cynicism, journalism, personal, politics, tv

Why bother with news?

The Washington Post has informed me that I’m not the only journalist with decades of experience who’s gotten pretty bloody tired of “news.”

Then one day a journalist friend confided that she was avoiding the news, too. Then I heard it from another journalist. And another. (Most were women, I noticed, though not all.) This news about disliking news was always whispered, a dirty little secret. It reminded me of the scene in “The Social Dilemma,” when all those tech executives admitted that they didn’t let their kids use the products they had created.

Amanda Ripley, WaPo

The basic problem is simple.


“Whoa, whoa!” you say. “News may be negative, but we need people to be informed!”

Sure, but it doesn’t have to be so negative. And viewers who dwell almost exclusively in the negative (Fox and MSNBC infotainment) are not well-informed. Satirists may do a better job of informing the public than journalists do, given the numbers from a 2007 study that showed viewers of The Daily Show were better informed than most.

Even if you’re smart enough to avoid watching the people whose job is to make you afraid to change the channel, your knowledge may skew toward the negative.

You probably know about monkeypox. Or new COVID subvariants. Or the Jan. 6 committee hearings.

Did you know 9 billion COVID vaccine doses were administered in 2021? How about the new Ebola vaccine? How about the disappearance of the Victoria flu virus that used to kill hundreds of thousands of people each year? Did you hear about Biden expanding protections for waterways and wetlands? Maybe the restoration of biodiversity in the Thames? Expanding abortion rights in Latin America? Support for same-sex marriage in the USA rising from 27% in 1996 to 70% today? The global decline in coal production? The tuna populations that have rebounded after years of overfishing?

You may also be taken in by sensationalism, even if you’d consider that story “positive.” How many times have we heard Trump is on the verge of being ruined or arrested? How many of the stories along those lines mention the fact that he continues to be relatively unscathed even after his fraud settlements, his sexual immorality, his use of the White House to enrich himself and his family, everything we already know about Jan. 6, etc., etc.? And we’re supposed to believe that he’s finally going to prison because he yelled at a Secret Service agent to take him to the Capitol?

Suppose we actually consumed news in a constructive way?

Back to Ripley’s WaPo piece: “There is a way to communicate news — including very bad news — that leaves us better off as a result. A way to spark anger and action. Empathy alongside dignity. Hope alongside fear. There is another way, and it doesn’t lead to bankruptcy or puffery. But right now, these examples I’ve listed remain far too rare.”

I don’t know how to reach low-information voters and explain the realities of climate change, COVID prevention or domestic terrorism. What I do know is that we’re not going to fix the problem with doomscrolling. It’s not a coincidence that the longest song on the new Metric album, maybe the longest they’ve ever done, is called Doomscroller.

I’m trying to find a way to find good stories while we have such a high signal-to-fear ratio. The battleground area for me is my Gmail, my subscriptions and my filters:

  • Washington Post: I don’t get the full daily newsletters I used to get, but I’m sticking with Must Reads and the Post Most in the hopes of catching those stories that aren’t all doom and gloom.
  • The Guardian: I’ve re-subscribed to the daily briefing because I need to know what ran in the sports section. They usually have some good reads in culture and other sections as well.
  • The Atlantic: Their specialty newsletters such as Up for Debate, The Third Rail and Galaxy Brain are good for alternate viewpoints.
  • USA TODAY: Their fact-check newsletter is good.
  • Vox: Unsubscribed
  • Mic: Unsubscribed. Sorry, Millennials.
  • The Bulwark (conservative anti-Trump): I’m down to one of their many newsletters.

And I get a couple of roundups. Pocket has some good reads that its users save. Something called 1440 has a Daily Digest that quickly covers the top stories but has a bit of serendipity as well. On my phone, I can check my personalized Google News briefing and Apple News, which also lets me check out stories I spot from The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and a lot of lifestyle, sports and music magazines.

It’s not perfect. I love having one Apple News subscription that covers a lot of magazines and daily news sources, but I don’t need yet another roundup of today’s doom.

