A brief history of U.S. journalism (and how we got to COVID-19 crap)

Plenty of bad things happen in journalism. No one knows this better than journalists.

Like soccer referees, we tend to be lightning rods for angry people — and worse, slimy people trying to “work the refs” — and we don’t get enough money to make up for it. (Perversely, in journalism, the people who do make enough money are usually people who have transitioned into talking-head status and don’t do the grunt work any more, if they ever did.) Most people do it for the love of the game. Or the love of truth. Or the power trip.

It’s a little frustrating when we hear that we’re all biased. It’s true. Just not in the ways a lot of people think, and it doesn’t get at the heart of the problems.

For 20 years, I’ve been linking to a piece at in an effort to explain the issues, and it’s still useful today. That piece shows how bias isn’t necessarily political. It’s many things:

  1. Commercial (we need to stay in business)
  2. Temporal (what happened in the last five minutes >> something that happened yesterday)
  3. Bad news (not the Spinal Tap/Rutles-ish band below featuring 3/4s of The Young Ones)

Sound familiar? Explains a lot of COVID-19 coverage, doesn’t it? And I did warn people about this 20 years ago when I did my grad-school thesis.

I also did an interesting independent study in grad school that confirmed something rather obvious that we all tend to overlook: News organizations’ commitment to objectivity or partisan bias is dictated primarily by business concerns.

Duh, right? The same market forces that led Dominos to sell pizza rather than haggis are the same market forces that made a lot of 20th century newspapers reasonable but boring, and they make cable news interesting but unreasonable.

It’s not just the revenue side. Dominos delivers pizza instead of beef wellington because it’s easier to produce and get out the door for delivery. That’s how things work in journalism as well.

Those forces have evolved over time, as such:

18th and 19th centuries: Scandal! Chicanery! Blast those (Confederates, Whigs, Free Masons, etc.) with their other newspaper. Read ours! The media market was a free-for-all. Printing was relatively inexpensive.

19th and early 20th centuries: The miracle of the telegraph! Now we can transmit news over a vast distance! Of course, that costs money, so to make it cost-effective, we’d better be able to serve this information to a wide variety of newspapers, no matter how weird their politics might be. Welcome to the era of reliably middle-of-the-road news.

1914-18: War!

1918-1939: A time to reorganize during our well-deserved peace that will extend indefinitely now that we’ve had the war to end all wa- …

1939-45: WAR!

1946-1960s: Your local newspaper is basically another utility, like your power company or phone company. (Aside to those born after 1990: The “phone company” used to be just one phone company, and you had to sign up with them to have a phone. In your house. Not your pocket.) Your paper has nice roundups of what’s going on around town, complete with a short recap of the local roller derby games and the latest gardening tips on the ladies’ page. The department stores buy plenty of large display ads, and everyone who wants to sell anything takes out a classified ad.

Rule No. 1 of journalism: Get the facts. Rule No. 2: Don’t rock the boat. (Family lore holds that my grandfather quit a job in a dispute over how to play a story involving one of the heirs to the local department store fortune.)

1960s-1970s: Vietnam and Watergate shatter the post-WWII unity in the country, and news organizations have a more difficult time appealing to everyone. Television becomes a more important news medium, especially as shocking war footage changes the country’s perception of Vietnam.

1980: CNN launches. At first, the programming is a bit like a newspaper’s sections — a news report, a money report, a sports report and a fashion report. In prime time, the TV equivalent of the op-ed page takes over with a show called Crossfire.

Mid-90s: Rupert Murdoch, the master of figuring out ways to make content cheap, launches Fox News Channel with the slogan “fair and balanced” delivered with a wink to right-wing viewers who are still bitter over Vietnam, Watergate and maybe even McCarthy. At first, though, the political stance is less important than the staffing decision. Why have the global news-gathering organization of CNN when it’s much cheaper to mimic Crossfire? Just have people shout at each other for a while. It’s entertaining, it’s cheap — what’s not to love? (Unless you’re one of those nerds who likes context, nuance and that sort of thing.)

Late 90s-2000s: The newspaper business model collapses. No one needs to buy classifieds. Department stores’ importance dwindles. Journalism goes online but ad money does not, and newspapers get smaller and smaller. TV, though, keeps marching right along. Producing cable content is still pretty cheap as long as you don’t do any reporting.


“It bleeds, it leads” has been ramped up to extremes as news organizations fight for eyeballs.

Search-engine optimization is ruining good writing Kim Kardashian because it makes Kim Kardashian journalists re-emphasize Kim Kardashian a particular key phrase Kim Kardashian to game the Kim Kardashian system, reducing the Kim Kardashian capacity to present Kim Kardashian nuance. (Hey, I just quadrupled my traffic!)

