By Douglas Moran
This time we're not lying. HONEST! No, really!Uploaded: Jan 19, 2018
Non-clickbait headline: Highly partisan media, the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect & examples from my history.
Fake news has been big news for over a year. Can this concept can be broken down into distinct, useful categories? First I would change the assessment from being what is in the article itself to what the readers will likely take away from it. Research has long established that relatively few read all the way to the end of the article: Some read only the headline, others read only the first paragraph or two, ... This is why reporters are frequently admonished not to "bury the lead/lede" (and which is being disregarded here).
If you are assessing an article based upon what gets read and the headline is deceptive but the body isn't, does this warrant classifying it as deceptive?
Recognize that "news" is defined not only as something that is unusual or unexpected--the proverbial "Man Bites Dog"--but also as being important and relevant. If a story is proffered as news but is only a triviality, is that a deceptive practice? Is it "fake news" if the story is true but isn't news?
What triggered these thoughts? On Friday January 12, I opened my Google newsfeed to see much of my screen taken up by the first block of "Top Headlines". Its top-most link was:
"Trump touts sale of nonexistent fighter jet" (CNN).
The six "Related Coverage" headlines below it were variants on
"Trump lauded delivery of F-52s to Norway. The planes only exist in 'Call of Duty' " (Washington Post) .
I then clicked on "View full coverage" and got more than a full screen of links to articles with the exact same headlines or trivial variants.
Surely this must be a very important story. Right? However, if you happened to read the article itself, what did it report? The US was selling up to 52 F-35 fighter jets to Norway and Trump misspoke and said that it was 52 "F-52 and F-35" jets. This is a category of verbal stumble people make all the time. Yet a large mass of the mainstream news media chose to use this for ridicule. Yet another example of why Trump's supporters may choose--legitimately--to not believe what the news media says about Trump. Or the message received might have been that if this is the biggest thing that the media can find to criticize Trump for, he must be going a great job as President.
A similar instance occurred on December 26. The Google News "Top Headlines" started with
"Melania Trump Orders Removal of Near-200-Year-Old Tree From White House" (Newsweek).
"Melania Trump Orders Removal of 200-Year-Old Tree From White House Lawn" (Slate).
And many more similar headlines. What would you infer from such headlines? I concluded that I was meant to infer that this removal was an arbitrary and unwarranted decision by Melania Trump. Surprisingly, the headline closest to the actual story came from HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post):
"Melania Trump Orders Large Portion Of Historic White House Tree Removed Due To Decay".
Melania Trump did not order but merely accepted the recommendation of experts: The tree had been in decline for decades and had benefited from extraordinary measures, but it had reached a point where it had become a serious safety hazard.
I chose the above because they are simple, clean (self-contained) recent examples to illustrate an established pattern. And that is deeply disturbing. The big problem is not with any individual misleading headline: Such are inevitable and go way back, and have spawned uncounted jokes. Sometimes they are intentional, in order to attract readers (clickbait and earlier incarnations). Other times the writer hadn't read or understood the story. But that is not the case here: The consistency and sheer volume strongly implies a political agenda shared by a substantial range of news organizations to deceive readers--remember that many readers scan headlines and then read only some of those stories.
As to these high-profile non-news stories being distractions and clutter to obscure the real news, one might wonder if the mainstream media was intentionally trying to convince us that real news doesn't matter. After all, they have already convince most of us that what they are offering as "news" isn't worth paying for.
