Category Archives: Media

Breaking News

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook poo-bah and internet gazllionaire, famously captured the ethos of Silicone Valley with his motto, “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” Uh-huh. We adults also have a motto: “Speed kills whippersnapper, so slow down before you put someone’s eye out.”

Unfortunately, no one listens to the grownups until it’s too late. It’s all fun, games, and IPOs until you undermine democracy, tug on the loose thread of the social fabric and leave the republic’s keister flapping in the breeze. Yes, we’re all very impressed with the technorati’s ability to disrupt, destroy and devastate. But who gets stuck cleaning up the mess? Clearly not the testosterone-addled anoraks gleefully coding away the status quo.

Us crotchety middle-aged types are starting to get a serious case of the grumps over the immature irresponsibility of big tech. Sure, we appreciate some of this stuff as much as the next person. As anyone who spent most of their adult life in the pre-Twitter/Instagram/Tinder era can attest, lots of things were harder back then. If you wanted to share breakfast snaps you had to take actual photographs of your Cornflakes, get them developed, and rustle up a stack of envelopes and stamps. Unsurprisingly, the effort involved meant most people in your Rolodex (look it up) had to go through life lacking visual evidence of your commitment to processed cereal and high fructose corn syrup. You couldn’t send cat videos, either. You had to send actual cats. There were no emojis, you had to articulate your feelings with words and grammar and everything. If you wanted casual sex, you had to go into a bar and make an effort. Even worse, it almost never resulted in any actual whoopee. Beer was involved, though, so it wasn’t all bad.

Sarcasm aside, there’s no doubt our newly wired globe-o-sphere clearly has massive benefits and I do genuinely appreciate them (seriously, you should see my Amazon bills). My point is that it is increasingly clear there are also costs and downsides to this brave new virtual world we’ve been hurtled into. Equally clear is that the same people who created all this at breakneck speed never really thought through the consequences.

Consider what’s going on in journalism. Essentially, the internet is killing newspapers. At first, the information-yearns-to-be-free evangelists of tech-topia told us no worries, everyone would soon be a journalist, every voice would be heard, and all truths uncovered. Considerably less was said about empowering trolls and conspiracy wackos, or that the fall of the gatekeepers would herald the rise of weaponized media platforms capable of virally infecting fact with doubt and propagating bile as verity. It was all just move fast and break things.

Consider them broken. The business model of newspapers has effectively been blown up. Between 2000 and 2015 two-thirds of advertising revenue at newspapers disappeared, most of it gravitating to the likes of Google, who kick back crumbs to the suckers who provide content for nothing.   A number of major metropolitan dailies have either shrunk to online shells of their former selves (The Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer) or just disappeared entirely (The Cincinnati Post, The Tampa Tribune). The net set makes oodles of dough off the content generated by what’s left of news organizations, and if the traditional press fades into oblivion, no worries. After all, the clickbait links to and still work.

Substituting local news organizations with the fluff and fluster of the web is a terrible trade off. Axe grinders and agitators are not going to sit through zoning commission meetings to insure developers are playing on the up and up, any more than the yell and sell crowd is going to confirm sources and adopt the search for truth as a professional norm. Yes, I know reporters and newspapers are not always objective. But most of them at least make an effort to play things square* and keep the citizenry effectively informed, even if the citizenry is more interested in watching Vines and swapping pics of their jimbly-wimbles.

Some tech titans are belatedly recognizing this. Jeff Bezos deserves mega kudos for buying The Washington Post and shoveling dough into it so it can be, well, The Washington Post. Not every paper, though, has an angel investor in the wings willing to take it on as a non-profit public service. A lot of them are just going to go the way of fax machines and record stores, the difference being we can still get music and send documents. There’s no obvious substitute on the horizon for institutions that take on the mission of watchful citizen.

In the meantime, the throttles on Silicone Valley’s velocity express remain pegged to the max.  And that means things will continue to get broken. Looking at the road kill left in its wake, though, it increasingly makes some of us wonder whether it might wise to get some brakes on this thing.

Thomas Jefferson, who wasn’t exactly averse to breaking things himself, once said that given a choice, he’d rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. If the internet speed freaks won’t ease up, we won’t have to worry about making that choice. If both get broken, there’s nothing left to choose.

