Fox News were much higher: 44% and 61%, respectively. If you’re going to reject a news source on the grounds that it’s biased, then please send me a postcard from Donetsk; you’ll need to personally travel to the scene to get your information, since bias is everywhere.
Even if we assume that RT is consistently more biased than competing news outlets, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss an opinion encouraged by its pro-Moscow reporting. Nor, indeed, should we dismiss any unpopular opinion, as John Stuart Mill convincingly explained over a century and a half ago in his treatise On Liberty:
“…though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied..”
Of course, it isn’t necessary to visit the works of celebrated philosophers to grasp why we should take RT seriously. It’s enough to ponder an analogy from everyday life. Consider how any mature adult would intervene in an interpersonal conflict. He’d know that, since there are multiple sides to every story, and each party typically has a biased account of the conflict, it’s essential to give each side a fair hearing so that he can form a balanced view of the conflict. For the most specious reasons, we’ve suspended this logic when analyzing international conflicts involving the U.S. government. Although we appear to believe that our close-mindedness is justified, the sad reality is that we consistently deny ourselves varying portions of truth.
Amir Azarvan, Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College, Georgia, USA. He holds Ph.D. in Political Science and teaches American foreign policy and American government.