Editor’s Note: Stan Crock is a distinguished American journalist with a law degree whom we are pleased to welcome as a contributor to BestStory.ca. Stan’s colorful biography can be found here.
President Donald Trump’s February 16, 2017 press conference proved quite dramatically that he has brought the “fact-free zone” from his election campaign into his presidency.
During his rambling, 77-minute “newser”, Trump claimed to have the largest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan, when in reality he beat out only George W. Bush; the winning candidates in five other presidential elections since Reagan produced far larger margins.
Trump also claimed that Hillary Clinton gave Russia 20 percent of the U.S. uranium supply. That was both inflammatory and untrue. In 2013, a Russian company, Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation, bought a majority interest in a Canadian company, Uranium One, which owns 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity, which is quite different. The New York Times quoted a former State Department official as saying Clinton played no role in the multi-agency decision to approve the purchase of the interest in Uranium One.
The night after his press conference, Trump called out in a tweet the three oldest U.S. broadcast networks – CBS, NBC, ABC – as well as CNN and The New York Times, labeling them the “ FAKE NEWS media” and describing them as “the enemy of the American people.” But reporting the truth to the public is not treason. In fact, it is an act of patriotism, a fulfillment of the press’s solemn obligation under the First Amendment.
Trump is not the only creator of the fact-free zone, of course. The real fake news purveyors (pardon the seeming oxymoron) are some digital sites, including social media, which pride themselves on disseminating false information. They help spread misinformation, but have nowhere near the impact of the president of the United States using his bully pulpit to spread falsehoods.
How we got to this presidential fact-free zone involves a complex, combustible, and toxic brew of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, and technology. The press aggravated matters by initially reacting to Trump’s every tweet, however inane and off target, instead of concentrating on the major issues facing the new administration.
But the factors that brought us here – combined with traditional journalistic values and practices, guerrilla warfare, and innovation – can lift us out of this quagmire.
Repetition breeds familiarity
Let’s start with how we got here. A big factor is the way people process information. Behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman tell you that repetition breeds familiarity, which leads to credibility. What is familiar also makes you feel good. This is a biological instinct, for the veyvival reaction to something novel is to withdraw or fear it. Something novel may be a threat. Something familiar is not as likely to be since you have survived it before.
This syndrome operates regardless of the truth of the repeated statement. As a result, people will act in ways that are not in their economic or other interests. Hence the title of Duke Professor Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics book: Predictably Irrational. Behavioral economics thoroughly undermines the notion that markets and market participants are rational. Marketers have known this for years. So have political propagandists.
When people compare Trump to Hitler, they have the right Reich but wrong guy: propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is the real comparison. Trump knew that repeating “crooked Hillary” time and again would have the desired effect. People would believe it and be comfortable with the idea. The same is true for repeatedly using the term “fake news” to describe legitimate news organizations. Trump knows if he says things often enough, people will believe it. And sure enough, interviews with supporters show they repeatedly use the term fake news.
Cognitive bias is another big factor. In 1986, three Rutgers professors wrote in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization about a general framework for cognitive dissonance and utility maximization. It included three kinds of cognitive bias. The first is prior hypothesis bias, in which a belief about the world leads a reader to ignore information that is inconsistent with that belief – essentially confirmation bias.
I have seen that up close and personal. When I wrote a piece for my Business Week online column in March 2004 about whether President George W. Bush had something called central auditory processing disorder, I got a lot of emails from Republicans saying I clearly was a Democrat and from Democrats saying I clearly was a Republican. They all read the same piece. The Republicans believed I was a Democrat because I was saying Bush was not fit for the presidency because of the disorder. The Democrats said I was a Republican because I was being sympathetic to Bush, saying he wasn’t dumb as a stone. I did neither, of course. But as a high school classmate said at the time, “People see what they believe. They don’t believe what they see.”
Anchoring and adjustment
The second bias is anchoring and adjustment, a form of semantic priming. Initial estimates serve as an anchor and later adjustments are too small in light of new information provided. Consider a 1999 study by two German psychology professors involving how old Mahatma Gandhi was when he died. They asked one group if he died before or after the age of 9 and the other if he died before or after the age of 140. The first group’s estimates averaged 50 and the second averaged 67. He actually was 87 when he was assassinated. The numbers in the question clearly had an effect as an anchor to prime thinking about the answer.
The final bias is one based on commitment. When you are committed to a course of action, you will ignore information that causes a low level of dissonance with that commitment. When the dissonance grows too large, however, the three Rutgers professors found, “the blocking of evidence reverses itself, and the initial decision is revised in line with the external evidence.”
The website Better Humans had a piece called Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet. The subtitle: because thinking is hard. It noted that Wikipedia has a list of 175 cognitive biases, and Better Humans grouped them into a bunch of manageable baskets: What we do to cope with too much information, not enough information, the need to act fast, and figuring out what to remember. We cope with too much information with some of the mechanisms I’ve mentioned: relying on things primed in our memory or repeated, details that confirm our beliefs, bizarre or funny things that stick out, change, and flaws in others.
When there is not enough information or meaning, we find stories in sparse data. We fill in characteristics from generalities – and can’t remember what is real and what we filled in. We simplify. We think we know what others think and project our assumptions. We imagine people we know are better than those we don’t know.
