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On Asking the Wrong Questions and Mapping Media Dead Zones

How the Media Gets It Wrong

by DAVID H. PRICE

A few weeks ago I received a media query from a reporter writing for a major media conglomerate with a sizable liberal, educated, Obama supporting readership.  I receive similar inquiries a few times each year, often relating to my research on academic interactions with military and intelligence agencies.  This email query included a copy of an embargoed call for proposals for the Pentagon’s Minerva Initiative (made public the next day), seeking to fund academic research on the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).

The reporter contacted me because I’ve published several critiques of the Minerva program since April 2008 when Secretary of Defense Gates announced the program linking academic research with the needs of American military projects (see this 2008 CounterPunch piece).  My critiques have focused on several elements of the program, including negative impacts on the freedom of academic inquiry and more political critiques focusing on linking knowledge production and application with projects of military conquest.

The identity of the reporter and the news outlet aren’t important.  I’m glad he was interested in writing about Minerva and its efforts to use anthropological and social science knowledge for military ends, and that he sought input from a critic of the program; and I don’t care that a story on these new developments did not come from these inquiries.  Lots of stories just don’t pan out for all sorts of reasons, though I suspect my answers did not contribute much to the story he sought to write.  But I am interested in how certain questions get asked, how select media frames appear appropriate and when the answers to questions asked don’t fit these narrow frames, they fall by the wayside in favor of stories or voices that accommodate expected answers.  The reporter wrote me that the Minerva funded Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) “seeks research into innovative ways to understand the ‘cultural forces at play in belief and the rise of terror networks.’  Specifically ‘the formation and spread of beliefs and ideas.’  This would seem to be related to how ideas spread internationally on social networks. What are some of the tools you think researchers might employ to understand the ‘spread of ideas and beliefs’ and should the public be wary of them?”

I read the embargoed call for proposals and answered to the reporter’s questions, but the more I read, the more I found the military (and in following the military’s lead: the reporter), to be fundamentally asking the wrong questions.  The Pentagon announcement clarified Minerva was considering only the narrowest of questions, and in following the narrow frame of the BAA story, so was the media interest in Minerva’s stunted efforts to learn about ISIL.  I replied...

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