A non-Trump clean example from last August--the James Damore memo "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber"--was back in the news last week with the filing of a lawsuit against Google. The first batch of news stories last August were based entirely on the text of the memo, which was publicly available in full. Consequently, it was easy to compare the claims of those stories against what was actually in the memo. And the bulk of those stories were a string of falsehoods. Very briefly, the Damore memo stated that he supported diversity as a goal but questioned and criticized some of Google's programs and the assumptions underlying them, citing reputable scientific studies. He also made suggestions about how Google might achieve better results. He as excoriated by much of the mainstream media, (falsely) characterized as "anti-diversity" and as asserting that women were "biologically unsuited" to work in tech.(foot#1)
There are multiple scenarios of how the mainstream media published so many false stories about that memo. Did reporters blindly base their stories not on the memo, but on articles from other publishers (news, opinion and well-known ideological sites)? Reporters synchronizing their stories can be a side-effect of their Twitter use, which is often required by their employers. At the unintentional level, reporters are seeing snippets that preview what each other is planning to write, as well as what a similar collection of others are saying about the events. This is a variant of pack journalism.(foot#2) At the other extreme, tweets could also be used to intentionally settle on a narrative, similar to how airline companies colluded on fares by signaling their intentions by changing the fares for one route and then watching if the other airlines gave similar signals (acknowledgements or counters).
But routine "collaboration" was not created by Twitter--it has been active for some time. Both Republicans and Democrats have associated "institutes" (colloquially "think tanks") that perform major public relations activities for the parties. In the 1990s, a Republican one of these hosted daily conference calls to discuss and set that day's talking points for the invited personalities from a range of media organizations, with the one I remember being David Brooks, then opining on PBS' The News Hour and now columnist for the NY Times. Fox News had a similar morning meeting to set the agenda for all its personalities and shows. Even without having heard this, you could easily infer it. However, the news organizations played along. For example, in 2008 Obama announced that he wouldn't be taking federal campaign funds. I had tuned in to the 3pm broadcast of The News Hour which allowed proxies for both Republicans and Democrats to rattle off the full set of their talking points. Then during the CBS News broadcast, they had the segment covered by the reporter embedded with the McCain campaign and he presented what I easily recognized as the Republican talking points, but as if it were his reporting. Obama's explanation was absent.
Aside: "embedded" jokes are very old and stale, so please resist.
In the case of the stories on the Damore memo, two of the first sites to carry the story have highly ideological publishers (Motherboard of Vice Media and Recode of Vox Media) and that may have set the narrative for the rest of the Liberal media. However, the current news stories about the lawsuit have had plenty of time to get the facts straight, but what I am seeing is that most are largely recapitulating the false narrative from last August.(foot#3) Does this indicate that those reporters are pushing ideology and ignoring facts, or that they have persistent ignorance of the topics they are covering?
----The (Murray) Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect----
People want to be able to believe what they read in the news media, otherwise, why would they be reading it? Yet what happens when they encounter an article that they know to be fundamentally wrong--either from their knowledge of the topic or basic critical thinking? Typically that doesn't raise their skepticism of other articles from the same source, including the articles read immediately afterwards.(foot#4) And those of us who do know not to trust the articles still cite them when we don't have better alternatives.
----Free Speech and a Free Press----
The ability to debate issues is essential to democracy, and legitimate, fair and productive discussions and decision-making require shared facts ("Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." - many variations and many attributions). A free press is an important part of that debate--it provides a virtual platform for the many ideas to be made broadly known and critiqued. However, when the protection of a free press was written into the Bill of Rights, the situation was very different from now. I have heard multiple researchers of American history say that one of the things in their early careers that surprised them most was that, into the early 1900s, many small towns not only had a newspaper, but at least two.(foot#5) In discussions of current expectations of news media, people inevitably point out how partisan and vitriolic papers were in those days. What they tend to skip over is that a rough balance could result from having competing newspapers, with political parties, factions within the parties and other interests having their own (although I prefer a journalism ethic of trying to provide fair and balanced reportage). Plus, even in the hinterlands, people didn't have to rely on their local newspapers--they had access to the papers from the big cities and specialized publishers via the US Postal Service. One of the goals for the Postal Service was binding together an expanding, thinly populated country, including having postage for newspapers be inexpensive.(foot#6)
The Internet played a significant role in the demise of many established newspapers, although it was often more a case of assisted suicides. However, it also allowed the rise of many alternative news sites. The virtual printing presses--such as blogs and websites--are incredibly inexpensive and the network allowed access to a humongous potential audience. What can be expensive and difficult is connecting with the target audience: them finding you and you making yourself known to them. This is analogous to the former distribution network: paper carriers, stores, USPS mail. And therein lies a current and growing danger. This distribution is controlled by an oligopoly of three highly politicized companies sharing the same orientation: Google/YouTube,(foot#7) Twitter and Facebook.