When we need to act fast, we are confident in what we know and do, we complete things in which we have invested time, we preserve our status in our group, and we favor the simple over the complex and ambiguous. We may rely on heuristics, experience, a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, stereotyping, profiling, or common sense to make a good enough but not perfect decision.
All too human
In terms of memory, we edit and reinforce memories after the fact, discard details to form generalities, reduce events to key elements, and store memories based on how we experienced them. We encode information that seems important at the time, but that is in comparison with what else is going on and may have nothing to do with the memory’s intrinsic information value. All of this can lead to less than optimal behavior. We are human, all too human.
Of course, our minds have filtered information this way for millennia. But in the U.S., the number and quality of sources of information have changed. We used to have three networks and local newspapers that had a fairly uniform approach to providing reliable information. Journalists and editors vetted the information they received to see if it was true and then provided balanced stories by talking to all sides of an issue. So these psychological factors worked on absorbing fact-based information as opposed to the claptrap from multiple sources we encounter now. The advent of multiple sources on the web combined with these psychological dynamics have produced ruinous results.
The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo wrote an excellent piece on Nov. 2, 2016, about How the Internet is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth. The Internet has democratized the marketplace of ideas, but factually-challenged wing nuts have dominated it, creating a perverse and unhealthy effect on democracy. As a tech writer, Manjoo understandably focused on technology. But there are other factors.
Decades of attacks on the mainstream press by right-wing hosts on the radio – not exactly a new technology – and radio broadcasts of an unending number of absurdities have taken their toll, too. Take a look at how many people think President Barack Obama is a Muslim – 29 percent in a 2015 poll. And in a 2016 poll, 72 percent of Republicans doubted Obama’s U.S. citizenship despite the clear record.
Similarly, 52 percent of respondents who said they knew a lot about Common Core standards thought they applied beyond math and English, and 57 percent thought the standards mandated more testing. They were wrong in both instances, but those misconceptions led them to oppose the Common Core. Not understanding the truth has consequences.
I have had personal experience with the effects of fake news. I have eaten at Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria that was the site of a December 4, 2016 visit by a gun-wielding North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch, who believed false website stories that the restaurant was involved in a supposed child-trafficking ring led by Democrat Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta. I also eat regularly at a restaurant a few doors away. I shop at the bookstore on that block, Politics and Prose, which supposedly had a tunnel through which the kids went to Comet Ping Pong. The gunman found no kids at Comet and no tunnel. Surprise, surprise. I lived for five years a half block from all of this. I can tell you that fear permeated employees of these establishments – and, fortunately, that the neighborhood supported them all.
Fake news does not affect just national politics. A high school classmate recently resigned from the City Council of Lafayette outside San Francisco after serving for 11 years. He had been planning to leave for a while, but he was really glad he did after a local tax measure he had nurtured for two years flamed out in the wake of a hail of social media lies. The biggest was that the measure would finance a $60 million Taj Mahal of a City Hall. There was no such plan, but 56 percent of the population voted against the measure, which had both union and Chamber of Commerce support. Author Neal Gabler calls this fake news an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment.
Another example of irrational behavior, at least from an economic standpoint, is a focus on compositional amenities, the topic of a Washington Post column by Charles Lane. New Yorkers, for example, prize the social, cultural, and economic benefits of a diverse society. As Lane put it, “Life brims with new experiences, challenges, excitement, what an economist would call ‘positive externalities’ of demographic change.”
Survey data from 21 countries shows that people with less education and fewer job skills have more anxiety about cultural changes engendered by the arrival of immigrants, even when such immigration is shown to have an overall positive economic impact.
“Yet,” he goes on, “homogeneity has benefits too. In rural areas, or small towns, where everyone speaks the same language, or practices the same customs, life can be simpler, more predictable, less frictional.” Those are compositional amenities, and many people value them above the benefits of diversity, even above economic gains.
In a 2009 paper, a U.S.-British trio of social scientists used survey data from 21 countries to show that concern for compositional amenities is much more important in explaining public opinion on immigration than economic concerns, such as immigration’s impact on wages and taxes. Anxiety about cultural change can, and often does, outweigh evidence on immigration’s economic impact – even positive data showing immigration actually raises wages overall or that undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes.
The study reached another important conclusion: compositional concerns rise as educational attainment falls. As you acquire more skills and information, it becomes easier, presumably, to adapt to an increasingly diverse culture.
So if you believe that Washington is screwed up (your prior hypothesis), if your anchors are that immigration and globalization are awful, if you are committed to throwing the rascals out and changing Washington, if you focus on the unusual, if you fill in characteristics and can’t remember what is real and what you filled in, if you are more comfortable with people like yourself, if you oversimplify, if you think you know what others are thinking (and it’s none too good), if you reinforce memories incorrectly after the fact, and if you keep hearing things whose repetition makes them believable and makes you comfortable, it is quite easy to operate in a no-fact zone.
