Monday, July 31, 2017

Don't Believe Everything That You Read In The Newspapers

When did people stop being skeptical? Maybe a long time ago.

These three quotes about newspapers have one thing in common:
"Don't believe everything that you read in the newspapers." - Andrew Card.

"All I know is what I read in the papers." - Will Rogers

“If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.” - Mark Twain
. . . they may or may not have been said by the purported authors.   A lot has been attributed to Will Rogers and Mark Twain that they never in fact said.  Always take attributions with a grain of salt. Andrew Card was a member of Bush administration, but the quote attributed to him was common parlance when I was a kid growing up in the 1960's.  He may have said it, but I doubt he invented it.

Long before the Internet, we got our news from the television, newspapers, and magazines, and we were quite skeptical back then as to what was reported.  Yellow Journalism is a term that goes back a century or more.  And anonymous pamphleteering was something practiced as far back as the revolution.  You may think that Brietbart or Inforwars are over-the-top, but they pale in comparison to what was said by opponents (and anonymous pamphleteers) about Abraham Lincoln and a host of other politicians from a century ago.

In other words, this is nothing new.   What is new is that people seem more willing that ever to believe things online that fit their internal narrative.   They aren't fat, it's hormones.   They aren't broke because they spent all their money - the 1%'ers took it away!   They didn't lose their job because they went out on strike for six years, it was those damn Mexicans!

In fact, one easy way to tell if someone is lying to you is whether or not what they are saying is convenient or favorable to you.  I am less skeptical of bad news than good news.  I realize that people make money off me by telling me what I want to hear.  So when AT&T sends me countless letters saying "GOOD NEWS!  You qualify for a discount on Satellite TeeVee!" I am very, very skeptical that any sort of bargain is in the works.   When they send me a letter telling me about a rate increase, well, I certainly believe that, because I know how telcos and wireless companies work.  They rarely never do anything to my advantage.

Back in the day, the saying "Don't believe everything you read in the papers" was common currency.  We were always a little skeptical that what was said in the paper was the absolute truth.  And another saying from that time illustrates why - you don't understand how inaccurate the press is, until you read an article with you in it.    When the media reports on something that you are involved in, or where you have some kind of expertise, well, you realize quickly how wrong they get things all the time.

For example, I took The New Yorker - with its famous fact-checking department - to task because they wrote a fawning article about Las Vegas (which oddly coincided with an advertising supplement for Las Vegas) that mentioned someone had registered their Trademark with "The Attorney General of the United States".   It was a boner error - Trademarks are registered with the United States Patent & Trademark Office.  I pointed this error out to them, and they revised the article to say "registered with the patent's [sic] office".

Even the correction was wrong.   What was appalling to me was that a few issues earlier they ran a long piece about the New Yorker fact-checking department and how thorough they were - no fact, however trivial, was beyond their scrutiny!   But apparently that was back in the day, and I guess Conde Nast fired all those people to save money.

But it was jarring to me, and it made me realize that there were so many other things in the article and indeed every article that were also probably incorrect, wrong, off, or just plain made-up.  That the article accompanied (but was not part of) a huge advertising section for Las Vegas, of course, was the real tip-off.  This was not journalism, but blatant advertising.  The articles now are the ads.

We live in a new era of news.   Profit margins are razor-thin as online advertising pays bubkis.  So they cut back on staff - every major newspaper has fired dozens of reporters.  No one reports local news at all.   Everything is barfed up from one of the few wire services, or is taken from a tweet or Facebook posting, or god forbid, a blogsite.

In other words, the media is less accurate today than it has ever been.   In this era of security cameras and cell-phone videos, you'd think we'd get the stories right.  But no, we get lots of eye-candy video, and then a spin as to what really happened.

People are willing to believe just about anything, which is why "fake news" is a thing, and why some people believe fake news and then call real news, "fake news" - and by some people, I mean the President of the United States.  But a lot of people are like him - skeptical of one news source, but willing to believe anything another news source says.   Today, we have selective skeptics.

Reality, however, is like a rubber band.  You pull it back and distort it, and it snaps back and that can sting you.   The further you pull back on the rubber band, the more it is going to hurt when it snaps back.   Think about times in history when people believed in nonsense - the fascist era of the 1930's, the cultural revolution in China in the 1960's, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970's, the rise and fall of communism in the Soviet Union, the housing bubble of 2006 - or even the United States today.

When "harsh" reality kicks in, and we can no longer believe in fairy tales, things will get ugly in a hurry.

And the answer, I think, isn't to put a stop to yellow journalism, click-bait titles, poorly researched articles or "fake news" sites, but for people to become more skeptical about the information they receive.

When someone tells you you can get out of debt with no effort or cost, you should be very, very skeptical.  When someone tells you that you can get-rich-quick, you should be very skeptical.  When someone tells you that everyone can have free healthcare, free college, or even a free income, you should by wildly skeptical.  When someone tells you that all your problems are the fault of immigrants or the opposing party, you should just cry "bullshit!" and move on.

Sadly, human nature being what it is, people will continue believing in convenient things, until it blows up in their face.