Finding the healthy mix, though, is worthwhile. Mental health is a serious issue. Don’t sacrifice yours when there’s no need to do so.

cynicism, politics

Being “triggered” is an act of courage, not cowardice

Dear Donald Trump Jr. (and Boris Johnson … for that matter, and Vladimir Putin),

On behalf of “liberals,” “progressives” and former Republicans, I would like to say the following …

You’re damn right we’re “triggered.”

We’re triggered because we’ve seen a rise in violent racist hate crimes and other signs of emboldened racism, including a fatal rally in Charlottesville that its own organizer said “wouldn’t have occurred without Trump.” (No, the recent action that’s supposed to help fight the rise in anti-Semitism won’t help.

We’re triggered because we know separating kids from their parents and keeping people in inhumane conditions because they’re seeking the same opportunities our grandfathers sought is incompatible with any sort of morality, secular or religious. And it’s even taking a toll on the economy.

We’re triggered because we know the bill will come due for the corporate debt and federal debt we’re using to prop up the economy while people like you are afraid to steer us toward *long-term* prosperity. (Yes, Obama ran up deficits, but only to bail out the last Republican president, and it worked. When the economy recovered, so did the budget.)

We’re triggered because we know we’re also passing the bill for climate change to our kids and grandkids. We don’t all buy into the worst-case scenario of impending extinction, but we know we’re going to be spending a lot of money to relocate and renovate farms, put up seawalls (got $46 billion?) or simply move cities inland, and repair all the damage from stronger storms and fires.

We’re triggered because we’re the developed world’s biggest hotbed of gun violence, and yet a minority of people who insist it’s somehow not about guns has managed to intimidate people like you.

We’re triggered because Puerto Rico is part of the United States and shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get aid after a hurricane.

We’re triggered because we think 25-year-olds who are diagnosed with cancer while they’re working entry-level jobs without insurance shouldn’t have to declare bankruptcy to get the care they need. (They’re just part of the hundreds of thousands of people who do so each year.)

We’re triggered because younger generations are racking up massive debt just to go to college, something other countries have managed to make accessible to all.

We’re triggered because we’re the world’s laughingstock. (OK, that’s not really directed at Putin.)

We’re triggered because we believe women shouldn’t be sexually assaulted. (No, we haven’t forgotten. Nor have we forgotten that he said it was OK.)

We’re triggered because we believe our gay and transgender friends and family should have the same rights we have.

You’ve convinced farmers you’re on their side, even as your tariffs ruin them.

You’ve convinced hard-working people that they can keep their coal and manufacturing jobs rather than working to train them for the future, and they’re already losing out in industry and agriculture — thanks in part to Trump’s tariffs.

You’ve convinced evangelicals to support you despite your obvious lack of morality because they think you’ll get abortion banned. Let’s not even debate the thorny biological and theological questions there. Let’s tell the truth. If you or one of your buddies knocks up your mistress, you have the means to push her onto a plane to fly somewhere abortion will still be legal, and you can pay for the procedure while slipping her a bit of hush money. You know abortion will only be banned for poor people.

You’ve convinced people on Wall Street that it’s OK to buy into your short-term thinking and keep their party rolling.

You haven’t convinced us.

And it’s telling that you’re not even trying. Your book isn’t called “Persuaded.” You don’t even care.

We do.

We care about other people, and we will never be ashamed of it.

We will never stop fighting for them.

You will be defeated.

The good news is that a lot of us still believe in repentance. Your path back is clear.

Donate your royalties to causes that will help undo everything you’ve done.

Then come back and work with us instead of treating us as the enemy. We’re good people. You’ll feel good about it.

I’m really writing this for you.

The person who has read this far.

You can stop this. You can stop buying into the propaganda. You can join us in fighting for others.

You can vote with a conscience.

“Triggering” is easy. It’s not an accomplishment.

You can have the courage to care. To fight back.

To be positive. (Yes, it’s OK to live a happy life. We’re not just negative nannies. We want to encourage people to share the joy we get from pursuing the good life without stomping on those in need and future generations.)

Besides, we have all the good bands. All the people who make good TV shows and movies. All the good writers. We even have all the good preachers.

