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Posts Tagged ‘journalism

“We all know that an angry electorate is a voting electorate”*…

Further to yesterday’s post

The final vote tallies still aren’t known, but the media verdict of this presidential election is in: it’s 2016 all over again. Four years ago, in the hours after Donald Trump declared victory on the strength of 306 Electoral College votes and the ballots of nearly sixty-three million Americans, I wrote a column about the failures of the press throughout that campaign, and declared that “journalism’s moment of reckoning” had arrived. “Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then to dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt,” I wrote then.

It is astonishing, today, how little we seem to have learned since. Once again, opinion polls were overhyped and under-scrutinized. Some of them were also wildly off—and, though that’s different from 2016, when the polls were largely accurate but widely misunderstood, it doesn’t let media organizations off the hook for their treatment of the numbers. Newsrooms leaned too heavily on polls as a substitute for on-the-ground reporting, and they were led astray. Journalists spent too much time talking to each other on Twitter, inhabiting an alternate algorithmic reality that bore little resemblance to the life of the country. And major media institutions made it all but impossible to envision that, despite the wealth of reporting on the president’s lies and his racism and his circus—nearly half the country remains beholden to the man and his beliefs. “We can’t go back to assuming, just because we think Donald Trump is an outlier, that he is not connecting to a lot of American people in ways that, frankly, a lot of us cannot understand,” Claire McCaskill, a former Missouri senator, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. The feeling of déjà vu, and of lost journalistic opportunity, is inescapable…

Kyle Pope (@kylepope), editor of the Columbia Journalism Review on lessons unlearned: “What the polls show, and the press missed, again.”

On the problem(s) with polls, pair with “Of course Trump’s voters lie to pollsters. You call us all racists” (with an eye to the phenomenon it addresses– and the questions raised by the rationale it offers…)

For one (very compelling) account of why Pope’s project matters, see Fintan O’Toole’s “Democracy’s Afterlife.” (For more, see also Ron Brownstein, Roxane Gay, and George Packer on the same family of issues… there are lots of diagnoses abroad in the infosphere at the moment; these are among the best your correspondent has found.)

And for a resonant but different take on the necessary role of “honest journalism” going forward, see also Jay Rosen’s “America’s Press and the Asymmetric War for Truth.”

* Donna Brazile

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As we look more deeply, we might recall that it was on this date (18 Brumaire in the French Republican Calendar) in 1799 that thirty-year-old Corsican General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory in France and established the Consulate, ending the power of the revolutionary oligarchy and creating himself as First Consul… or dictator.

Napoleon in the Coup de 18 Brumaire (detail of an oleo by Bouchot)

Written by LW

November 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”*…

Distortions and outright lies by politicians and pundits have become so common that major news outlets like the Associated Press, CNN, BBC, Fox News,and Washington Post routinely assign journalists and fact-checkers to verify claims made during stump speeches and press briefings. The motivation to uncover falsehoods and misleading statements taken out of context is laudable. But when it comes to real-world complexities, the trouble is that people often see different things when looking at the same event, a phenomenon repeatedly documented by psychologists.

Laboratory studies reveal that, when shown a video of a group of protesters, people see either a peaceful protest or an unruly mob blocking pedestrian access, depending on their sociopolitical beliefs. The world outside the lab shows similar biased perception: For example, 68 percent of Republicans consider the videotaped demonstrations in Portland, Ore., Kenosha, Wisc., and New York City to be riots, versus only 30 percent of Democrats, according to a Fox News poll released in September. Journalists and fact-checkers are human beings subject to the same psychological biases as everyone else—and their analyses of what constitute “facts” is affected by their own political and ideological values, resulting in what psychologists term selective perception.

Fact-checkers’ decisions have significant consequences for debates about fake news that cannot be overstated. Researchers have studied the cascading cognitive effects of misinformation, and their findings are relevant to current concerns about fake news and to the limitations of fact-checking. Misinformation can be insidious; it can seep into the unconscious mind and influence beliefs and behaviors long after we have forgotten its source or the evidence invoked to support it. Under laboratory conditions, a selection of objective facts and complete fabrications can be presented, and researchers can then examine the spread of misinformation about these facts and whether and how this spread results in false beliefs.

Unlike a pristine laboratory setting, however, the world of politics is messy, and there can be deep disagreements about the facts themselves, as the above contradictory claims illustrate. When it comes to partisan fact-checking about complex issues—which describes much of the fact-checking that takes place in the context of political news—the truth as stated is often the subjective opinion of people with shared political views.

One path to a solution is “adversarial fact-checking.” Fact-checking is often done by teams of two or more journalists rather than by a single person. We propose that political claims continue to be aggressively fact-checked, but by teams of individuals with diverse sociopolitical views; for example, by pairing fact-checkers from major liberal and conservative news sources. This would add little, if any, cost. The media should abandon fact-checkers’ pretext of objectivity and political disinterest and instead acknowledge their sociopolitical leanings in much the way that NPR tries to pit pro and con points of view in political coverage…

Having each side’s fact-checkers checked by the other side’s fact-checkers could lead to an infinite regress toward an uncertain truth. But this is preferable to belief in a truth that may not exist. Adversarial fact-checkers would debate the same “evidence” and ensure a balanced presentation of the facts. This may not guarantee that fact-checkers will agree or even that readers will discern the truth. But it will reveal the sometimes-tenuous nature of fact-checkers’ claims and the psychological context in which human cognition unfolds—and this would be a meaningful barrier to the spread of fake news and the creation of false beliefs among voters.