Fake news purveyors consciously exploit these human cognitive failures. In a January 18, 2017 New York Times article, the Maryland Republican operative, Cameron Harris, explained how he had ginned up a fake news article about an Ohio warehouse with tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton ballots. Harris noted that Trump was starting to lay the groundwork for losing by saying it would happen only because the system was rigged. Harris noted that the distrust of the media among Trump supporters meant that anything that parroted Trump’s talking points would work. He said that people “were predisposed to believe Hillary Clinton could not win except by cheating” and added, “people wanted to be fed evidence, however implausible, to support their beliefs.”
Yet another element of behavioral economics affects both the public and the press: the penchant to look at the numerator instead of the denominator. If you looked only at the number of people who buy lottery tickets and lose (the denominator), no one would buy a ticket. Instead, the public and the press focus on the numerator, the rare person who wins. That encourages people to buy lottery tickets, which is not economically rational. But it is how people think and act. And it is how journalists act and think when they focus on outliers as newsworthy.
This approach has distorted public perceptions about free-trade agreements. The focus will be on a single plant that closes and lays off 300 workers (the numerator). The press pays no attention to the hundreds of other employers who may be hiring three or a dozen new employees, more than offsetting the job losses. Nor does the press pay much attention to the fact that consumers will be saving, say, $1.50 per imported tee shirt on millions of tee shirts, which adds up quickly and frees up huge sums for other purposes.
NAFTA’s positive impact
This is not academic. How many people know that in January 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, there were 16.9 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and four years later, though some jobs moved to Mexico, the number of manufacturing jobs had increased steadily to 17.6 million. The rise reversed what had been a steady decline since May 1979, when the number hit 19.5 million.
That’s just part of the story. U.S. employment overall grew 21 percent between 1993 and 2007, when the great financial recession hit. In the decade after NAFTA, the U.S. economy grew 44 percent, significantly faster than NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada. The U.S. Trade Representative said that during that decade, U.S. exports to Mexico and Mexico’s exports under NAFTA grew at similar rates—more than 200 percent. But of every $1 of Mexican exports that arrive in the United States, 40 cents comes from parts and materials made in the U.S. In a complex economy, it’s impossible to isolate one cause such as NAFTA for the economic boom, but it’s also impossible to argue that NAFTA crippled U.S. workers. The Democrats and Trump are just wrong about trade. And the Trans-Pacific Partnership is perhaps the best trade deal Washington ever negotiated, with unprecedented environmental and labor protections.
The distortions and lack of context have unfortunate consequences. After the 2014 mid-term election, I attended a Northwestern University event in Washington with a bunch of fellow alumni who were prominent reporters. Liz Bumiller of the New York Times was one of the panelists and asked why, when by every measure the economy was doing so much better than when Obama took office, he was such a drag on the party. The answers spewed forth: ISIS, the IRS scandal, Ebola. When it was time for audience questions, my question was: More people have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died from treating Ebola patients in the U.S. Do the media have any responsibility for distorting this and other issues?
Peter Alexander of NBC News, the moderator, said he wished he could take back some of the stories he did. He noted that high school students in Northern Virginia who lived 15 miles from Dulles Airport were treated for post-traumatic stress disorder because someone from Liberia might have disembarked a plane at Dulles. The students didn’t need to have contact with the person or even be at the airport. This is nuts, and the media are to blame.
A structural issue aggravates the media’s focus on the numerator. With 24 hours to fill, CNN and others fill it with all ISIS all the time or all Ebola all the time or all missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370 all the time – for weeks even though there was not a scintilla of anything new to report. This inflates issues out of all proportion and squeezes out time for stories about such things as steady job growth or retiring baby boomers being a big reason labor participation rates are down.
There’s yet another layer to all this. In 2005, Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay called On Bullshit. He wanted to create a theoretical understanding of the concept and cited everyone from St. Augustine to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-British philosopher.
Frankfurt wrote that, “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely-related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” The basic premise was that there is an important distinction between lying and bullshit. A liar knows what he is saying is false and tries to deceive the listener. A bullshitter doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not because the goal is not to deceive. Rather the goal is to convey an impression of the speaker – the perfect tactic for a narcissist or the loudmouth at a bar.
Frankfurt cites a book called The Prevalence of Humbug – a 1985 collection of essays written by Cornell University philosophy professor Max Black (1909-1988). It includes an account of a bombastic Fourth of July orator who talks about “our great and blessed country, whose founding fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” Frankfurt says the speaker doesn’t care whether the statements are true or whether the audience believes them. The speaker just wants the audience to consider him patriotic, sensitive to religion, and conscious of our history. It’s all about the speaker. Was this essay prescient or what?
Into all of this steps the mainstream press, which doesn’t fully understand what it is getting on the bottom of its shoes. I want to take the press to task for contributing to the mess we are in, but not for the conventional reasons. I think it is entirely unwarranted to criticize the press for getting the election wrong. For starters, it simply reports what the polls show.
The national polls actually were right. The Real Clear Politics average just before the election gave Clinton a 3.3 percent edge. The actual result was a 2.1 percent difference, not far off and certainly directionally correct. The slender margins in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were within the margin of error, though Michigan, which showed Clinton with a substantial lead, was not. The large crowds that Trump cited were not a good indicator. Mitt Romney had even larger crowds than Trump before getting trounced in 2012.