Note: Focusing on the dangers doesn't mean that I don't recognize that there are many significant advantages of this distribution system. For example, being able to see written and video coverage from the locale where the news is happening, rather than getting versions that have been filtered and delayed by intermediaries.
Why do I regard these companies as monopolistic? Most of their income comes from advertising attached to free content produced by others, often at significant expense to those creators.(foot#8) If they didn't have monopolistic power, dissatisfied creators (and advertisers) would move to competitors. Significant categories of Twitter and YouTube creators are angry enough and worried about the future that they are seeking out alternatives. However, the reports from those who tried are that the potential competitors have too small a network effect to be viable choices.
The reasons that creators and others think that Google/YouTube and Twitter are censoring "wrongthink", and the methods used, are too complex to explain here. Although there is a very disturbing pattern, the sample size of the evidence is minuscule relative to the user base. However, if you scan the filing of the class action lawsuit by Damore against Google, the cited messages are alarming, especially since many of them were posted to discussion groups by higher-level managers. They show an intolerance for viewpoints outside their political orthodoxy and a willingness to use the power of Google to pursue those ends.(foot#9) Note: Google has not yet replied to this filing.
These messages also caused me to take a much harsher interpretation of the memo from Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Damore's firing. I had been inclined to see it as the PR strategy of "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."(foot#10) But now it seems that he was so embedded in the echo chamber cited in the title of Damore's memo that he could not provide a competent representation of Damore's memo.(foot#11)
----Why am I so skeptical and critical of the news media? Experience----
I got a jumpstart from the local paper where I grew up. It was routinely referred to as The misLeader because of errors big and small. In my introduction to another city, I was warned about the newspaper to not be surprised if I finished reading a news article knowing less than when I started.(foot#12)
The publisher of The Leader was also a leader of the county's political party (Republican; Democrats were essentially a fringe party). This was quite common in that area. I saw how news could be biased not just by what was said, but what was not included or ignored. This instilled in me an appreciation of the importance of alternate (non-Establishment) news sources.
My graduate studies were in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Fortune magazine would periodically publish an overview of the field, but most of the mentions and quotes went to the heads of departments and laboratories, not to those doing the research, from Full Professors down to PhD students. This sensitized me to reporters passing over available primary sources in favor of more prominent people, even though they could be multiple steps removed. Although sometimes this resulted from the reporter resorting to his Rolodex to find a source (Rolodex: archaic term. A then-popular product whose name came to be applied to many forms of contact lists). However, I had multiple experiences of taking a tech story to a reporter and working with him for hours only to have the published article feature quotes that were platitudes and generalities because the cited prominent person had zero knowledge of the specific situation. These were not isolated examples--I have heard the same from others. The big issue here is first that of uninformed quotes wasting valuable space in the article, and second that of those quotes changing what the reader takes away from the story: false inferences, wrong focus, ...
One example of this occurred in 1993, when I had moved partially into Computer Security. I had captured code for a new, very effective, automated attack on most of the servers on the Internet, including ones crucial to the operation of the Internet itself. I created a program to detect infected computers and a patch to protect them. I handed this over to a federal contractor charged with doing a synchronized distribution to all affected configurations of computers (I had access to only portion of these). They sat on it for months, including after the problem exploded into public view. I had also alerted and worked with the FBI to try to find the source, but best I could tell, they made a half-hearted, inept effort. So, would you think that these failings were an important story? The New York Times didn't--it produced a story that could have been written by someone who had barely scanned related articles that didn't have this information.