So come join us. We’ll have fun. ALL of us. Not just those who were born with all the advantages the world can offer and chose not to use them for anything but self-gratification.

cynicism, journalism

Chrissie Hynde and the death of nuance

“That’s a nuanced position, Beau,” said someone on Facebook recently. Then he restated the question as a binary yes/no.

Funny, I took “nuanced” as a compliment. He apparently didn’t.

But I’m used to that. If you’re part of a small subset of a small subset of soccer fans on Twitter, you may know me as the guy who’s against promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer.

Which isn’t true. I’ve actually proposed several promotion/relegation systems, trying to balance the romantic and competitive aspects of most soccer leagues around the world (bottom teams drop out, top teams from a lower league move up) with the economic realities of jump-starting professional soccer in the USA from its dormant state in the early 1990s.

But because I wrote a book on the success of Major League Soccer in overcoming the odds and getting through 15 years (now 20) without collapsing, all while not using a promotion/relegation scheme, I’m the Evil One. And even as I criticize MLS for heavy-handed, short-sighted negotiating stances and toss up suggestions for easing U.S. pro soccer into a more traditional league system, I’m routinely vilified and dismissed in social media. Experienced soccer coaches, with whom I’d like to chat about how to reform U.S. youth soccer, have me blocked. I’ve been told I shouldn’t be allowed to coach children.

(Granted, things were worse when I said something satirical about Alex Morgan, and the U.S. women’s soccer star called me an idiot. Someone offered to buy my book so she could hit me with it. Someone else said he would kill me twice. He didn’t specify how that works.)

All of these arguments are trivial, of course, though some of the unkind (and unfair/inaccurate) things written about me on social media may have affected sales of a women’s soccer book I wrote. But they illustrate how far we’re willing to go to demonstrate our outrage.

And when we have a more meaningful issue — vaccinations, gun control or sexual assault — the outrage swamps any legitimate conversation we could have.

Despite the Alex Morgan fan’s strangely specific threat, I’m still alive. What we’ve killed is nuance.

We’re quick to label people so we can shame them or dismiss them, sparing us the time it would take to figure out what they’re actually saying.

Ask Chrissie Hynde. The Pretenders’ frontwoman said in her memoir that an incident that sounded to many people like a horrible sexual assault — “gang rape” would be the old-school term — was partially her own doing.

Social media did not take kindly to such a suggestion. Neither did new media. “Chrissie Hynde, The Pretenders’ Female Lead Singer, Just Blamed Rape on its Survivors,” blared the clickbait headline at Mic.

The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert apparently has not given up on nuance, taking full stock of the concern that Hynde’s comments might give rapists an excuse but also stepping into Hynde’s shoes and questioning the value of “revictimizing” the 64-year-old rock star:

No matter how Hynde seeks to qualify it, or declines to use the word “rape,” what happened to her at 21 was undoubtedly a traumatic and vicious assault—one that she’s possibly chosen to deal with for the past four decades by affording herself a degree of power and complicity in what happened. And there’s no denying that speaking publicly, as Hynde has done, about how women can be to blame for being sexually assaulted if they’re dressed provocatively is both wrongheaded and extraordinarily damaging to many victims of rape. But Hynde’s choice of words—comparing the outraged responses to her comments to a “lynch mob”—seems to demonstrate that she feels more victimized by the flood of comments and messages and thinkpieces and news hits responding to her story than she does by actually being assaulted in the first place.

Which raises the question: Is attacking Hynde for blaming herself (and yes, by association, blaming others) ultimately productive and worth the cost of revictimizing her? Or is the impulse to shame her and others like her sometimes more about self-gratification than advocacy?

Some Twitterati were supportive:

Others, not so much:

But others were conflicted:

And that’s not a comfortable position. It’s far easier to be outraged, which is why cable “news” shoutfests continue to have viewers.

We also use Twitter as an excuse. “Oh, things come across much worse in 140 characters,” we say. No, they come across worse when you don’t take time to reflect on what you’re really saying. We’ve all tweeted too quickly and been too snarky at times. But it’s our fault, not the medium’s.