One notes that the Hegelian suggestion above assumes that fact-checkers from each side would be actively seeking to overcome their personal biases, to determine an “objective” truth… that only unconscious– not conscious, weaponized– biases are the issue.

Still, it’s certainly true that at least some fact-checkers aim to get closer to the truth, even as their biases can shroud the very truth they seek: “The Psychology of Fact-Checking.”

* Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

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As we clean our lenses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1517– All Hallows (All Saints) Eve– that Martin Luther, a priest and scholar in Wittenberg, Germany, upset by what he saw as the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (especially the papal practice of taking payments– “indulgences”– for the forgiveness of sins), posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Thus began the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther (source)

Lest in this this pandemic-attenuated moment we forget: today, All Hallows (All Saints) Eve, is celebrated as Halloween, which is (if it is, as many scholars believe, directly descended from the ancient Welsh harvest festival Samhain) the longest-running holiday with a set date… and (usually, anyway) the second-biggest (after Christmas) commercial holiday in the United States.

source

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”*…

A reporter at work covering the Eichmann trial, 1961 [source]

The [New York] Times is becoming a newsy entertainment outlet, à la Jon Oliver, with a business model more like Netflix or Hulu than catchphrases like All The News That’s Fit to Print might suggest. The Times says so itself, announcing a slew of movie and TV deals with Netflix and Amazon, the Hollywood writing room replaced by the New York newsroom. To quote [the Times‘ media columnist, Ben] Smith in a recent piece slamming one of his colleagues: “The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.”

The customer always gets what they want: In the case of an ads-driven business model where the advertiser is the true customer, that’s balanced political news alongside frivolous lifestyle stories as a canvas for ads. In the case of subscribers, it’s being flattered by having their own worldviews echoed back at themselves in more articulate form. Nobody actually pays for news, unless your livelihood depends on it, which is why outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg will still flourish, but nothing vaguely resembling news will otherwise remain in a subscription-driven world…

Ideology is like body odor: someone else’s absolutely reeks if strong enough, but you can’t even notice your own. If you remain convinced, in the year 2020 AD, that this or that national outlet remains the megaphone of disinterested chroniclers and selfless truth-seekers, then the BO in question is surely your own. But don’t expect everyone else to put up with the stink.

The Times will triumph financially, dramatically so, and utterly fail as an intellectual institution, at least by its former standards. Sure, the Times staff, like fourth-century Roman emperors intoning the half-remembered tropes of the Roman republic, will speak of ‘objectivity’ and ‘the first draft of history’. But only they and their subscribers will actually believe it. The editorial branding will be august pronouncements about ‘the paper of record’, but the business model is pure Netflix: All The News Fit To Binge.

Advertising-funded journalism is not, as some journalists persist in believing, some ineluctable law of the universe. It’s an entirely contingent artifact of a weird confluence of factors: industrialization and the mass consumer economy, urbanization and burgeoning immigration, plus the secular decline of 19th-century Jacksonian political machines.

As I’ve written before, in century-ago-seeming 2019, and which is doubly correct now, American media is in the process of regressing to 19th (or perhaps even 18th) century models of journalism. Ben Franklin posted under two-dozen different pseudonyms including such bangers as Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue, and displayed as much nastiness or wit as such modern-day lights like @neontaster or @ComfortablySmug.

Gonzo journalism? Samuel Adams helped organize the Boston Tea Party, and then reported about it after the fact, a level of ‘gonzo’ that even Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson never quite reached. Through almost the end of the 19th-century, the revenue model for most newspapers was subscriptions from party loyalists when a paper like The Press Democrat meant just that: the Democratic paper in that town giving that faction’s version of events (with some anodyne wire-service news mixed in).

We assume that this idiosyncratic late-20th-century form of American journalism is an essential ingredient to liberal democracy, the sine qua non juju that makes civil liberties and accountable government possible. And yet, our Western European peer nations, which one side of the American political spectrum loves to draw comparisons with when they’re not threatening to move there, have an utterly different journalistic culture…

Antonio Garcia-Martinez (@antoniogm) muses on his interview with Martin Gurri (author of The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium)… Into the morbid interregnum? “Twilight of the Media Elites.”

Garcia-Martinez’s full piece is eminently worth reading in full– and best understood in tandem with his conversation with Gurri: “The Prophet of the Revolt.” (For a variation on this diagnosis, see also: “Why Facts Are Overrated.”)

For an argument that yes, the full range of facts and the journalism that reports them do matter, but no, we’re not necessarily doomed to a cacophonous interregnum– that journalistic institutions, while troubled, can be saved– see “The First Amendment in the age of disinformation” by Emily Bazelon (in the New York Times…).

