THE SLOW DEATH OF THINKING

Fake news isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom.  The real diagnosis starts between your ears

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

Satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), from a portrait in the National Gallery, London, by Francis Bindon (died 1770) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), from a portrait in the National Gallery, London, by Francis Bindon (died 1770) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Falsehood flies,” wrote the Anglo-Irish essayist Jonathan Swift, “and the truth comes limping after it.”  Swift, whose specialty was satire, made that powerful observation way back in 1710.  Were he alive today, Swift would be thoroughly amused by our blithe assumption that the phenomenon we call “fake news” is somehow new. 

In recent months, we’ve heard of all kinds of technological fixes for fake news.   There are moves afoot to delete it before it shows up on our news feeds, and to filter it out before it hits our Facebook accounts. 

But these well-intentioned innovations miss the mark.  What’s urgently needed is a strategy for separating reality from fakery in that ultimate inbox: the human brain. 

We used to have that, back in the day, when our brains were just about all we had.  But in the 21st century, when knowledge of all kinds seems to be just a few search terms away, critical thinking – an evidence based, analytical and open-minded thought process that was once the principal purpose of an education - is on life support around the world.  

Some would blame the rise of today’s toxic political culture for the decline of critical thinking.  I believe it’s the other way around. 

When I was a high school senior, I was fortunate enough to take an elective in critical thinking.  “This course will impact you for the rest of your life,” said my teacher, Mr. Valenti, with a sincere smile to complement his hipster beard and without a hint of Swiftian irony.  And he was right.

Contrary to popular belief, I learned that critical thinking is not just shooting holes in someone else’s ideas.  True critical thinking leaves the realm of opinion, and looks behind fundamental facts that we all take for granted. 

I learned about syllogisms and the nature of formal logic.  I learned about the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning.  And I first encountered the term “metaphysics,” which sounds arcane and elitist, but which in fact describes the hidden reality that undergirds all of what actually is. 

Without a metaphysics grounded in the innate capacity of human reason to grasp reality, we could make no sense of the world.  Our surroundings are unintelligible unless we can absorb and accurately interpret sensory data. 

There is a reason these concepts were once givens in higher education.  If our senses are not reliable in a factual empirical sense, there goes math.  There goes language and a common vocabulary.  There goes science. 

And if you define journalism as a search for truth as opposed to fiction, there goes journalism, too.  Not to mention any serious, grounded objections to fake news.

But we have slowly abandoned these ideas, first in education, and now as a culture.  And to our chagrin, we are learning that the relativism that followed - hey, I don’t care what you say, that news isn’t fake to me! – has led only to a descent into what New York Times columnist David Brooks called “a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation...the furious intensity at every town-hall meeting on every subject.” 

This should not surprise us.  Everyone is convinced that they are objectively correct, precisely because we have allowed ourselves to become ignorant on what objective correctness really is. 

I recently spent the better part of a week training two separate groups of scientists.  Their missions were different, but both teams were struggling to explain the reams of data in front of them in terms the public would understand.  Without reason, their data would just be symbols and numbers - inaccessible, as all symbols and numbers are, until our brains receive, decode and evaluate them.

This is not a mere parlor debate.  PayScale and Future Workplace recently reported that only half of all hiring managers consider recent college graduates to be ready for the workplace.  Their biggest flaw?  Some 60 percent of employers say new grads are bereft of critical thinking skills. 

I built on my critical thinking class in high school with a college course in epistemology, which is the study of what separates truth from opinion.  Don’t know and can’t know?   Sorry, my friend - that sounds like a cop-out.   

Critical thinking, formal logic, epistemology and metaphysics were once required building blocks across much of academia.  It should be little wonder that in sidelining these disciplines of understanding, we’ve forgotten how to think. 

Restoring them to their previous place of honor will eventually go a long way toward healing the rifts in society, let alone minimizing the scourge of fake news.  And Jonathan Swift’s limping truth just might throw its crutches away. 

ETAN PATZ: A BIG SMALL STORY

The conviction of the 6-year old's killer, 38 years after the boy's unsolved disappearance, is a reminder that seemingly insignificant stories can get big, fast - and have a very long shelf life

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

WOR newscaster Peter Roberts, circa 1966.