*I base this on my decade or so in journalism, spent entirely in small- to mid-size market newspapers. During that time I worked with or around dozens (probably hundreds) of reporters and editors, and the vast majority were genuinely committed to doing the job well. Of course, everyone hated them (us) for doing it.

Fact and Friction

The alt-truth, fake news, facts schmacts world we seem to be living in rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Living in verity’s version of the upside down might salve the addled ideological souls of some, but it gives the rest of us the fantods. Especially us empirical scholars. If society decides to call off the search for verifiable truth, after all, we’re out of business. Lacking the fib and fabrication skills readily monetized in the corporate, political and entertainment worlds, we’ll be reduced to shilling empirical verification for coppers on street corners and editing Wikipedia entries on spec.

Well, good news. Despite all the hand wringing, there’s reason to believe that the reach and impact of fake news is, um, fake news. Even more cheering for those of us in the learnin’ biz, there is some persuasive evidence that facts are not quite the ideological Play-Doh some people clearly want them to be.

This isn’t to say the past couple of years hasn’t seen a particularly nasty beat down of bona fide veracity, especially by certain presidents of the United States I could name. Everyone expects a degree of truthiness from politicians, but respectable fact checking sites suggest Donald Trump is less guilty of the occasional white lie than the madcap production of technicolor extravaganzas. Politifact lists ten pages of verified false claims made by the president. The New York Times has a running tally showing Trump telling more provable falsehoods in 10 months than Barack Obama told in his entire eight-year administration.

Aiding the White House as the new home of the whopper is the full-on weaponization of social media. Russian trolls seem to work Facebook’s algorithms with impunity while Twitter enables the wholesale spraying of perfidy and perjury. For the past couple of years a careful observer could be forgiven for concluding that our political system, with premeditation and purpose, was abandoning the truth wholesale. Just how many people were consuming fake news? Did it herald the decline of mainstream media and the professional norms of journalism? Were facts being kicked to the side by voters? Have we gone completely nuts? The people tasked with sorting signal from noise and answering these sorts of question systematically are my tribe–empirical social scientists–and they operate on slower timelines than the 24/7 news cycle. The rise of alternative realities happened so fast that the only honest answer we had to these sorts of questions was, “damned if we know, but it’s pretty worrying.”

That’s starting to change. A couple of studies have recently surfaced that suggest fake news is scary but not enough to frighten the Republic into fact-addled delirium, and, even more comforting, they find that facts themselves still trump fibs, or at least give fibs a good argumentative wedgie.

The first of these studies does contain some kind of scary numbers (you can find the full study here) . Roughly a quarter of American adults, or 65 million people, visited a fake news website* in the month leading up to the 2016 election, most of them making that connection through a Facebook link. Moreover, most of these fake news consumers almost never visited reliable fact-checking websites.

The good news is that heavy consumers of fake news make up a very small proportion of Americans. Roughly 60 percent of the visits to fake news sites came from a small group (about 10 percent of adults) who were older, conservative and (very) pro-Trump. So perhaps the fact-free fabulist babble bubble everyone is so worried about is not a dome covering the Republic, some sort of hermetically sealed covering threatening to asphyxiate the electorate with the gas of toxic make-believe. Maybe it’s just a pocket-sized greenhouse in the backyard where your crazy uncle is getting light headed from inhaling alt-media political poots and discussing conspiracy theories with the geraniums.

The second study  is deep empirical dive into what’s known as the “backfire effect” (you can the full study here) . The basic idea of the backfire effect is that if you present someone with a fact that counters or corrects a politically pleasing falsehood it makes people more not less likely to support that untruth. Evidence of the backfire effect has popped up in previous research and raised some interesting questions. Are people really so committed to their political alternative realities that pointing out contradictory facts will only make them more committed to insisting on the truth of falsehoods?