That said, the press has some ‘splainin to do. But a little context first. In the November 21, 2016, issue of The New Yorker, George Packer wrote that the press is “reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts.” That’s not a bad summary. Let’s look at reviled. A June 2016 Gallup survey of confidence in institutions showed the press beating only big business and Congress. Some 20 percent of respondents had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers, while 21 percent did for TV news. Big business came in at 18 percent. Congress didn’t make it into double digits, managing only 9 percent. Personally, I couldn’t believe it was that high. (At his January 16, 2017 news conference, Trump was wrong about this, too, when he said the media’s public approval is lower than that of Congress.)
Financially desperate also is on target. Labor Department data show newspapers lost 271,800 jobs between January 1990 and March 2016, or 60 percent of newsroom jobs. Magazines lost 52,800 jobs, or 36 percent, in that period. Jobs in broadcasting and Internet partially offset the hemorrhaging, rising from 30,000 to 198,000. But the figure overstates that surge because the industry category includes Internet directory publishing, book publishing, game sites, software publishing, maps, street guides, and atlases. How many of these workers actually produce news is unclear. This job loss has been an unmitigated disaster.
The fact that most news organizations are publicly held aggravates matters. One consequence: according to one polling specialist, Time magazine did not bankroll a single poll this election cycle, and the media financed fewer states polls. In September 2016, much too early for any poll to be dispositive, I saw a national poll on the tube, turned to my wife, and said I wished they would devote more time to meaningless relevant polls rather than meaningless irrelevant polls. After all, we vote by states so the national polls are irrelevant. But now I know why I didn’t see more meaningless relevant polls: there wasn’t money for them as the traditional ad revenue-based business model cratered.
When the L.A. Times, Washington Post and New York Times were privately owned by the Chandler, Graham, and Sulzberger families, respectively, they could be content with modest returns. The focus was as much on the mission as on the money. But when these companies are competing on public capital markets with the returns of a Microsoft or Apple, they are toast. With advertising declining and executives focusing on quarterly earnings and their fiduciary duty to shareholders, layoffs are inevitable. In contrast, Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013 has resulted in more staff and continued straight-shooting news coverage. It is a business model we should encourage, as are the non-profit ProPublica and the St. Petersburg Times. (I elaborate more on the Bezos experiment further down.)
The press is ‘reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts.’ – journalist George Packer writing in the November 21, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
The third leg of the analysis by The New Yorker’s George Packer concerned a crisis over the efficacy of gathering facts. Lucas Graves, a University of Wisconsin journalism professor, wrote a book (published in 2016) called, Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism. According to a review of the book in The Washington Post, Graves says the press faces a dilemma in fact-checking. Reporters are supposed to be objective instead of taking sides. And they typically have to ask both sides for comment. The Post abandoned its constant fact-checking of Ronald Reagan’s fictions because readers ignored the fact-checking, and the paper worried about a perception of partisanship. The paper figured it was up to the Democrats to correct the record. That is not a solution. The public can easily dismiss what Democrats say as partisan. The paper shirked its responsibility. The press needs to be the honest broker and arbiter of facts. There is not always equivalence. Some things are demonstrably false.
I admit to starting off with the naive notion that facts matter. I will never forget the look of utter sadness, bewilderment, and shaken faith on the face of Rachel McAdams’s mother in the wonderful movie Spotlight as she started reading an article about the abuses of her beloved Catholic church – a story reported and written with the rigor that then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron demanded. It was a movie, but it was not fiction. (Baron became editor of The Washington Post in December 2012, a position he still holds.)
But the press can shoot itself in the foot or even in the head. Consider Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia rape story. Then there’s Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, Steven Glass of the New Republic, Jack Kelley of USA Today, and Brian Williams of NBC News – all of whom fabricated or plagiarized stories. These news outlets are all major, influential, and tarnished.
The balls syndrome
How does this happen? I suspect some of it has to do with journalistic biases, but I don’t mean the biases that most people talk about. There are two biases in particular that can get media outlets in trouble. The first is what I would call the balls syndrome. There usually is little penalty for a reporter being tough on someone in a story if you get something wrong (assuming no libel risk) because at least you had balls. Contrast that with being soft on someone and getting it wrong. Then you look like a shill. That’s much worse for your reputation in the newsroom.
Writing pieces which exonerate people – and I’ve done that – is much tougher than the hard-hitting piece. There is the fear among your editors that something you missed will come out the following day or week, and you – and your publication –will have egg all over your collective face. The truth is that printing those stories is really what takes balls. It also requires the same reporting and writing rigor Marty Baron demanded of the priest abuse story in the The Boston Globe. Both have to be bulletproof. Of course, all stories should be that way.
The second bias is the slogan I learned when I was in journalism school, that it is the role of the journalist to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Both of these biases were at play in the first question of the first Republican debate. John Harwood, a respected veteran reporter for CNBC, asked: “Mr. Trump, you’ve done very well by promising to build a wall and make another country pay for it, send 11 million people out of the country, cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit, and make Americans better off because your greatness would replace the stupidity and incompetence of others. Let’s be honest. Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”
The question afflicted a comfortable Donald Trump and comforted the afflicted who feared deportation. It also was a perfect example of how the press took Trump literally but not seriously while voters took him seriously but not literally. Harwood did this in a particularly off-putting way and made himself – rather than Trump – the issue.