WOR newscaster Peter Roberts, circa 1966.

On Tuesday, May 29, 1979, at 5:15 in the morning, the veteran New York newscaster Peter Roberts is beginning to write.   I am three years out of college, and in the unlikely position of being his supervisor.  I am the morning news editor at WOR, one of the most listened-to radio stations in the country, and easily the most profitable. 

I am trying hard not to seem too green for my job.  And then Roberts speaks up.

“We should really include a few lines about Etan Patz,” he tells me.    

Etan Patz as photographed in 1978, from a Wikipedia page on his disappearance.

Etan Patz as photographed in 1978, from a Wikipedia page on his disappearance.

At first, I don’t know what Roberts is talking about.   Sure, I had read over the Memorial Day weekend about the neighborhood search for the 6-year old SoHo boy who had disappeared, while walking the two blocks from his family’s loft to catch a school bus.  Hundreds of SoHo residents joined the hunt, almost spontaneously.  (Imagine Manhattanites responding to such a call today without Foursquare and smartphones?)

Etan who? The name means nothing to me.  Having read the story, and not heard it on the radio, I assume the name is pronounced Eton Pats (rhymes with seat and slats).

Roberts is a news institution on WOR.  A genteel Anglophone from Montreal, he is also a stickler for pronunciation. 

“It’s Ay-tuhn Paytz,” he says.  “Lots of people are following it, Steve.   We should, too.  It’s an important story.”

Etan Patz hasn’t made the cut for our morning rundown, and I don't see how it can.   It is already a busy Tuesday.  The NTSB is investigating the cause of a plane crash in Chicago that killed 275 people.   Israel has begun returning the Sinai to Egypt.  Margaret Thatcher is in her first month as British Prime Minister, and Pope John Paul II is preparing to visit Poland.

Besides, I know, kids go missing all the time in New York.  Many simply lose their way, and are rediscovered in a matter of minutes, or hours.  Some are taken by one parent or another, caught up in custody disputes.  A disproportionate number of these cases emanate from troubled neighborhoods, and in 1979, New York had a long list of those.

West Broadway in New York's SoHo neighborhood as it appeared in 1974.  Courtesy therealdeal.com.

West Broadway in New York's SoHo neighborhood as it appeared in 1974.  Courtesy therealdeal.com.

SoHo wasn’t exactly the South Bronx, of course.  But neither was it what it is today: a glossy, artsy, urban shopping center. 

Today, near the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets where young Etan disappeared, you have a Club Monaco, an Apple Store, and boutiques by designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg.   Storefronts are painted in politically correct earth tones - subdued wines, greys, and khakis.   The only clues to the neighborhood’s low-rent past are the back of a stop sign covered with bumper stickers, and a couple of mail storage boxes festooned with graffiti.

Prince Street at the corner of Wooster Street in SoHo, as it appears today.  Image from Google Maps.

Prince Street at the corner of Wooster Street in SoHo, as it appears today.  Image from Google Maps.

But if SoHo wasn’t yet a typically upscale neighborhood in 1979, Etan’s parents weren’t typical, either. Stanley and Julie Patz were media savvy before that term became a cliche.  (Patz’s father, Stanley, was a professional photographer.)

Within hours of their son’s disappearance, they had organized an urban posse to search for him. They plastered the city with pictures of him.  They called in the papers to report on him. 

They pushed every button that existed back then – and even some buttons they had to create.  Patz’s case was critical to the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  Etan was the first missing child ever to appear on a milk carton.

And of course, they'd gotten the attention of WOR, thanks to Peter Roberts. 

On that May morning 38 years ago, my youthful instinct was that Etan Patz was a routine missing person case that would be solved quickly.  Many other big stories of that day have long been forgotten, but this one remains all too familiar. 

I carried the lesson into a long career in news.  Sometimes, it isn't just about reporting what's already big.  It's about recognizing what might become big. 

 

FOUR STEPS TO DEFLATE FAKE NEWS

The emergence of Facebook and Google as content aggregators gives new life to falsehood.   There are some simple, specific steps news consumers - and publishers - should take

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

“Nothing is new under the sun,” according to the Book of Ecclesiastes.  And although the attention fake news has gotten recently might lead you to think otherwise, there is nothing new about it. Ever since the Trojan Horse - and probably before - fakery has been integral to the human condition.  