Given what’s happened over the past couple of years in the political arena that’s a pretty important question. This study sought an answer by giving people factually incorrect claims made by prominent figures on the left (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama) and the right (e.g. Donald Trump, Sarah Palin). They then randomly exposed some subjects to a factual correction of those statement, and asked everyone to evaluate the original claim. The difference in evaluations between those exposed and those not exposed provides a measure of the impact of factual information on political claims. Through five studies and more than 10,000 subjects, they did not find a single instance of backfire across more than 50 policy issues. Indeed, what they found is that people, regardless of ideological orientation, are pretty responsive to facts contradicting their political preferences, and will shift their evaluations towards the factual evidence when it is presented with them.

Neither of these studies should be considered definitive, and both come with the usual cautions and caveats of empirical social science research (my tribe’s motto is plus research opus, i.e. more research is needed). Still, given the hand wringing over fake news and the embrace of alternative realities and their potentially corrosive impact on politics, I think it is okay to view these findings with a small measure of relief. There’s a reasonable case here that most citizens are not voraciously consuming fake news inside their own political echo chambers, though Facebook and Twitter can make it look that way. And, even if they are, facts still seem capable of putting the brakes on fake. Let’s hope we get more of that sort of friction in 2018.

*What exactly constitutes a fake news website is a matter of some controversy. The authors of this study relied on previous research identifying “news” websites that repeatedly published demonstrably false stores.

Media Bias Isn’t A Problem. Your Bias Is

James Callender was a crackerjack dirty linen waver who makes contemporary fake news factories look like purveyors of mild pish and milquetoast posh.  He sported a fifth degree black belt in fact strangling and his partisan fug spewing skills rated an eleven on the Limbaugh Scale (and Rush only clocks a ten). He made his reputation during the republic’s first-ever slander-fest between rival political parties—the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans—who were duking it out around the time of John Adams’ administration. Thomas Jefferson, who wanted Adams’ job, hired Callender as a sort of Ye Olde Breitbart News, tasked with whipping up populist sturm und drang and directing it at the Federalists.

Callender did so with relish. He reported that Hamilton was canoodling with a comely twenty-three year old whose irate husband was demanding hush money. This was the nation’s first political sex scandal, and made Hamilton the inaugural recipient of the “I Shagged Away My Political Career” award.  Calllender smeared George Washington as a traitor and a liar, and called Adams a “repulsive pedant.” In public Jefferson and his fellow Democratic-Republicans tut-tutted. In private they cackled with glee at the salutary effect of Callender’s we-report-you-decide mud chucking on their political fortunes. Callender’s trail of slime greased Jefferson’s path right into the White House.

I mention this history of guttersnipe slam and scandal to make the point that media bias, fake news and alarms over its ability to put partisan anger on the boil is nothing new. There’s no democratic code or canon that demands the press be free of bias. Democracy simply requires that the press be free. Given human nature, it’s hardly surprising that partisan propagandists would use that liberty to buy ink by the barrel and take every chance, fair or foul, to stick a rhetorical shiv into their opponents. James Callender, Father Coughlin (look him up), Sean Hannity and a long list of others across the years have done exactly that. The First Amendment will always give shelter, succor and huge audiences to blowhards with dodgy political values and generous levels of factual flexibility. Trafficking in complete applesauce about politics and government is a natural byproduct of having freedoms of speech and of the press.

What isn’t natural is having a news media that consciously regulates itself to accurately report on governmental goings on while keeping partisan bias to a minimum. Astonishingly, for the past fifty or sixty years, that’s more or less what we’ve had. In the first half of the 20th century people like journalist Walter Lippman and New York Times publisher Adoph Ochs began championing the idea of objective journalism, the notion that newspapers (and later radio and television news) should focus on reporting verifiable facts rather than pushing any partisan line. This was a pretty radical idea with no real historical precedent.

And, at least for a bit, Americans actually seemed kind of grateful to have this huge social institution that took on the job of keeping an eye on the government while really making an effort to give their audience the straight story. Walter Cronkite—CBS’ iconic news anchor—was, without irony or sarcasm, known for years as “the most trusted man in America.” That sort of faith in journalism and journalists has long gone. These days less than a third of Americans trust the mainstream press to accurately and fairly report the news, the lowest recorded since reliable public opinion polls on the matter have existed. What went wrong?