Money for local journalism is drying up, creating “news deserts” where local governments can operate with no watchdogs. Whatever you think of the government-watchdog dynamic (Jefferson said he preferred the latter), we’re not better off with one without the other.

Money for quality journalism is drying up, in part because a generation has been conditioned to expect free “news.” (It doesn’t help that news organizations have been less than creative. If The San Francisco Chronicle has four stories that appeal to those of us outside of San Francisco, do they really expect us to subscribe just to see beyond our three freebies? No a la carte payment? No bundling with other newspapers? Why not?)

The new generation has a lot to offer but often lacks respect for the job and brings it its own agenda. That’s particularly true in sports, where people can make a name for themselves as advocates. Sometimes, they do the work and have a healthy respect for the facts. Sometimes, they don’t.

Political theater is cheap and easy, which is why PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor has been so easily duped into playing exactly the role Donald Trump wants her to play. Being “tough,” in and of itself, can be a counterproductive way to question authority.

And the big one …

It’s a lot easier for a lot of people to tell a lot of lies. In some cases, it’s because people refuse to believe any information outside their own little bubbles. The Flat Earth bubble is small but hardened. If I don’t know anyone who has died of COVID-19 and my favorite politician says it’s not a big deal, then who’s Anthony Fauci to tell me otherwise?

I’m not going to argue that each “side” of the political spectrum as defined in U.S. terms is equally to blame. They’re not. One party has chipped away at the authority of academia and the media, and now it’s come to roost. Another group has preyed upon historical and theological ignorance to propagate a perverted form of Christianity that worships money and hate.

But there’s another “bubble” as well, and it’s mostly the urban view of less-urban America. No economic classes understand each other — TV networks get a lot of mileage out of the notion that rich people are all as effete and myopic as Frasier Crane — but the urban elites absolutely misunderstand the less-urban middle classes.

And here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Absolutely, consider the perspective of someone who’s presenting information. Is that person seeing all angles? Perhaps not, but then don’t automatically dismiss everything that person is saying. If you think someone is missing part of the story, look for more reports from more angles. This is why media monopolies are bad things.
  2. Then, consider your perspective. When you scold small business-owners who want to reopen their businesses, have you really looked at it from their perspective and not simply the perspective of someone who can afford to stay at home indefinitely? Have you considered all possibilities for tip-toeing back toward normalcy?
  3. Down with slogans!
  4. Believe science. Climate change isn’t a hoax. Vaccines are thousands of times safer than going unvaccinated. The Earth isn’t flat. COVID-19 is contagious and dangerous.
  5. Question the narrative. Is the U.S. women’s soccer team really underpaid? Are we really stuck at home until a COVID-19 vaccine emerges?
  6. Then question the meta-narrative. Why have two “sides” in America defined by the pragmatic Clinton/Obama wing of the Democratic Party and whichever wing of the Republican Party is loudest at the moment? A lot of journalists have been slow to realize that we have at least five distinct political views in the USA — democratic socialism that is the majority view in many European countries, the “liberal” school led by Joe Biden (who’s more “progressive” than Sanders supporters realize but is still not AOC), what’s left of the “Never Trump” GOP movement, the libertarian-ish Tea Party (remember them?), and the authoritarians who’ve embraced Trump.

And please don’t throw up your hands and say “oh, they’re all liars” or “oh, they’re all biased.” Sure, we’re all flawed. But it’s our responsibility to weigh the preponderance of the evidence, and if you read enough, you’ll get the evidence.

journalism, philosophy, politics

The Attack on Truth: Postmodernism and propaganda

In grad school, I worried that the same “postmodernist” tools that ivory-tower professors used to question reality were also being used by propaganda merchants to question climate change, evolution and so forth.

I hate being right. But this Chronicle of Higher Education piece, The Attack on Truth, confirms it.

“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”

Granted, the seeds of doubt go back a bit farther than that:

Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign.

And to some extent, our discussions have never been about finding truth:

In a recent paper, “Why Do Humans Reason?,” Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, both of them philosophers and cognitive scientists, argue that the point of human reason is not and never has been to lead to truth, but is rather to win arguments. If that is correct, the discovery of truth is only a byproduct.

So we’re talking about deeply ingrained human nature. But we often fight against that human nature and come up with the occasional Age of Reason or Enlightenment, pushing our scruffy species a little farther up the road toward good government, good decisions, and technology. If our species could never agree on truth, Apple engineers would still be yelling at each other about how to make an iPod. We’d never have an iPhone.

The bad news today is that we have the means to amplify every crackpot, and the media business landscape makes shouting pundits more profitable than careful research.