I was president of the graduate student employees labor union, and did many interviews with multiple papers. It was good experience, but not a good experience. It dramatically lowered my expectations. I regarded an interview as successful when the article had half of my quotes be recognizable and rendered in something resembling the context in which they were given. These were not off-the-cuff interviews, but ones I had prepared for, including having quotable statements of 6-10 words. I learned to have at least one witness to each interview to back me up (audio recordings were not reliably of adequate quality).
The funniest and saddest occurred when the opposing lawyer made a factually outrageous claim and a reporter asked for a response. I didn't expect to be treated fairly because the reporter's paper had been consistently hostile to us. So I replied that it was "beneath contempt". Lesson 1: Even a common idiom wasn't beyond being misquoted: Lots of people asked me what I meant by "beside contempt". Lesson 2: Many people, including friends, assumed that that was what I had said rather than assuming I was misquoted.
Dealing with science and technology writers was only a bit better. In the early-1980s, I was leading a project that was part of a much larger effort by the US Navy. The Navy had recognized that their long-distance communication system was too inefficient and inflexible to timely deliver the greatly increased amount of information available, and they were looking to transition to an Internet-style technology. For internal politics, the sponsors need applications that high-level officers would say "I want it! I need it!" but that the old system couldn't support. My demo app was audio-visual conferencing that included spoken language queries to a sanitized Navy database with the results being added to the shared display. A reporter wanted an interview and the company pointed him at me. The other senior researcher and I gave over an hour to the reporter, with the demo scenario centered on tasking and positioning of ships in the Indian Ocean in response to a Soviet deployment. So how did he describe our work? "Doug Moran, sitting in his office in Menlo Park, spying on the Russians in the Indian Ocean".
Just before the article went to press, the reporter telephoned me and asked what the Navy's interest was. I replied that I couldn't speak for them, but my sense was that it was "To get better information to commanders faster so that they could fight smarter" (13 words, a bit long).(foot#13) This was rendered as "to make smarter soldiers", transforming info tech into either education or bio tech (drugs or genetic modification). And Navy commanders became (Army) soldiers--the Navy is sensitive about that. Who was responsible for this? Unknown, because, understandably, reporters don't reveal who inside their organization did what. The changes could have been made after by an editor or other rewrite person after the reporter had handed off the story.
I have heard many similar stories from scientists and engineers, with many more saying that if/when they have to deal with reporters, it is only with through a written document handled by the organization's PR people. Bigger than the problem of misleading and false information in the stories that do appear is the problem of the stories that don't appear because people are reluctant to talk to reporters. I face this problem with my blog: There are issues that I don't cover because the people who have the relevant expertise refuse to be cited, or discuss the matter in such a tangled manner that I am not confident that I can appropriately represent it.
I have been through multiple versions of corporate media training at very different employers. They each had a significant amount of time was devoted to minimizing the misrepresentations in the resulting article.
A study in the 1980s of articles in the business section of major newspapers found that the large majority of them (70-80% ?) were essentially minor rewrites of corporate press releases. Can you say "free advertising or propaganda"? I found a similar situation in the reporting on science: Press releases about research projects would be posted to various Internet news groups and it was easy to compare them to what appeared in the local newspaper. These days you can use Google News, or similar, to get a collection of articles on the same announcement and see how little they differ, typically only in what details were omitted. The only challenge for the press release's author is how to discreetly point the reporter to someone who will give a good quote for the requisite "person not affiliated with this project".
I think that it is not a case of reporters, especially science reporters, being lazy, but rather that their required output is so high that they don't have time for proper diligence. However, the description "A reporter's job is to explain things he doesn't understand" can lead to a culture of reporters simply and credulously repackaging the information provided.
In the early 2000s, I became a co-chair of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), the umbrella group for Palo Alto's neighborhood and residents associations. One article in the Mercury News came out with lots of person-in-the-street reactions, but none of the points I had indicated as being important. The reporter told me that the evaluations of her articles were a variant of a scoring scheme from Stanford (it also appeared to be being used at Palo Alto High). Since it is difficult to rate an article for accuracy and informativeness if you aren't familiar with the issue, those aspects were not part of the scheme. Instead, what was important included the designated identities of the people quoted or mentioned: race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ... At first, I was irritated, but then I realized that it was freeing. Since the slot for a middle-aged White male was likely to be allocated to an Establishment spokesperson, I didn't have to be as guarded talking on-background or off-the-record. What I was saying I hoped would be used by the reporter to ask more informed questions of the sources who would be included in the article. This worked out nicely because my goal was getting information to the public, not seeing my name in print.