Not only did Harwood turn off viewers (including me, and I was sympathetic to his premise) and make Trump look like the victim, he also fell into a trap Trump had laid. According to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the notorious right-wing website Trump aide Steve Bannon ran, thought he had a lot to learn from radical community organizer Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky (1909-1972) focused on provocations that would cause a reaction he could exploit to garner sympathy. Breitbart figured he could provoke his enemies into making mistakes and then exploit them. So when Trump makes preposterous statements and the press reacts loutishly, as Harwood did, Trump can pounce.
Some journalists think the way to deal with Trump is to pair whatever he tweets with mention of the story from which he is trying to distract attention. That would be a mistake. He would nail the press for trying to read his mind and crucify the press for its reaction: exactly the Breitbart strategy. Instead, just write the story Trump didn’t want to get attention and don’t tie it to the tweet.
Another way the press digs itself deeper into a hole is to be dismissive of those who believe fake news. Jim Warren, a respected veteran journalist, wrote on Poynter.org about “the stupidity of a growing number of Americans” who believe “goofy stories, the lies, the conspiracy theories that now routinely gain credibility among millions who can’t bother to read a decent paper or digital site and can’t differentiate between Breitbart and The New York Times.” When you start blaming your customers for your problems, it’s a problem. You need to probe why this phenomenon is occurring. And I have to say that the public had a better bullshit detector than the press if it took Trump seriously but not literally. His supporters never expected him to build a wall. They thought he told it like it is even if he didn’t mean what he said – a contradiction only a brilliant bullshit artist could pull off. But these voters see bullshit artists in bars every day and apparently have extra-large grains of salt in their diets.
While I think Trump is a brilliant marketer, a clueless low-life, and someone I could never vote for, it’s ridiculous to say all his supporters are stupid. He cobbled together Republicans who could never vote for a Democrat, Hillary haters, people who didn’t trust Hillary, people who wanted to oust a dysfunctional establishment, people left behind by globalization and technology, bigots, xenophobes, nationalists, misogynists, people affected by the cognitive biases I have mentioned, and, no doubt, some people who are stupid. I have no idea what percentage of Trump supporters each group constitutes. But calling them all stupid is both wrong and an excuse for the press to avoid looking in the mirror to see its own warts.
Finally, the press talks incessantly about Trump’s relations with the press and his name-calling. It comes across as self-important navel-gazing. If the press is worried about this, relegate it to the half-hour Sunday shows about the media. Don’t have panel after panel discussing it. Don’t serve as a megaphone by repeating his message. He is playing the media yet again and the media are taking the bait.
The bullshit meter
Having said all this, what gives me reason for hope?
Reason No. 1: While cognitive dissonance is powerful, the Rutgers professors found that when dissonance grows too large, the blocking of evidence reverses itself, and the initial decision is revised in line with external evidence. Facts do matter.
Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein and Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, wrote a piece in the New York Times with similar good news about how three groups of people – strong believers in man-made climate change, moderate believers, and weak believers – reacted to good and bad news about climate change. In the initial portion of the experiment, the groups received an anchor – the information that scientists believe the average temperature in the U.S. will rise at least six degrees by 2100 – and the experimenters asked participants for their estimates. They came in at predictable levels, given their sentiments.
Then participants were randomly assigned to get either more encouraging news about the environment or more negative news and asked to revise their own estimates. Weak believers were moved by the good news and reduced their estimates, but were unmoved by bad news. Stronger believers were moved a lot by bad news and less by good news. Moderate believers were moved equally by both kinds of news. The important point is that a large majority showed movement. Few people were impervious to new information. Facts do matter.
Finally, there is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which stems from a series of experiments conducted in 1999 at Cornell University by psychologist David Dunning, a Cornell professor at the time, and then-Cornell social psychology Ph.D. student Justin Kruger. The experiments illustrated that low-ability individuals suffered from an illusion of superiority, which prevented them from recognizing their own incompetence.
That phenomenon applied to the 2016 presidential election. Dunning, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, wrote in Politico that the problem wasn’t that voters were too uninformed but rather that they didn’t know how uninformed they were. They didn’t understand the holes in their expertise.Voters didn’t hold Trump accountable for gaffes because they didn’t know they were gaffes.
Dunning noted some recent experiments that asked political partisans to rate their understanding of such issues as sanctions on Iran, a flat tax, and a single-payer health system. The respondents expressed a lot of confidence in their knowledge until the researchers started asking them to describe in detail the mechanics of policies. The respondents realized their understanding was mostly an illusion, and they moderated their stances, donating less money earned in the experiment to political advocacy groups they favored. Again, facts do matter.
And finally, I would note Trump’s abysmal initial approval ratings. According to a Gallup poll, his overall rating has dropped five percentage points since the inauguration to the lowest rating on record for a president at this point. And while he won 48 percent of independent votes, his support among independents has plummeted to 35 percent, according to Gallup. The ratings may be based on missteps, on wrong-headed policies, on the endless stream of falsehoods emanating from the White House, or on some combination. But maybe this too is evidence that facts matter.