An obvious solution might be to turn to journalists, who are supposed to embrace a standard of objectivity and source-checking that would be more likely to support true beliefs. Yet, at least in part as a result of the competition that has been enabled by the Internet, we now find that even some mainstream journalists and news media are dangerously complicit in the follies of those who seek to disrespect truth. There have always been accusations of bias in the media, but today we have Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left (along with a smattering of partisan radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh), who engage in overt advocacy for their ideological views.

Yet those are not the kinds of journalists we should be so worried about, for they are known to be biased. Another tendency is perhaps even more damaging to the idea that journalism is meant to safeguard truth. Call it “objectivity bias.” Sensitive to criticism that they, too, are partisan, many news sites try to demonstrate that they are fair and balanced by presenting “both” sides of any issue deemed “controversial” — even when there really aren’t two credible sides. That isn’t objectivity. And the consequence is public confusion over whether an issue — in the case of climate change or childhood vaccination, a scientific issue — has actually been settled.


A lot of this was written in some guy’s grad-school thesis in 2000:

With readers choosing the news they see, vital bits of information may not get to the people who need it. Readers may not hear that the food on their shelves has been recalled because of a possible salmonella contamination. Voters may believe erroneous reports about the economy; a Los Angeles Times poll in 1994 found this to be the case, with 53 percent of respondents saying they believed a recession lingered in the United States despite considerable evidence to the contrary.  Readers have new power to get around the gatekeepers, but journalists have less power to ensure that important messages get through the gates.

I hate being right.


The media’s role in climate-change denialism

False objectivity, postmodernism, getting “both sides” — by any name, it’s a problem:

As Kenner sees it, on any issue, there are typically three groups: true believers; nonbelievers; and the vast, confused middle. It’s not the middle’s fault it’s confused: Kenner blames the Marc Moranos of the world, who are paid to sow not just doubt but fear. (“Fear is a big part of it,” he says.) The media share much of the blame. Kenner singles out newspapers — this one in particular — for his harshest criticism of what he calls their tradition of “false balance”: the insistence on always presenting two sides of an issue, even when there aren’t two.

via ‘Food, Inc.’ director’s new project shines light on climate-change deniers – The Washington Post.

An honest debate on climate change would include several qualified people discussing how bad it’s going to be and how we should fight it and/or adapt. Not outright denialists. You wouldn’t include a Flat Earther for “balance” in a discussion on air travel, would you?


Positivism and objectivity (or, data and calling b.s.)

I somehow stumbled into a long think piece about the inadequacies of “Big Data,” which includes everything from FiveThirtyEight to, somehow, dating sites. Echoing Jay Rosen’s work on the futility of a purely “objective” view, it’s called “View from Nowhere.”

The gist of it is that the positivists, here defined as people who think we can figure everything out through data (my philosophy professors probably defined it differently, but this definition actually makes sense to me), are conceited in their belief that they can step away and let data discern truth. We all have biases, writer Nathan Jurgenson says, even if they only show up in the way we ask questions. It’s like the old saying on computers’ fallibility being directly attributable to bad programming: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Jurgenson’s critique is reasonable, but I also found myself thinking about a recent post from the most grounded journalist or ex-journalist I know, Lex Alexander, who fretted about the media’s outright refusal to call bullshit on anything or anyone.

The terms get slippery here. To some extent, Lex and Jurgenson are both criticizing the “View from Nowhere” that has indeed led to some journalistic malpractice over the years. My McCarthy studies taught me how easy it is to manipulate journalists who are trying to get “both sides” of an argument. Reporters and editors must have the inclination, the guts, and the knowledge base to say, “Yeah, hang on, I’m going to check that out.”

But my issue with Jurgenson’s piece is that I hope people, while recognizing the limits of “Big Data,” can also see it an important tool for calling bullshit.

A lot of controversies in modern media aren’t opinions. They’re facts. We have people in elected office who go against science on climate change and evolution. They go against history on … well, American history. They go against economics whenever convenient.

Outside politics, we have a populace that believes in a lot of junk. Anti-vaccination movements. The latest chain email from Grandma about that African-born Obama trying to usher in an Islamofascist state. And so on.

Big Data isn’t perfect. No source is. And frankly, the data journalists like Nate Silver are really good at explaining the limitations of their own work. Silver doesn’t just pass along numbers from Rasmussen without challenging the methodology.

But in a land of people so desperate to believe whatever someone tells them to assuage or reinforce their fears, we desperately need Big Data. Because Big Bullshit is a monster.

journalism, politics

Three sides on climate change? Can’t have that!

Andrew Sullivan rounds up a bit of legitimate right-wing concern about climate change.

