Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Where Do Credentials Come From, Mommy?

On to other matters. David Sirota posted this a couple of days ago:

Sirota's a smart journalist, and I take him seriously.  But in this case -- no, I don't think so.

First, I thought polls showed that most people hate the media because they see them as too adversary, too hostile to wealth and power. Judging from what I hear from people I know and those I read on social media, that belief probably divides along partisan lines, as when Republicans believe that the media just make up stuff about their President.  I noticed that many Democrats believed that Hillary Clinton lost because the Lying Media misled the public about her.  So it seems to me that many people want the media to be loyal to wealth and power as represented by their own party.

Second, I question the word "ideologically."  Most people don't know what it means anyhow, and I don't think that loyalty to wealth and power is usually ideological.  Rather it's opportunistic ("I've got mine and I want to hang on to it"), personal (because a person likes and identifies with the wealthy and powerful, hoping that some of the goodies will trickle down), and self-interested.

Third, a 2016 poll
found respondents valued accuracy above all else, with 85 percent of people saying it was extremely important to avoid errors in coverage. Timeliness and clarity followed closely, with 76 percent and 72 percent respectively saying those attributes were imperative among media sources.
“Over the last two decades, research shows the public has grown increasingly skeptical of the news industry,” the report reads. “The study reaffirms that consumers do value broad concepts of trust like fairness, balance, accuracy, and completeness. At least two-thirds of Americans cite each of these four general principles as very important to them.”
That's moving and inspiring, only -- how do respondents know whether a news source is accurate?  From what I see, for many people "accuracy" means that the news tells them what they want to hear.  How often do most people pay any attention to the corrections department of their newspaper?  The meaning of terms like fairness, balance, and the like are disputed in the press, and I don't see any reason to believe that news consumers are any clearer about them than the professionals.  I see many people who dismiss news sources lightly -- ah, they'll print anything if it'll make them money, they're just trying to divide us, etc.  Again, all very well, but they still seem to trust some sources, usually Fox News or Breitbart or Limbaugh or Mike Savage or Rachel Maddow.  If they trust them, it isn't because they've carefully examined the facts (wherever they would get facts in the first place) and subjected them to rigorous scrutiny, and decided that their preferred network or commentator is reliable.

Interestingly, though, those who are cynical about "the media" in general tend to trust local news sources, which isn't a bad idea except that local news sources are increasingly non-local in ownership and control.  It's like public education: many people are sure that Our Schools across the nation are failing miserably, but they like and trust their own local schools.

Which makes this column from last December, by the Washington Post's media columnist Margaret Sullivan, interesting.  She found that when they were allowed to discuss the question at length, instead of replying to narrow poll questions, people (she talked to several dozen, outside the Beltway) had a much more nuanced understanding of the news.

But not that much more nuanced.  She heard a lot of complaint about "bickering" in the media, for example from this "young Trump voter":
"I wish the bickering would stop," he said, referring to commentary by pundits. He listens to Fox News Radio on SiriusXM, and he compares what he hears there with what's offered on CNN and other news outlets, like NBC News, which he watches some evenings: "There's a pretty stark contrast between what they report." So he weighs them against each other. "At this point, I'm pretty tired of it all," he explained, saying he wants reporting presented straight — just the facts, with less opinion attached. "It's called the news — it's not supposed to be about their agendas." Journalists, especially cable pundits, he said, "need to grow up."
I doubt very much that the bickering will stop, at least not until people stop listening to it.  I've run into numerous people with the same complaint, and I've begun asking them why, if they hate the bickering so much, they continue listening to it.  At best they stop for a while, and then they tune back in.  But panels of pundits aren't all there is to the news media, as this guy seems to realize.  I almost never listen to such roundtables, having quit decades ago when I realized how useless they mostly were -- and in those days the emotional temperature they exhibited was a lot lower.  It happens that I recently watched the now-notorious "I'm a communist, you idiot" segment from Good Morning Britain on Youtube; after watching Piers Morgan's antics, I can understand why people would object to this sort of thing -- so why do they watch it at all?  Many clearly do; what do they get from it?  It can't be for the information.  I was amazed at the utter lack of professionalism Morgan displayed; if he gets away with it regularly, someone at ITV must like him. I prefer reading text, largely because it filters out grandstanding like Morgan's.

