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.

There’s nothing wrong with this. For the art of storytelling – journalism, that is — is essentially unchanged from the tale-telling of Neolithic shamans millennia ago up through and including today’s New York Times. Cultural anthropologists will explain that our brains are wired for this. So be it.

Still working outward from this core reality comes a related phenomenon, the mirroring journalists engage in of one another’s stories. How “group think” enters the picture is really a topic for another day. But imagine a crowded orchestra hall with all the concertgoers clapping in unison for an encore. How do 10,000 strangers suddenly, quickly and spontaneously calibrate their clapping into a unified tempo without formal guidance? Such random synchronization is a topic of significant scientific study. Let’s skip the details, but the emergence of the familiar contours of the media – whether they be around the “New South” or the “Arab Spring” or the “East Asian Miracle” – is pretty much the same phenomenon. We at Stratfor may not “sync up.” Journalists certainly do.

Meta-Narratives Meet Meta-Data

There is nothing new in this; it is a process almost as old as the printing press itself. But where it gets particularly new and interesting is with my penultimate layer of difference, the place where meta-narratives meet meta-data.

“Meta-data,” as the technologists call it, is more simply understood as “data about data.” When a reader of a web page enables a “cookie,” this is really an exchange of meta-data that enables the provider to “customize your experience” – i.e., to try to sell you something in most cases. Backstage at a website like the one I run, we spend a great deal of time “tagging” our analyses with terms we judge a reader likely to use: “Syria” or “chemical weapons” or “Assad,” for example. This is how in the exercise above you found all the stories on small and large companies thanks to the many Internet tacticians who had the presence of mind to “tag” David and Goliath.

Where the online battle for eyeballs becomes truly epic, however, (Google “the definition of epic” for yet another storyteller’s meta-story) is when these series of tags are organized into a form of meta-data called a “taxonomy.” These are really just electronic breadcrumbs to lead to a particular website. The more precisely a webmaster places the bread crumbs relative to the migrating birds — in this case, readers — the fuller the cyber-hunter’s knapsack of “hits” at the end of the day. Some web designers actually call these forms of meta-data “canonical taxonomies,” a serendipitous term that supports the argument here.

And thus we arrive at the outermost layer of the media’s skin in our emerging and interconnected age. This invisible skin over it all comes in the form of a new term of art, “search engine optimization,” or in the trade just “SEO.” This is the grand global competition involving thousands of bits of electronic birdseed at millions of websites whose owners all hope their electronic nets will snare the migratory reader-fowl amid billions of searches each and every day.

With journalists already predisposed by centuries of convention to converge on stories knitted from a common canon, the marriage of meta-narrative and meta-data simply accelerates to the speed of light the calibration of topic and theme. The “news” you consume is now commoditized and delivered per spec according to your TV preferences, your zip code and probably your shoe size. It is as if the 10,000 strangers in a concert hall who take a minute or so to calibrate their claps in hope of an encore suddenly have pulsating strobe lights helping set their tempo. It would no longer take a minute for them to sync up; they could be clapping in unison in less than 10 seconds. In the case of SEO, the concert hall is global, the “claps” are news bits, sound bites and tweets, and the order of magnitude is millions of times greater.

If a bit simplified, these layers add up to become the connective tissue in a media-centric and media-driven age. Which leads me back to the original question of why Stratfor so often “fails to sync up with the media.”

An actual debate we had in the office helps explain. It was Sept. 5, and the world was on edge over the prospect of an imminent U.S. attack on Syria. This was the story in the mainstream media, and our dozens of stories on Syria were delivering a huge spike in much-appreciated traffic to Stratfor’s online magazine. But our fundamental value proposition, the reason Stratfor exists, is that we do not always play the media’s game.

That we were virtually alone among online publishers when we turned our gaze to farmer-led protests in Colombia that threatened to spread and involve other sectors, disrupting the economy and perhaps upending a pending trade treaty proved problematic because there was no wave of a meta-narrative for us to catch. For by the doctrines of the Internet’s new commercial religion, a move disrupting the click stream was — and is — pure heresy. But our readers still need to know about Colombia, just as they need our unique perspectives on Syria.

Applying the Scientific Method to Journalism

Yes, we exist in the same media ecology — the Internet – as our journalist brethren. In that sense we compete, even while not being rivals. For while we do appear much like journalism at first glance, another way to consider the difference is to describe intelligence as “journalism with the scientific method.”

Every forecast and article we do is essentially a lab experiment, in which we put the claims of politicians, the reports on unemployment statistics, the significance of a raid or a bombing to the test of geopolitics. We spend much more time studying the constraints on political actors — what they simply cannot do economically, militarily or geographically — than we do examining what they claim they will do. Our narratives are not derived from any canon, but materialize from careful examination of what could feasibly transpire rather than what someone says will occur.

This is abstract. In fact, we deal with many abstractions. The Oxford English Dictionary says of the scientific method, perhaps the key differentiator of journalism and intelligence: “A method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

The key characteristic to ponder here is that such methodology – intelligence, in this case — seeks to enable the acquisition of knowledge by allowing reality to speak for itself. Journalism, however, creates a reality atop many random assumptions through the means described. It is not a plot, a liberal conspiracy or a secret conservative agenda at work, as so many media critics will charge. It is simply the way the media ecosystem functions.

And so the intelligence company is the outlier in this media ecosystem. Yes, we live in it, but no we are not an organic part of it. We operate with a different rulebook, one at odds with our fellow inhabitants in this ecosystem.

Thus, we cannot sync up with the mainstream media, as convenient as that might be. We play on the margins of meta-data, tagging, taxonomies and search engine optimization. But we can’t play very well because of who we are and how we do our jobs.

Journalism, in our age more than ever before, tells you what you want to know. Stratfor tells you what you need to know. We cannot build a taxonomy to automatically guide us. In a world of search engine Davids and Goliaths, Stratfor aims for a role more akin to that of Samuel, the seer credited with giving us the stories of both. Samuel represents the recorder of the significance of events, the one who saw it as his task to point out just where those events might lead. This is an ambition we share.

Editor’s Note: Writing in George Friedman’s stead this week is David D. Judson, editor-in-chief of Stratfor.

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