Reason No. 2: Truthful reporting has consequences. General Michael Flynn is no longer the National Security Adviser after the media reported accurately that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with Russians and discussed sanctions with them. A candidate to succeed him turned down the position because, as the press has accurately reported, the White House national security machinery is in chaos rather than the well-oiled machine Trump says it is. In addition, Secretary of Labor-designee Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration after truthful reporting about his employment of an undocumented worker. Facts do matter.
Reason No. 3: As I noted, concern with compositional amenities is inversely related to education levels. And those levels are rising. In 1940, 5.5 percent of men held college degrees, and 3.8 percent of women did. In 2015, the figure was 32.3 percent for men and 32.7 percent for women. If the cost of college gets under control, those numbers will continue to rise. That will reduce the fissures in the different ways Americans react to diversity.
Reason No. 4: “Remember the Maine?” Yellow journalists – William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – used that irresponsible phrase to blame Spain (without proof) for the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, which precipitated the Spanish-American War. The U.S. has exhibited irresponsibility and resorted to fake news – think Senator Joseph McCarthy – in the past, and we recovered from it. My hope is that the pendulum will swing again.
Since the election, according to the New York Times, subscriptions have risen for publications such as The Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and the New Yorker. Non-profits such as National Public Radio and ProPublica report big boosts in subscription rates or donations. People realize that you get what you pay for and the notion of getting free news on the web is neither a sustainable nor a desirable business model.
Reason No. 5: Patient, private capital. Jeff Bezos’s 2013 purchase of The Washington Post offers a back-to-the-future solution, one that demonstrates the benefits of private ownership and patient capital whose vision extends considerably further than the next quarter. An analysis by Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy shows that Bezos increased newsroom staff to 700 from 600 and hired 35 more engineers. Traffic on its website rose to 66.9 million unique visitors in October 2015, surpassing the New York Times and a 59 percent increase over the previous year, according to Kennedy. Traffic continued to rise, posting a 30 percent increase in April 2016 over the previous year, according to the New York Times. Bezos was willing to make investments in technology, which bean-counters at public companies typically don’t do.
Bezos media model
The conventional wisdom holds that big investments in the web won’t pay off for a stark reason. Kennedy quotes Nicco Mele, the former senior vice-president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, as saying that a print ad reaching 500,000 people brings in revenue of around $50,000, while a programmatic ad served up by Google reaching the same number of people on the same newspaper’s website might bring in no more than $20. It’s not easy to make up that gigantic differential.
But Kennedy argues it’s possible if Bezos overturns the traditional business model. Under the traditional model, print ads made a lot of money per reader on a relatively small number of readers. In the future, Bezos said he wants the Post to make less money per reader on many more readers. So the Post is uploading content on Facebook’s Instant Articles, Apple News, and Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). He is improving the Post’s quality and, thus, its brand to attract paying subscribers to its website and apps, which are more lucrative than Google searches. Kennedy says Bezos also is positioning himself to exploit revenue sources that don’t now exist. And the Post wants to sell some of its technology innovations to other publications to make money and make content-sharing easier.
Bezos fosters experimentation, which is clearly healthy. But more than that, he understands the journalistic enterprise. Kennedy cites a Bezos quotation: “I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”
And at a conference in late May 2016, according to the New York Times, Bezos said he bought the Post because he wanted to make it into a more powerful national — and even global — publication, and that The Post was well situated to be a watchdog over the leaders of the world’s most powerful country. That was when Barack Obama was president and Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite to succeed him. It was hardly an anti-Trump partisan observation.
If Bezos strengthens the Post’s journalism, keeps it factual, and expands readership significantly, he could achieve two fabulous goals. One would be finding a viable and sustainable business model for quality journalism. And if the reader base is big enough, he could draw from both Fox News and MSNBC partisans, bridging the gap that has divided the country for too long. Once these partisans start understanding the world from the same fact base, as they once did, we can start to heal as a nation.
The St. Petersburg Times and ProPublica also benefit from not being public. But they are exceptions. What we need are more buyers with Bezos’s even-handed ethos, a willingness to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Indeed, I have not noticed any changes editorially in the Post since Bezos bought it. Its editorial page remains moderate to conservative, and its news columns let the chips fall where they may.
Bezos understands the journalistic enterprise: ‘…the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.’
Is this a model others could follow? Obviously with its prominence and size, the Post is not like every other paper. But precisely because of that, what Bezos has to do is expensive. Comedian Stephen Wright once said: “The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Bezos is willing and able to be the innovator and first adopter. Others can benefit from his risk-taking and be later adopters, buying the technology and adopting his approach without spending to develop them. So others may be able to exploit his cost-saving and revenue-generating techniques at far lower cost.
My last topic: What should the press do?
No. 1: More Denominator – The 24-hour news cycle has become a structural problem when it should be an opportunity. With all this time available and the capacity of the web to eliminate the physical space limitations of print publications, journalists have the opportunity to help the public understand policy and news events in unprecedented ways. Instead of the pap we get, journalists should provide context—the denominator.
Take the economic recovery. The recovery is slow by historical standards, but only if you are looking at business cycle recessions and recoveries. This was a financial-crash induced recession, not a business cycle recession, and business cycle recessions correct themselves much faster. When you compare it with other financial crises, the downward dip was huge, and the turn in employment and growth was comparatively swift. Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart of Harvard in their book, This Time is Different, wrote about eight centuries of financial follies. In 2007, the finance wizards said yet again this time was different, just like the dot.com folks in 2001. The point of the book is that it never is. The result always is disaster.