Before the arrival of the Internet, most coverage of local issues and politics was reporting of what had been decided. Even if there was notice of an upcoming decision, it often didn't give residents enough time to organize or otherwise have any meaningful input to the process. Online discussion groups changed this. They provided reporters with a sense of the community perspectives and demonstrated to publishers that there was an appetite for those types of stories.(foot#14)
This is the section where I should be exhorting you to take specific actions. But I don't know of any, nor have I heard of any that I find credible in the short-term. I hope that you see this as an important enough topic that you pay attention to developments, and that you pass on these concerns to others so that when an opportunity arises, there is enough awareness and support to make something happen.
I have been a news junkie from way back, but I am weaning myself off it (with relapses). However, I don't hold much hope for the corporate media going forward. It seems to have committed itself to business plans of stoking or provoking outrage or being totally bland.(foot#15) I have read multiple analyses claiming that increased partisanship in the news media preceded the increased partisanship in the electorate. It wasn't the media following the audience, but the media playing a role in increasing overall partisanship. I have some skepticism about the studies I have seen because my sense is that the Conservative/Republican media was aggressively partisan before the Liberal/Democratic media, and thus worry about what should be distinct datasets being mushed together.
1. Links to news articles on Damore's memo:
A sample of these can be found in the footnotes of my blog " 'Google memo' : a lesson on not trusting news media" (2017-08-09).
2. Pack Journalism: The term Pack Journalism describes when reporters from many organizations travel together (the pack), see events from the same perspective, talk to the same people, and interact with each other in a way that produces group-think. The term itself originated in 1973, but the practice goes back much further. For example, the Congressional press corps was complicit in the persistence of McCarthyism. It wasn't because they supported McCarthy's agenda, but rather than he served up front-page stories and, reputedly, good whiskey. Edward R. Murrow's famous take-down was a belated outlier. Similarly, in Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein weren't even outliers--they were outsiders. Similarly, in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the pack, especially the NY Times and the Washington Post, promoted the Bush Administration's narrative, while it was second- and third-tier news organizations, most notably Knight-Ridder (now defunct), that were pointing out contrary information and contradictions.
3. Damore Lawsuit Coverage:
The LA Times continues the false narrative: "James Damore sues Google, alleging discrimination against whites and men" (2018-01-08).
The NY Times slightly backs off the narrative: "Google Memo Author Sues, Claiming Bias Against White Conservative Men" (2018-01-08). The introductory paragraph, while technically not false, seems intended to encourage a false inference: "... memo ... criticized the company's diversity efforts and argued that the low number of women in engineering positions was a result of biological differences."
4. (Murray) Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect:
"Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward--reversing cause and effect. I call these the 'wet streets cause rain' stories. Paper's full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story--and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know." - from Why Speculate by Michael Crichton (2002-04-26) via Wikiquote.
5. Multiple newspapers in a small town:
In the 1800s and into the 1900s, a town's size was a poor estimation of the potential readership: There often were substantial populations in the rural areas surrounding a small town.
6. US Postal Service: Binding the nation together:
Nice summary in video: "How the Post Office Made America" (10:56) - Wendover Productions.
This is from the book "How the Post Office Created America: A History" by Winifred Gallagher (2016). I didn't find a suitable short written summary that was an adequate alternative to the video (nor can I make a recommendation on the book--I haven't read it).
YouTube is a subsidiary of Google (which is part of Alphabet). I include its name as a reminder of the connection.