Run for your lives: the debunking site snopes.com is a critical weapon in the battle against fake news. 

Run for your lives: the debunking site snopes.com is a critical weapon in the battle against fake news. 

We fake to impress.  We fake to have fun.  We fake to gain a strategic advantage of some kind.   And of course, as anyone who’s ever stood in a supermarket checkout line knows, fake news sells.  

Back when sleazy tabloids were its primary conduit, fake news was easy to sequester in our heads and moralize about.  “I never go near that garbage,” we might claim, even as we hid it on the conveyor belt, under a few boxes of Hamburger Helper and frozen green beans, and hoped no one would notice.

Today, however, fake news isn’t just in the checkout line.  It is emanating from outlets that serve up legitimate news right alongside it - providing, at least, a thin patina of credibility.  And an increasingly dark digital stew of fact and fiction is making it tougher than ever to distinguish the real from the unreal.   (Check out the top fake news stories of the year as compiled by CNET.)

But two of the online outlets for fake news are noticeably larger and more influential than the rest.  Of late, they have become bigger than our newspapers and our networks.   And it turns out they don’t even do journalism at all.  

In the digital equivalent of “mission creep,” Facebook and Google have steadily expanded their brief to become the primary disseminators of news around the world.   These, and companies like them, “have become extremely powerful in terms of controlling who publishes what to whom, and how that publication is monetized,” says British academic and journalist Emily Bell

A study by the marketing intelligence firm Jumpshot recently found that Facebook referrals accounted for half of total traffic to fake news sites.  But actual news sites - whose product can appear in the very same Facebook news feed - draw just 20 percent of the same audience.   In effect, aggregation has made it possible for the fake to sponge the credibility of the real, and profit handsomely in the process.  

But hang on.  Weren’t the bad old days of network dominance and media concentration supposed to be behind us?  With a multitude of voices, wasn’t the Internet promised to be the ultimate leveler - a democratizing force for news reporting and opinion?

That, of course, was before we had two organizations sitting at such critical digital choke points.  Despite the wide variety of content providers, says Bell, there is now “a far greater concentration of power than there ever has been in the past.”

Let’s restate the obvious: Facebook and Google do not do journalism.  At best, they gather it.  As the New York Times recently noted, the primary motivator for the purveyors of fake news isn’t ideological - it’s economic.  It generates revenue on ads that are tied to page views.  Page views, in turn, are tied to consecutive clicks.  And what better way to click your way to those page views than by presenting oddly compelling but fabricated stories, alongside real ones?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has recently made some noises indicating he is beginning to understand the problem.  That’s a start.  Meantime, if you believe as I do that factual reporting is a critical component to a functioning society, there are four specific things you can or should do:

If you’re a news consumer, cut out the middleman.   Get your news, not via Facebook or Google, but directly from fact-based outlets that have a history of truth telling and a commitment to accuracy.   And I’m not just talking “mainstream media” here.  Many outlets with either conservative or liberal world views can and do demonstrate that same history and commitment.   Maybe even subscribe to a few.  Some of them actually exist in print!  

If you’re a news outlet, find the courage to bypass Facebook and Google.   Almost every media outlet now needs to chase eyeballs in cyberspace.  But if your content gets mixed up with fake news, is it worth the potential cost to your overall good name?  Take steps to protect your content from being displayed in aggregators that put your reportage on the same level as yarns about space aliens.  

Become your own fact checker.   Sites like snopes.com and truthorfiction.com are indispensable for quick, accurate debunking when you see a story that doesn’t have the ring of truth.  If such a tool had existed 20-plus years ago, when my New York colleagues and I were fooled by a fake Lotto winner, this story might never have seen the light of day.  For European and international news, the non-profit fullfact.org provides a model worth emulating in other parts of the world.  It dispassionately reports facts and trends, leaving interpretation and analysis to others.  

Be alert to editorializing.  Even in so-called “mainstream” outlets that claim to separate fact from opinion, slant and outright bias can creep into articles that are billed as hard news.   How can you tell?  Here’s one oversimplified rule of thumb: hard news stories tend to address the basics - who, what, when, where, and how.   When an article starts to delve into the “why” - you’re often, although not always, entering the realm of conjecture.  