I read that book, and I read behavioral economists so that I could bring perspective to what I was writing when I was a columnist for Investopedia and TheStreet.com. I felt this was important. I could give readers something they didn’t see elsewhere. But that shouldn’t have been the case. Anyone could pick up these books or call the authors. Others should have written the same kind of piece to show that with the proper baseline, this recovery was rapid.
And while growth is slow by past business cycle recession standards, that’s also because U.S. export markets around the globe are in a tailspin. The U.S. is doing much better than our peers in Europe and Japan. But again, the media don’t provide that context. When I hear Obama’s critics say he hasn’t had a 3 percent growth year during his two terms, they are correct. But it’s like my wife saying I never passed the bar when I never took it. What she says is absolutely true and utterly misleading.
This is not about taking sides. I think journalists should have asked why prosecutors allowed Hillary Clinton’s lawyers to decide which emails to turn over when there was no claim of privilege. After all, her point was there were no classified documents on her server. Would mobster John Gotti have gotten that treatment? The cops would have showed up with a warrant and taken all the hardware and software in Gotti’s office and home.
No. 2: A New Model – More and more media outlets are cutting staff and increasing the workload of those who remain, requiring them to do videos, write online, and meet print deadlines. When will they have the time or financial resources to do the necessary legwork to provide evidence, facts, and context?
My idea, which I have suggested to a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, my alma mater, is that the dozen or so most prominent journalism schools band together in a cooperative, much like the Associated Press, and sell their stories for nominal amounts to publications. The schools are in major cities both here and abroad. The costs are fixed and funded. Professors are seasoned professionals who can work with the students on story development and edit their work. The school can use WebEx or something similar for story meetings. Students can take turns administering the distribution of stories and story repositories – a marketable skill. These could be the stories that get the facts and context right.
A while after I mentioned the idea, I read in the Northwestern alumni magazine that 20 Northwestern students recently helped Pulitzer-Prize-winning Chicago Tribune reporter David Jackson with an investigation of hog confinement and the environmental effects of waste spills, which have killed more than 492,000 fish in a nine-year period. As part of a class, the students built a database of hog confinements in Illinois, compiled field notes, filed Freedom of Information requests, checked court documents, and tracked down other sources. The result was a 4,000-word report that highlighted weak oversight of the industry. To my amazement, at least part of my idea is not half-baked and already has been piloted.
No. 3: Stop Chasing the Shiny Ball – In particular, Trump tweets. They are like snapchats with no lasting effect or value. He rescinds them by the end of the 140 characters or within 24 minutes or 24 hours. They are meaningless. In the past, when a president’s words followed deliberation and thoughtful consideration, you covered them. They had policy consequences. This goes against every journalistic instinct, but Trump’s words, unlike those of previous presidents, don’t matter. (Foreign leaders, please bear this in mind.) Trump's words tell you something about his rather reprehensible personality, but not what he will do. Don’t cover them.
He is simply – and brilliantly – playing the press. He did so throughout the primaries and the general election, making outrageous comments that got him millions of dollars’ worth of free airtime and making him seem transparent and accessible. He continues to play the press, tweeting, for example, that he knows something about Russian hacking that no one else does. And the press continues to bite for this BS.
Consultant Brad Todd, who coined the phrase that the press takes Trump literally but not seriously, and voters take him seriously but not literally, advocates that the press stop chasing his tweets. I emailed him after he posted that idea on CNN.com. I said he proposed what the press should not do, then asked him what the press should do. He said report on what Trump does, not on what he says. That makes sense. (Lord knows Trump is doing enough to keep reporters busy writing about what his administration is doing, from the travel ban to the environmental safeguards his Environmental Protection Agency is angling to repeal.) While he is following up on some of what he says (the travel ban), he is abandoning other pronouncements (jailing Clinton, investigating voter fraud, and his foreign policy stances on one China, Israeli settlements, and ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, to name just a few examples). There is no way to predict whether a tweet will become policy.
When Trump delivers information about hacking that no one else knows, write about it. Until then, write about other things. Only 16 percent of the population uses Twitter. Trump has maybe 18 million followers. Repeating Trump’s tweets amplifies their reach enormously, makes unserious things serious, and does not serve the public well. On January 17, 2017, New York Times columnist David Brooks said he would take this approach. “I’m going to try to respond only to what he does, not what he says or tweets,” Brooks wrote. “I really wish some of my media confreres would do the same.”
As an aside, Trump’s tweets clearly are an attempt to bypass the press and yet use the press to get the message out more widely – a shrewdly-executed paradox.
No. 4: Fight Fire with Fire – According to a piece in the New York Times, fake news sites in Central Europe found out that when they put Clinton in the headlines, they got little traffic. When they put Trump in the headlines, traffic surged. Straight media should use search engine optimization for the same results. Using algorithms to get factual stories at the top of Google searches has to be a priority.