Wanting the news to report "just facts" seems no less quixotic to me.  It's true, the line between "news" and "commentary" is blurred, but it always has been.  When I see old (Sixties or Seventies' vintage, say) news stories from the New York Times, I'm constantly struck by the amount of commentary that found its way into them.  But even leaving that aside, which facts an outlet chooses to report, which stories it finds significant, which stories it ignores, what facts it leaves out, who it talks to -- all these factors put a slant on the "news."

Sullivan puts heavy stress on the claim, which I don't dispute, that reporters almost never make up stories.  I bet she'd be surprised to find out that a harsh press critic like Noam Chomsky not only agrees with her, he regularly commends the professionalism and competence of most mainstream reporters.  He directs most of his criticism at the institutions: the companies, the corporations, the publishers, the editors.  The Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model, contrary to the fantasies of many of its critics, is not a conspiracy theory but a theory about institutions and their interests.  I'm less bothered by the fact that many media/press people mistake it for a conspiracy theory -- that's a natural human defense mechanism -- than that many of Chomsky's fans make the same misreading.

Like many people, Sullivan is concerned that so many Americans get their news from Facebook or other social media.  She reports that a Bernie Sanders supporter is "aware that some of what's on social media has been fabricated."  The thing is that neither Facebook nor Twitter nor any other social media outlet I know of produces its own news: I don't "get news from Facebook or Twitter," I get references and links and recommendations, which point me to reports and stories and essays I may decide to read at length.  I know not to believe everything I see there; what I find fascinating is that so many of the same people who are vocally cynical about the media are also extremely credulous, shocked to learn that The Onion just makes stuff up and you aren't supposed to take their stories as fact.  They have even more difficulty understanding that there are people who really do make stuff up and post it in order to fool people -- the piteous photos, for example, of little children in hospital beds, if you give them an amen and a like then Facebook will donate a dollar to their medical fund.  Cynicism and credulity are highly selective.

Sullivan continues:
Much worse was my conversation with Jason Carr of Green Bay, Wis., a middle-aged member of the Oneida Nation who was visiting his girlfriend in western New York. Wearing a "Born to Chill" T-shirt and sitting behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 pickup truck in a KeyBank parking lot, Carr told me that media reports strike him as nothing but "a puppet show" that is "filtered and censored" by big business. He buys into the conspiracy theories that the United States government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the 2012 massacre of Connecticut schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged. Carr didn't vote in the presidential election and said there's nothing the news media could do to earn his trust. "I don't believe anything they say," he said. "They get paid to be wrong." I left the conversation shaking my head, knowing that, as is clear from the huge following of sites like the conspiracy-promoting Infowars, he's far from alone in his beliefs.
My question for Jason Carr, if I could ask one, would be which sources -- media, that is -- he gets his information from, and why he trusts them over other media.  He didn't invent the "conspiracy theories" he believes; he got them from somewhere, and he trusts those sources.  Why them and not others?  Sullivan, I suspect, would regard Carr's sources, whatever they are, as untrustworthy because they're uncredentialed.  But where do credentials come from?  Even in the good old days before the Internet, anyone could start a newspaper, and most of the newspapers in the US used to be independently owned and run.  It was not uncommon for even small communities to have two newspapers, a Republican one and a Democratic one.  So which one was real news, which one was trustworthy?  How did you decide which source to trust?  The same way you do nowadays on the Internet: by exercising your critical faculties.  It's good to bear in mind that corporate media tend to report the news from the point of view of the stockholder class; but there is no source that has no point of view.  There is no magic crystal ball that will bring you the Truth, allowing you to shut off your mind.

This doesn't mean assuming that the media are out to lie to you; it means assuming that the news is produced by fallible human beings with biases, and with the best will and intentions they won't always be right.  Their stories will be partial, both in the sense of incomplete and that of biased.  So I (and you) need to be aware of that, as well as of our own limitations and biases.  It's not always easy, though it gets somewhat easier with practice -- and then one day you find that your bullshit detector failed spectacularly and you fell for an amazingly bogus story.  Whereupon you pick yourself up and go on, chastened and ready to continue learning.