The problem is that having conversatives bringing forth their climate-change ideas will confound the media, which can’t handle more than two “sides.” The two “sides” on climate change are currently defined as “please do something about this before the planet goes phhhht” and “this is all just a liberal tax-raising conspiracy.”


Why FiveThirtyEight will save objective journalism

The medium may not be the message, to cite the Marshall McLuhan quote no one really understands. But a new medium can be a game-changer, particularly when it comes to whether news will be based in fact, speculation, or punditry.

The telegraph pushed news away from the scandal sheets of the early 19th century to something a little more sedate. The wire services had to create an economy of scale (sell enough to pay for the wires) by selling to clients of all political persuasions. And telegraph wires weren’t always reliable. Get the facts across first, or they might not get there at all.

Fast forward to the Golden Age of newspaper columns, and you’ll find how easy it is to get lazy and get by on a bit of nifty wordplay. During the Gulf War, I was astonished to see big-newspaper columnists getting away with columns based on flimsy history and the occasional scoop of news from a friend of the second cousin of a plumber who fixed a toilet at the Pentagon.

It’s a cheap way to get people talking. And that’s what cable news became. No one should be surprised to see 24-hour vitriol or wild guesses about the fate of an airplane.

Today’s media are sensationalized. They’re clickbait, promising you The 25 Things That Will Arouse You, Change Your Life and Cure Stomach Flu. (That’s one reason I’m happy to be at OZY, where we’re going in a different direction.)

But now there’s another new medium. It’s statistics. And it’s the medium in which Nate Silver has launched a revolution worth enlisting in.

Silver has already dramatically demonstrated that dispassionate number-crunching demolishes political punditry when it comes to showing what’s going on in political elections. And yet he says his accomplishments there have been overstated:

It wasn’t all that hard to figure out that President Obama, ahead in the overwhelming majority of nonpartisan polls in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin, was the favorite to win them, and was therefore the favorite to win the Electoral College.

Instead, our forecasts stood out in comparison to others in the mainstream media. Commentators as prestigious as George F. Will and Michael Barone predicted not just a Mitt Romney win, but a Romney sweep in most or all of the swing states. Meanwhile, some news reporters defaulted to characterizing the races as “toss-ups” when the evidence suggested otherwise.

Will and Barone, of course, were engaging in some wishful thinking. Would Silver have done the same if the situation was reversed? I seriously doubt it. I don’t know Silver’s politics (I might have a hunch), but he belongs to a dwindling class of people for whom their credibility is more important than their rooting interests.

Now Nate has taken the ball over to ESPN. But he’s not just going back to fantasy baseball or sticking to politics. He’s covering it all with an enlarged staff.

And he’s got the right balance of humility and boldness. He respects journalism traditions, and he knows no one with a spreadsheet can give the same insight into a war zone or a locker room that a good reporter can provide from the scene. But he sees areas that can be improved.

Math is the basic one. Twice in my journalism career, I’ve had to explain that 1/4=0.25. Twice. “How many cents in a quarter?!?!”

The math at FiveThirtyEight is more advanced than that. And it’s math that we Gen Xers were never advised to take. We were all pushed to take precalculus and calculus. Need another math course, even though you’re a humanities major? Oh, here you go — more calculus!

Now we know. We should’ve been taking stats. I’m kicking myself and trying to teach myself on the fly, taking bits of what I learned from “computer-assisted reporting” workshops and a remarkably unhelpful book on stats and Excel.

But the revolution here isn’t just about math and better analytic tools. It’s about objectivity.

Back to Nate’s manifesto, which should be required reading in journalism school from now on:

There are some handicaps that conventional journalism faces when it seeks to move beyond reporting on the news to explaining it. One problem is the notion of “objectivity” as it’s applied in traditional newsrooms, where it’s often taken to be synonymous with neutrality or nonpartisanship. I prefer the scientific definition of objectivity, where it means something closer to the truth beyond our (inherently subjective) perceptions. Leave that aside for now, however. The journalistic notion of objectivity, however flawed, at least creates some standard by which facts are introduced and presented to readers.

Journalists can look at this manifesto in fear. This has never been an easy job. Now the standards are going up. Want to support a conclusion? You may not be able to rely on a safe quote from a talking head. You might need to prove it.

Here’s the good news. Just as reading a good writer will help the reader become a better writer, scouring FiveThirtyEight should help us all become better acquainted with the new tools.

Check out this piece on spring training, even if you’re like me and no longer invest any time in fantasy baseball. Look at the tools on display. And the footnotes. In one story, you’ll learn more about correlations and regression than you will from this book I need to return to the library.

FiveThirtyEight’s journalists are raising the bar. And they’re helping us over it. Let’s go.