It comes down to a three word admonition we used to hear a lot more than we do today - perhaps because if it were heeded more widely, we’d miss out on a lot of the entertaining escapism that fake news often provides.

That three word warning?

“Consider the source.” 

HIT THE ROAD, JOURNALISTS

They didn’t ignore the heartland’s love affair with Donald Trump – but they weren’t looking in the right places either.  A modest suggestion on how to keep that from happening again

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop  

The New York Times is heaving mea culpas after missing the biggest political upset in American history.  Naturally, they’re not alone – although they are perhaps somewhat more upfront about their soul searching than others. 

Almost all of us were wrong.  The media were wrong.  The pollsters were wrong. Yours truly was wrong.

Social scientists are already retooling their models and wondering how the next big technological innovation will save us from blowing the call on the next election. 

But maybe all we need is a Winnebago.

Charles Kuralt, circa 1970, astride his trusty Winnebago.  Courtesy CBS News. 

Charles Kuralt, circa 1970, astride his trusty Winnebago.  Courtesy CBS News

Charles Kuralt (1934-1997) was a traveling correspondent for CBS News.  Long before he was named the first host of CBS Sunday Morning, Kuralt – who grew up in rural Mecklenberg County, North Carolina – persuaded the network to let him hit the road in a motor home (he went through six of them before he was done), traveling America’s back roads in search of stories no one else saw.  The resulting series, which was featured on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, was named “On the Road.” 

This 1972 profile of a disappearing town – Fort Motte, South Carolina - is vintage Kuralt.  The small town industrial decline that it documented, 44 years ago, seems eerily prescient of the themes in the Trump campaign.

You can’t find these stories on Google.  An assignment editor can’t tell you to go cover them.  You may not even see them when you are face to face with them.  You have to recognize the heartbeat of a small town first.  You need to listen, figuratively or literally, from a Winnebago.  “On the Road” did.  (Kuralt died in 1997, but CBS correspondent Steve Hartman continues in his footsteps, sans Winnebago.) 

The week before Election Day, I had an “On the Road” moment.  A quirk in my schedule made it necessary for me to drive from Pittsburgh to Toledo – a distance of 233 miles – right through the heart of swing state steel country. 

I passed farms, truck stops, and probably two dozen Trump-Pence roadside signs, many of them painted by hand.  That spoke to me about the passion of the ticket's supporters.  There wasn’t a Clinton-Kaine sign anywhere in sight. 

If I had flown instead of driven, I would not have grasped the extent of the region’s support for the “blue collar billionaire.”  But Winnebago journalism, inherently expensive and impractical even in Kuralt’s day, is unheard of now.  In the digital age, reporters do most of their legwork by phone, text or email. 

When we do visit a remote location for context, if we are not already being transported in the cocoon of a campaign bus (as I was in 1984), we typically parachute in from a major city.  We set our GPS to pre-chosen destinations, because we’ve already sought out the hotel with the best wi-fi, the closest Starbucks, and the cleanest gym.  (A national economy of hotel and restaurant chains has made that possible.) 

It’s no wonder, then, that this hub-and-spokes approach to journalism misses important nuance.  We wind up seeing only what we’ve previously decided to see.  We rarely search for something we don’t already know.  A few interviews in a diner to “gauge the pulse” of the heartland, a phoner with a local politician and political science professor, and we’re done.  We usually head straight home – or, fly to our next assignment. 

Don’t linger on the road, we’re warned.  That might blow our news division’s next budget, and our own next deadline.  Besides, we don’t want to miss the next yoga class back home.

The America that elected Donald Trump is vastly different from the one those of us alive in 1972 remember.  But it would not be at all foreign to reporters like Charles Kuralt.  If the media want to get it right next time, we might want to do a little less prognosticating… and a little more listening.  On the road. 

 

 

AGREEABLY DISAGREEING

Our toxic political culture could take a cue from two men whose friendship transcended their passionate differences.

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

“Do as adversaries do in law,” says Tranio in the first act of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.  “Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”

I first encountered that phrase when I was five or six years old, on the menu of The Castle, a dining institution my family used to frequent when visiting family in upstate New York.  Alas, poor Yorick - The Castle is long gone.  And so is Tranio’s sentiment.  