Most seem to genuinely believe that somewhere along the line the media started playing partisan favorites again, though predictably conservatives think that problem is down to pinko reporters while liberals chalk it up to amoral corporate conservatives like Rupert Murdoch. Political scientists and communication scholars have devoted a lot of effort trying to detect systematic partisan bias in the mainstream press.  After decades of diligent digging we haven’t found much of anything to support the notion that mainstream news media consistently tilt the partisan scale one way or the other.

On the other hand, we’ve never had any problem finding systematic favoritism among media consumers. There’s an Everest of evidence pointing to this inescapable conclusion: Humans are big jiggling bags of bias. We have built in predispositions to discount stuff we don’t want to believe and to massively overweight stuff we do want to believe. If we don’t like the message we are quick to suspect the messenger of spin and sophistry. We rarely consider the possibility that our own biased processing of information, not bias in the information source itself, might be shading things one way or the other.

These tendencies are rarely consciously checked because we have nothing in our psychology equivalent to the sophisticated vetting and verification processes mainstream news operations employ to keep eager partisan thumbs off the scale. Our built-in predilections for our own prejudices kind of come out in the wash, though, if we are all getting the same story from the same sources and share some faith that those messengers are, more or less, on the up and up. And, at least for a while, that’s what we had. Cronkite worked in an era when the news media consisted of three major TV networks, their radio offspring, a handful of news magazines and the newspapers. That was pretty much it, and all of them were largely staffed by professionals whose main goal, most people accepted, was not scoring partisan points.

The big problem with that arrangement was that depending on whose ox was getting gored by the story of the day, a sizable chunk of people was always thinking, “the media is not telling me what I want to hear.” Well, no worries. New communication technologies—cable news, the World Wide Web—sprang up to supply that demand. Old technologies, especially radio, got in on the act too. These days you can tell the Uncle Walts of the media world to go stuff it. Just cruise the alt-media options and cherry pick the information that makes your political bits feel all warm and tingly.  A big casualty of this trend is the mainstream news media, which is still plodding along like an objective journalism mastodon while the alt-media hyenas rip at its flanks, undermining its credibility in order to better sell the ideological codswallop that is their stock in trade.

The alt-media phenomenon is mostly (though not exclusively) a product of the ideological right, and some in that crowd are belatedly realizing that maybe it was a bad idea to play on partisan prejudices to paint the likes of The New York Times and CBS News as little more than Callender fanboys. Charles Sykes—a long-time conservative radio host—is pretty upfront about this.  He says that delegitimizing mainstream news outlets basically destroyed “much of the right’s immunity to false information” and ran all the adults right out of the conservative movement. The lads over at Fox News—at least the real journalists, the Shep Smiths, Britt Humes and Chris Wallaces—likewise seem alert to the danger of reinforcing Sarah Palin “lamestream” fairy tales. They’re clearly alarmed at a presidential administration that doesn’t seem to have much belief in the idea of a free press. Wallace’s spanking of Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, especially his defiant we’re-not-enemies-of-the-people and you-don’t-get-to-tell-us-what-to-do moment, provides some small hope that the project of Lippman and Ochs is not going to be abandoned entirely.

Right now, though, it’s looking pretty shaky. There are simply too many “news” operations out there that are largely predicated on feeding people what they want to hear. They’re hugely successful because, facts be damned, gorging on the sweet syrup of confirmation bias tastes better than the eat-your-veggies offerings of the mainstream media. And, believe me, you only make people mad by pointing out all that if your information diet lacks fortifying factual fiber you’re probably full of crap.

There is a cautionary tale from history about how these sorts of partisan stokers of righteous indignation end up. Jefferson welshed on a promise to make Callender postmaster, and was in turn consumed in the fires of Callender’s pen. Callender went public with the story of Jefferson’s licentious extra-curriculars with his slave Sally Hemmings. Lesson there: Those who profit from partisan muckrakers also tend to get burned by them (I’m betting the Donald will experience that sooner rather than later).  As for Callender himself, he came to an ignominious finish. Sloshed to the gills, he pitched face first into the James River and drowned, apparently too sozzled to extricate himself from water only three feet deep. His legacy will live on, though, as long as we citizens are more interested in justifying our own prejudices than in really understanding our politics. Because ultimately, it’s not the mainstream news media that are Callender fanboys. It’s us.