Some people, though, are still brave enough to see the gray in the black-and-white issues. We just have to look harder to find them.


Conscious Capitalism: An antidote for cynicism?

I saw a few books on “Conscious Capitalism” at The Container Store yesterday, in a display next to works by like-minded CEOs. Call me naive, but I was thrilled to see it.

I’m under no illusion that such movements attract only people who will live up to these standards. I’m sure there are a few poseurs who sign on to think about the planet as we do business while destroying everything in sight.

But what this sort of things proves is that there is a market for idealism. That market plays in a role in everything from hybrid car sales to renewable energy to living wages.

Ironically, as business recognizes this market, politicians have abandoned it. Politics is all about cynicism.

In some ways, that’s to be expected. In a country of this size, politicians wield great power. Politics also can bring about powerful emotion, and cynicism is a way of building a bulkhead between oneself and that emotion. If you can convince yourself it’s all just a game, you can’t really be hurt. But you would still expect political candidates to express some sort of positive message while the business folks plunder and pillage for profit, wouldn’t you?

Maybe the business world is a better avenue for progress in the long run. CEOs turned philanthropists have responded pretty well to the Ebola crisis. Businesses are making progress on the environment. And maybe they’ll set an example for politicians. Didn’t they used to say lawmakers would be better if they would run things as a business?

cynicism, philosophy

Why we believe utter crap

Are we doomed to believe things that are demonstrably false?

Brendan Nyhan (Dukie!) has devoted much of his career to fighting falsehoods, and he is depressed by a three-year study he conducted to try change beliefs on vaccination:

The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.

Oh dear. That’s not good.

The theory is that one’s sense of self is threatened if you’re confronted with the idea that you’re wrong. So here’s the clever but difficult solution: Make people believe they’ve arrived at the correct answer on their own.

Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without.

So yelling at people that “the grownups are talking” might not work.

At least, not immediately. But I’m a little more optimistic than that. From my own experience, I can think of things I used to argue that I now know to be false — creationism, the infinite superiority of prog rock to pop music, etc. — and I can see how my beliefs changed not in one argument but over a period of time.

And experience forces us to change as well. I recently chatted with a high school friend who worries that I’ve been corrupted by being around all these media and government types. Not so, I said. I’m the same person I was in high school. But my experiences have changed me.

It’s simple common sense. If you’ve never met any Muslims or gay people, you’re more likely to harbor prejudice than you are after you meet them. If you’ve never seen any hard-working poor people, it’s easier to scapegoat them as lazy leeches. If you’ve never met any charitable Christians, it’s easy to stereotype them based on the snake-oil salesmen who dominate the airwaves.

But are some people hard-wired to resist such change? That’s what this piece on right-wing thought and “psychological origins of political ideology argues.

Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions—openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people—and conservatives score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability.

I’m still skeptical. I know too many “liberals” who like “order, structure and stability” — that’s what Europe’s socialized programs offer, after all.

But I do firmly believe people are ingrained with certain fears. And today’s propagandists are all too good at exploiting them. That’s why people believe their freedoms are being taken away by the slightest measure of gun control. Or that Putin is going to go marching through Europe after he gobbles up Ukraine. Or that “genetic modification” is going to turn their produce into radioactive carcinogens.

So I think the next level of research is this: How do you counter propaganda? Censoring Fox News and Jenny McCarthy won’t do it. It has to be something that works to assuage those fears.

Update: I checked out Brendan Nyhan’s Twitter feed and found something I had to add:

But the evidence suggests the Tea Party, like my ninth-grade belief in creationism, is burning itself out.

cynicism, journalism, philosophy, politics

Why cynics are suckers

Cynicism is not intelligence.

Cynicism is the coward’s way of dealing with life. It provides easy scapegoats when things go wrong. It provides an excuse not to care about people or entities who are imperfect.

It doesn’t help the cynic’s loved ones. It doesn’t help the cynic’s country. It doesn’t serve God, no matter how one chooses to worship.

It does serve sensationalist news media and power-hungry political parties.

Which makes cynics little more than the ultimate suckers.