Geopolitical Intelligence, Political Journalism and ‘Wants’ vs. ‘Needs’

By David D. Judson

Just last week, the question came again. It is a common one, sometimes from a former colleague in newspaperdom, sometimes from a current colleague here at Stratfor and often from a reader. It is always to the effect of, “Why is Stratfor so often out of sync with the news media?” All of us at Stratfor encounter questions regarding the difference between geopolitical intelligence and political journalism. One useful reply to ponder is that in conventional journalism, the person providing information is presumed to know more about the subject matter than the reader. At Stratfor, the case is frequently the opposite: Our readers typically are expert in the topics we study and write about, and our task is to provide the already well-informed with further insights. But the question is larger than that.

For as the camp of those who make their living selling — or trying to sell — words and images grows exponentially via the Internet, the placement of one’s electronically tethered tent takes on a new importance. This campsite has its own ecology, something scholars have taken to calling the “media ecosystem.” We co-exist in this ecosystem, but geopolitical intelligence is scarcely part of the journalistic flora and fauna. Our uniqueness creates unique challenges, and these are worth some discussion in this space that is generally devoted to more specific geopolitical themes.

For the moment, let’s skip how we approach subjects such as Syria’s civil war, a protest by Colombian farmers or the tweet by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani after a chat with U.S. President Barack Obama in comparison to our colleagues in the conventional news business. Instead, let’s go to the core dynamic of the media in our age and work back outward through the various layers to what we do in the same virtual space, namely, intelligence.

This requires some indulgence, so first, open a new tab in your browser window and go to the search engine Google. No cheating; you must do so before you continue this column. Now, type the following search terms: “David,” “Goliath” and “mergers and acquisitions.” Hit enter.

What you will see — and please test us on this — is essentially a survey of all the small companies of late that have purchased larger ones, along with strategies for small companies to target bigger rivals and maybe an essay or two on various sectoral consolidations. You could get the same information with a week’s sorting of SEC filings. But instead, you have just circumvented that laborious process by going straight to just one of the “meta-narratives” that form the superstructure of journalism.

Meta-Narratives at Journalism’s Core

Welcome to the news media’s inner core. For the fundamental truth of news reporting is that it is constructed atop pre-existing narratives comprising a subject the reader already knows or expects, a description using familiar symbolism often of a moral nature, and a narrative that builds through implicit metaphor from the stories already embedded in our culture and collective consciousness. No writer can, and no writer should, resist these communicative tools. What better way to explain a small Italian tech company’s challenge to Microsoft’s purchase of Skype than to cast the effort as a “David vs. Goliath battle”? The currency of language really is the collection of what might be called the “meta-stories.” Pick up any daily newspaper and you’re sure to find Horatio Alger on the business page, Don Quixote in sports, Homer’s Odyssey in the education news and a Shakespeare tragedy or two in the style section. They usually won’t be clearly identified as such but you can find them. “David and Goliath” is just an unusually good example because it’s irresistible to any scribe writing about a clash of Main Street and Wal-Mart. Storytellers proceed out of their own cultural canon, and Western journalists write from the Western canon.

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Categories: Americas, Economics

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