And for a set of painful reminders that this conversation is taking place against an active set of campaigns to widen social and cultural divisions via disinformation, see “The Media Manipulation Casebook.”

* Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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As we sieve signal from noise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924, four days before a British General Election, that the [London] Daily Mail published the “Zinoviev letter.” Purportedly a directive from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, to the Communist Party of Great Britain, ordering it to engage in seditious activities, it “predicted” that the resumption of British-Soviet diplomatic relations (by a Labour government) would hasten the radicalization of the British working class. Offensive to many British voters and frightening to others, the letter– now widely-viewed by scholars as a forgery– aided a Conservative landslide.

But historian A. J. P. Taylor argued that the more important impact was on the psychology of Labourites, who in his estimation for years afterwards blamed foul play for their defeat. Though that was accurate, it distracted them from grappling with the broad political forces at work in Britain and postponed what (Taylor argued were) necessary reforms in the Labour Party.

Zinoviev, who never had to lift a finger…

source

“Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology”*…

 

Memo

Snippet of the detailed memo outlining the program for Operation PBSuccess. The CIA outlines their objectives, their statement of the problem, and the six-stage playbook of the operation.

 

The United States was not at war with Guatemala in 1954. But the Boston-based conglomerate known as the United Fruit Company was at war with President Árbenz.

United Fruit (also known as UFCO) had been cheating on its taxes for years, lying to the Guatemalan government about the value of its banana plantations and the hundreds of thousands of acres of unused land the company was sitting on. Now that Árbenz had passed an agrarian reform bill (similar to those that had in decades past allowed countries like Ireland, Colombia and Canada to break agricultural monopolies and create more competition), Guatemala was buying back untilled land for the value that companies like UFCO had reported on its tax bill. UFCO was being forced to sleep in the bed they’d made, and they were pissed.

If only someone could get rid of Árbenz.

The most powerful pair of brothers in the United States, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles, were not legally allowed to do that sort of thing. But they wanted to. Both were UFCO shareholders and advocates, having worked for the firm for many years. But in a time of peace, well, doing anything more aggressive than writing angry letters would be illegal.

The U.S. was, however, at symbolic “war” with Communism. Eisenhower had won the U.S. presidency on a campaign promise to stop its spread. And the Dulles brothers were particularly eager to help him do that. They held a deep religious belief that Jesus Christ had called on them to use their influence to spread American business interests across the world, while simultaneously beating back the Soviets. For decades, the United States had thrown its weight around Latin America when it suited the U.S. financially — such as seizing Puerto Rico from Spain and secretly helping Panama secede from Colombia. And in 1953, the U.S. successfully overthrew the Shah of Iran after he tried to nationalize oil. The success of that operation confirmed for the Dulleses that Communist prevention and American business interests were indeed a winning combination.

So, even though the U.S. State Department knew that Jacobo Árbenz was not a Communist, the Dulles brothers decided it was God’s plan to get rid of him.

This is not, strictly speaking, a legal justification for overthrowing a democratically elected leader of a nation. So the Dulleses decided to do so without anyone knowing about it.

According to declassified documents, Allen Dulles had as far back as July 1952 proposed putting together a private “syndicate” to fund Árbenz’s ouster. But after over a year of plotting, he and his brother got the official green light from Eisenhower to use U.S. tax funds to make Árbenz go away…

How the CIA hired an American actor and two radio DJs to launch a revolution and oust an elected President. thus creating a playbook being used in– and on– the U.S. today: “The (Literally) Unbelievable Story of the Original Fake News Network.”

* Joseph Goebbels

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As we watch what goes around come around, we might recall that it was on this date in 1833 that The (New York) Sun began publishing.  It cost one penny (at a time when other papers were 5¢), was easy to carry, and it featured illustrations, crime reporting, and personal stories (suicides, deaths, and divorces), all of which made it popular with working-class readers.  Indeed, it inspired a new genre across the nation, “the penny press,” which specialized in more “sensationalistic” content (e.g., “The Great Moon Hoax“).  Still, for most of its run (until 1950) it was considered, with its two broadsheet competitors, the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, a serious paper; The Sun was consistently the most politically conservative of the three.

220px-NewYorkSun1834LR source

 

“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue”*…

 

Nytimes_hq-2

 

Paywalls are justified, even though they are annoying. It costs money to produce good writing, to run a website, to license photographs. A lot of money, if you want quality. Asking people for a fee to access content is therefore very reasonable. You don’t expect to get a print subscription  to the newspaper gratis, why would a website be different? I try not to grumble about having to pay for online content, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve.

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! You want “Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,” “The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,” or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall. This doesn’t mean the paywall shouldn’t be there. But it does mean that it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free…

The political economy of bullshit– and thoughts on a remedy: “The Truth is Paywalled But the Lies are Free.”

On a related (and somewhat complicating) note, see also “It is possible to compete with the New York Times. Here’s how,” the source of the image above.

* Edward R. Murrow

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As we do like Diogenes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1974 that President Richard M. Nixon resigned, as a result of the Watergate scandal— which was itself, of course, in large measure the result of (expensive) investigatory journalism of the highest quality.

 

Nixon departing the White House after his resignation (source)

 

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