There must be more to the strategy than search engine optimization, however. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Google’s algorithms are seriously flawed. When Dylann Roof – who shot and killed nine blacks praying in a Charleston, S.C. church on June 17, 2015 – Googled black-on-white crime prior to the shootings, the SPLC says that the first site which came up was that of the Council of Conservative Citizens. It had pages and pages of alleged black-on-white crimes which stirred Roof’s emotions, the SPLC says.
Making matters worse, once you go to such a site Google’s algorithms lead you to more sites that align with your preferences. Getting L.L. Bean on your list after an Eddie Bauer purchase makes sense, of course. But feeding distortions and incitement is quite another matter. You get into a vicious cycle of seeing more and more of this destructive balderdash. New Nation News, a different racist site, is still at the top of the Google list when you type in Roof’s search words. Similarly, when Trump was doing his victory rallies, my wife Googled leadership rallies and what came up were sites about Nazi rallies.
Google is taking some steps to reduce the depravity. It is depriving false news sites of ad revenue, which is helpful even if the sites simply pop up again in a new form. But it has to go further and change its algorithms. The SPLC said it went to Google at one point because typing in Jew immediately brought up virulently anti-Semitic sites. Google adjusted the algorithm to avoid that. According to a techie I know who works on search engine optimization, Google has an in-house process that enables manual action when someone spots something improper popping up from an innocuous search.
But it would be better to rely on a systemic change rather than ad hoc fixes. According to the techie, Google relies on two factors to determine where a link ends up on a search: relevance and credibility. Relevance ends up taking precedence. A major factor in relevance is time spent on a site. So someone might spend a lot of time on a racist site dealing with black-on-white crime that repeats the phrase often and less time on the Justice Department site with actual statistics on black-on-white crime and a lot of other information, meaning that the phrase (“black-on-white crime”) does not appear as often.
As a result, the racist site will appear higher on the search page. And if that site gets cross-referenced by other racist sites, it also will get high marks for credibility, cementing its position. Maybe credibility, in the sense of factual accuracy, needs to take precedence over relevance in a systemic way, at least for those hot-button issues. Google needs to turn this algorithm sword into a plowshare.
Another way to fight fire with fire is repetition. For those old enough to remember, every night during the Carter administration’s Iran hostage crisis – which lasted 444 days between November 4, 1979 and January 20, 1981 – the network news shows would announce, for example, “Day 200 of the hostage crisis”, then Day 201, then Day 202. Trump’s Inauguration Day on January 20, 2017 was Day 584 since he announced in June 2015 that he was running for the presidency. Now, I think every medium should post the following message every day until Trump releases his tax returns: “Today is Day XXX since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president and has been holding his tax returns hostage.”
For good measure, accompany the number of days with a list of candidates who released returns under audit. This is not taunting, though it may be guerrilla warfare. There is a legitimate news reason. The taxes are the only way to see whether Trump is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution or bribery laws. He may not have investments in Russia, but he has done business with oligarchs who have bailed out some of his investments. So he owes them big time. The repetition will lead to familiarity, credibility, and positive feelings about the need to release the documents. It will mean the normalization, once again, of what had been a standard practice.
What will be normal in the near term is, of course, a major question. The media will have to be flexible, innovative, and thoughtful to address unprecedented challenges. It has to understand its customers in ways it has not had to in the past.
I have to admit some trepidation for the Republic, and I do not say that from a partisan standpoint. I think the first George Bush was the best one-term president in history. He kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and had the good sense not to go to Baghdad. He dealt deftly with the reunification of Germany. And he made the politically courageous and politically suicidal decision to raise taxes because it was in the nation’s interest, if not in his own political interest. How many politicians are that altruistic today?
And I think history will treat President Obama extremely well. He brought the country and the world back from the brink of economic collapse. He saved Detroit. He got the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Play Act passed. He nailed Osama bin Laden. He had the guts to abandon the Washington playbook and not take the bait that his credibility was at stake when he drew a line in the sand for Bashar Assad and Assad crossed it. Obama didn’t launch a military strike. Instead he achieved his end – getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons – through negotiation. Obama got rid of Iran’s nuclear capability, signed progressive trade deals, and negotiated a great climate deal. And he was scandal-free.
While I canvassed for Democrats in 2016 – I departed full-time journalism more than a decade ago – I remain eclectic. I have written exculpatory stories about both a Democrat, Bill Clinton, and a Republican, Scooter Libby. Libby always has insisted on his innocence and in November 2016 received vindication when the District of Columbia Bar reinstated his law license, and the Disciplinary Counsel concluded that he “presented credible evidence in support of his version of events.”
My trepidation stems from the fact that I don’t think any Trump policy is baked. Trump has no core values, principles, or policies so we have limited insight into what he will do. But as an optimist, I think that things are never as good as you hope or as bad as you fear.
I have a concern that is deeper than policy or politics, though. It concerns systemic, fundamental questions about whether there is truth, whether it is possible to ascertain it, and whether it is possible to have a consensus on it. My answer to all three is an emphatic yes. We did once before and we must again.
As voters, we need to know what’s true and what’s not. And sound government policy needs a factual basis. This requires restoration of traditional journalistic values while journalists become more creative and understand their audience better – not to pander to them but to convey information in meaningful ways that readers and viewers will absorb. This will not be easy. Nothing of this magnitude, nothing so vital, or indeed indispensable, ever is.