As the brutal presidential primary of 2016 attested, opponents in the public forum these days can barely find enough common ground to stand on the same stage with each other, let alone break bread together.  

William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Mailer on Buckley's PBS public affairs program, Firing Line, 1968.  Screenshot by Washington Free Beacon. 

William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Mailer on Buckley's PBS public affairs program, Firing Line, 1968.  Screenshot by Washington Free Beacon

But within living memory - including the 1960’s, an era even more politically rancorous than our own - some of society’s most entrenched adversaries socialized across the aisle on a regular basis, sharing not just dialogue but a degree of camaraderie.  This is historian Kevin M. Schultz’s central argument in Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties (Norton, 2015).  It’s not an entertaining book, but it is timely, if only as a reminder that the current tone of our public discourse wasn’t always so sour.    

If you need a quick fill:  Both William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008) Norman Mailer (1923-2007) were major 20th century intellectuals: journalists, columnists, novelists, and publishers.  But in almost every other respect, they were polar opposites. Buckley was “On the Right” (the title of his nationally syndicated column); Mailer was on the left.  Buckley was an observant Catholic; Mailer, a secular Jew.  

In 1955, Buckley founded National Review magazine, the modern conservative movement along with it, and became that cause’s most potent voice until his death.   Mailer helped found The Village Voice, also in 1955, and his iconoclastic “radical-as-hipster” ethic burnished his reputation as the enfant terrible of the Left.  Buckley launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New York in 1965; Mailer did the same thing four years later.

We somehow have gotten the idea that if our disagreements don’t degenerate into shouting matches or fist fights, that our convictions must not be deeply held. That’s nonsense.

The two first encountered each other in 1962, at a spirited debate in Chicago.  A promoter billed it as “the forceful philosopher of the New Conservatism against America’s angry young man and Leading Radical.”  As Chris Tucker noted in the Dallas Morning News, the debate is when the pair “took one another’s measure and realized they could be not only foils but friends.”  

They sparred over many issues.  But each was smart enough to realize that his own fiery point of view needed the other’s for oxygen.  Even as they tried to convert each other to their respective causes, their mutual admiration grew.  “He is a genius,” Buckley would later confess of Mailer.  “And I am not.”  

Mailer returned the compliment - appearing on Buckley’s Firing Line TV program several times, and even making a donation to National Review.  According to Tucker, Mailer viewed himself and Buckley as “prophetic voices, standing outside the mainstream, offering critiques from a higher moral plane.”

In 1968, ABC News rejected Buckley’s suggestion that he debate Mailer during live coverage of the political conventions.  In Mailer’s stead, the network offered up liberal author and intellectual Gore Vidal.  Whereas the Buckley-Mailer relationship was founded on shared respect, Buckley and Vidal shared nothing but a patrician manner and deep animosity for each other.  

The fireworks, as recounted in the 2015 documentary The Best of Enemies, made for great television - and as moderator Howard K. Smith noted, “a little more heat and a little less light” than usual.  

Buckley and Mailer would be a 400-page footnote to the tumult of the 1960’s except for the fact that their brand of friendship so rarely happens anymore.  We may lament this trend, but seldom do we recognize that the ongoing cantonization of our media world helped give birth to it.   

The ability to curate your life and your politics in an online echo chamber, shutting out opposing voices and views, is a quite recent phenomenon in the history of human affairs. If the only people you ever meet on Facebook are those who already agree with you, why bother nurturing the art of bridge-building?

We somehow have gotten the idea that if our disagreements don’t degenerate into shouting matches or fist fights, that our convictions must not be deeply held.  That’s nonsense.  Peer into the pre-Twitter past, and you’ll see that the political and media worlds are rife with examples of major figures who could disagree without being disagreeable.    Jack Kirkpatrick and Shana AlexanderPat Buchanan and Tom Braden.  And in the case of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’NeillEdward M. Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, or more recently, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, they even got things done together.

Like many public figures, Buckley and Mailer were far too busy to develop a sustained social life together.  But their longstanding comity reminds us of what we need to rediscover in our government, our media, and our society, before it’s lost forever.  For when the debates are over, the ballots are cast, the sets are struck and the balloons come down… Tranio and Shakespeare were right.