We can never take it for granted that what we read, see or hear from media sources of any kind is trustworthy. This caution applies to every scrap of news that comes our way, whether from traditional news organizations, blogs, online videos, Facebook updates or any other source.
The only rational approach, then, is skepticism. Businesses call the process of thoroughly checking out proposed deals due diligence, and it’s a term that fits here, too. Let’s bring due diligence to what we read, watch and hear.
I don’t have to tell you that as their businesses have become less stable, the quality of traditional media organizations’ content has been slipping. You’ve seen this for yourself, no doubt, if you still read your local newspaper. In theory, traditional journalism has procedures in place to avoid errors and wrong-headed coverage. But as discussed in the previous chapter, even the best journalists make factual mistakes—sometimes serious ones—and we don’t always see the corrections.
Anyone who’s been covered—that is, been the subject of a journalist’s attention—knows that small flaws inevitably creep into even good journalists’ work. And anyone sufficiently familiar with a complex topic or issue is likely to spot small, and sometimes large, mistakes in coverage of that topic. When small errors are endemic, as they’ve become in this era of hurry-up news, alert and rational people learn to have at least a small element of doubt about every assertion not backed up by unassailable evidence.
Matters are worse, and the audience response potentially more troubling, when journalists get big issues wrong. Most worrisome are errors of omission, where journalists fail to ask the hard but necessary questions of people in power. As noted earlier, the American press’s near-unanimous bended-knee reporting during the run-up to the Iraq War was just one catastrophic recent example. Another was its apparent failure to notice the financial bubble that may still lead the world into a new Depression—in fact, some financial journalists were among the most ardent promoters of the practices that inflated the bubble.
Both failures demonstrated that all-too-common activity that constitutes much of modern reporting: stenography for the powers that be. The Washington press corps and financial journalists, in particular, have shown again and again that they crave access to the rich and powerful more than they care about the quality of their journalism. This is not entirely surprising, but it’s no coincidence that the best journalism is often done, as in the case of the Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington Bureau between 2002 and 2006, by newspaper reporters and editors who have less access to the people in charge and spend more time asking real questions of the people who work for the people in charge.
The Two-Sides Fallacy
Another reason to be skeptical is modern journalism’s equally unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is backed up by fact and the other is not, or when the “sides” are overwhelmingly mismatched. This is often called “providing balance” by journalists who are typically afraid that one side in a political debate will accuse them of being biased in favor of the other side. It is not “balanced,” of course, to quote a supposition or a blatant lie next to a proven fact and treat them as having equal weight.
To use an admittedly extreme example, when you’re doing a story about the Holocaust, you don’t need to balance it by quoting a neo-Nazi. Nor is it “showing balance” to quote a climate-change denier in every story about global warming—not when scientists who study these issues have concluded with rare, near-universal fervor that climate change is not only real but presents an existential threat to civilization as we know it, if not to our species.
Nevertheless, in a mid-decade study the media researchers Jules and Maxwell Boykoff wrote that “53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations” while “35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming.”
Sometimes the dissemblers are genuine believers in what they say, even if they marshal non-factual evidence for their arguments. Worse are the paid liars: the people whose jobs involve the manufacture of fear, doubt and uncertainty about truth. The tobacco industry’s long and infamous record of denying and obfuscating the dangers of its products is just one example of a case where deep pockets were enough to forestall, but not ultimately prevent, wider public understanding.
Paid to Persuade
Even more insidious are the deceptive people who are selling things or ideas but hiding their tracks. If you follow any major issue you’re encountering them, though you may not know it. Sometimes they engage in what’s called astroturfing, the creation of phony grassroots campaigns designed to persuade the public and public officials. Many deceptions originate in “think tanks” and lobbying firms paid by political and corporate interests—often their reports are widely quoted, generating commentary that often appears in newspapers and on TV, seeding blogs and comment threads, and generally trying to sell the products or ideas of the people paying them. I call this “opinion laundering.” We’ll never be able to stop it, in part because freedom of speech comes into play here, but at least we can try to spot it, as we’ll discuss in the next chapter.
Whom do we trust? Sometimes, the wrong people. According to the public relations company Edelman’s annual survey of trusted institutions, “people like me” are considered the most reliable, ranked above traditional media and other sources. This is a questionable attitude if taken too far. I trust a software-programmer friend to help me understand certain kinds of technology, but I don’t have any idea whether he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to wine or Middle East politics, and I factor that into our conversations.
The liars, dissemblers and opinion launderers are contemptible. But remember that they rely on credulous journalists who are too lazy or fearful to do their jobs properly. They also rely on us not asking questions ourselves. It’s important to disappoint them.