8. Costs for Twitter and YouTube creators:
While the cost of a single tweet is small, the cost of producing an ongoing stream of tweets to gain and maintain 20,000 followers is expensive. For example, it is common to read reporters complaining that it onerous and saying that it substantially reduces the time they have to spend on reporting.
Similarly on YouTube where a channel is required to have 4000 viewing hours per month to retain basic benefits (including being allowed to stage fund-raising drives via the super chat feature). Consider a scenario where you create a new video every business day, and you need to have it tightly scripted and edited to 2 minutes each to maintain audience attention and repeat visits. The viewing requirement is equivalent to 6000 full views (240,000 viewing minutes/month / 20 business days / 2 minutes each). Since not all of your subscribers will view each video and there will be some incomplete viewings, you probably need 10-20,000 subscribers. As a point of reference, another YouTube partnership requirement is that a channel have at least 1000 subscribers, a threshold reached by only an estimated 5% of channels.
Recognize that YouTube is more than just cat videos and the like: news, educational (technology, history ...) ... News and related channels with analysis, commentary and opinion cover a wide range of perspectives and many categories of events that are under-represented or missing in the corporate media. The cost of these videos includes script-writing, equipment and crew to do the recording, editing, travel expenses, ...
9. Text of Damore vs. Google Class Action Lawsuit:
"James Damore vs. Google: Class Action Lawsuit", 2018-01-08. This filing is long because it is full of examples from internal Google communications.
10. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend:
A good-enough explanation of the origin of this counsel can be found in the next-to-last paragraph on the Plot summary on this Wikipedia page for the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance".
11. Google CEO Pichai on firing of Damore:
Recognize that Pichai's memo addressed a high-profile news story and thus it should be expected to have been very carefully vetted.
The third paragraph of the Pichai memo (2017-08-08) is:
"The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn't have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being 'agreeable' rather than 'assertive,' showing a 'lower stress tolerance,' or being 'neurotic.' " These quoted words come from page 4 of the Damore memo (PDF) in the section Personality differences which begins with "Women, on average, have more". Are we to believe that the CEO of Google is unable to understand the difference between the average of a statistical distribution and the values of individual points (not everybody is average)? Recognize that he is an engineer and heads a company whose core technology is very sophisticated use of statistics. The CEO of YouTube participated in the firing decision and her memo is based on a similar (intentional?) misunderstanding of basic statistics.
Next note that Damore used the word "neuroticism" not "neurotic" (as Pichai claims). Despite appearances, the later is not a mere lexical variant of the former. Neuroticism is a basic technical term in the field of Psychology--one of the five top-level personality traits. Was the firing decision made without input from someone with a knowledge of the psychological topics and research that were fundamental to Damore's memo? Or are we to believe that Pichai doesn't respect the precision of language? And the integrity of quotes?
Damore's use of "neuroticism" included "This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist..." (emphasis added).
12. Bad newspapers:
"The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, in as much as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors." - Thomas Jefferson (circa 1808)
He was both the target of scurrilous newspaper stories, and the purveyor of them through newspapers he had influence over.
13. Inspiration for quote:
"... get there first with the most men" which was popularized as "Git thar fustest with the mostest" and attributed to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (disputed).
14. Online discussion groups:
My favorite tribute to the rising influence of residents through the Internet came from the opposition in the 2003 State of the City speech by then-Mayor Dena Mossar: "Neighborhood associations have banded together to create large and small e-mail communication networks that have changed the lobbying landscape significantly from the days--but six years ago--when a neighborhood typically fought its battles in solo mode. The business community, in an attempt to level the playing field, is trying to find an effective way to respond."
Note: "business community" is taken to be a euphemism for developers and allied interests.
15. Bland Journalism
"I've decided 'gerbilism' is a pretty good word for what's been going on in the news media these days. Gerbilism is an apt term for something that's soft and warm and cuddly, safe and timid, with no sharp teeth and no bite whatsoever. Gerbilism, I've decided, is partly responsible for a lot of our nation's problems today." from Commencement Address to the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, 2009 June 13 by Doug Bates, published in The Oregonian.
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
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