How Can Journalism Survive in the Era of Fake News?

The Oxford English Dictionary, according to ThoughtC0, attributes the term “Fourth Estate” to Lord Brougham in 1823. In England, the Fourth Estate comes after the three estates of King, Clergy and Commoners. In the United States, the Fourth Estate sits alongside the three branches of government.

A recent Guardian article highlights the challenges facing the Fourth Estate. The Freedom of Press guaranteed in the US by the First Amendment carries with it the obligation that the press should be the watchdog of the people. The only way for the electorate to responsibly exercise its constitutional duty to elect representatives to carry out the job of governing is to be well informed both about issues that matter and about those elected to deal with those issues.

As is the case with many aspects of out current social and political ecosystems, Donald Trump is breaking fresh ground by debasing many of the currencies of social exchange. He is not, however, the source of the problem, merely the most conspicuous symptom of a broader malaise. Apple has historically been less an inventor than it has been a shaper of new technology in a format most likely to bring it to its highest and best use among consumers.

Donald Trump, by contrast, typically takes something already bad – sexism, misogyny, mendacity, intellectual laziness, poorly used language –  and makes it truly awful. In doing so, he has heightened awareness of those things that one cherishes in public discourse and social interaction and forced people to confront the underpinnings of their continued existence.

Measuring the Media

The Fourth Estate is under attack – it is important to understand how it should best be defended. As the Guardian article points out, ‘democracy’ in media is not a great test. Ranking the importance of media by the circulation or viewership numbers is a process likely to result in a defining down of media to the lowest or most popular common denominator.

There is a pecking order of news: at the top of the UK circulation rankings sit two papers whose focus on sex, sensationalism and voyeurism is well known. The Daily Mail and the Sun are certainly popular but do not move the chains of human understanding forward anymore than gladiatorial combat did in Ancient Rome.

The parallel chart for the US tells a different story. While there are some similarities between the attention-grabbing style of some of the top-ranked USA Today headlines, the paper quickly breaks into more substantive news, whereas the Daily Mail goes ever deeper into the shallowness of sensational and tawdry stories.

The most striking contrast, however, is in the second-place ranking: The Sun vs. The Wall Street Journal. Both are owned by News Corporation, but could not be farther apart in style, quality or topics they cover.

Quality and Viability

Investigative journalism costs money, and its results do not always pay for the effort required to produce them. Pro Publica, with an annual budget of $10m, keeps track of the impact its stories have. Its series on acetaminophen is estimated to have cost $750,000 and taken two years. The information is available free on the Pro Publica website. Its funding is from foundations and individuals. The payoff in lives saved is incalculable, and the value of this kind of journalism is beyond question.

Aggregators such as Drudge and Breitbart claim simply to curate news from all sources, but they leak selection bias from the right. Slate and Huffington Post provide a similar diet with a left-leaning selection bias. This, of course, is worrying.

Talk radio and cable TV have MSNBC, CNN and Fox News fighting for their constituents and the ratings that go with them. Fox News was conceived by Roger Ailes on the premise that viewers and listeners did not necessarily need to be informed, provided they felt informed. This had major budgetary implications: rather than conduct the kind of investigative journalism expected of the more traditional news media, Fox could simply curate news second hand.

Debasing the Medium

The rationalisation of less reputable news sources has found its perfect pitchman in Donald Trump. As part of the anti-elite, anti-mainstream media narrative, he has persuaded his base not only to distrust mainstream sources but also to see criticism of more marginal sources such as Breitbart and InfoWars by the so-called elites as proof positive of their reliability.

An unfortunate consequence of the mainstream media’s outrage (or ‘gloatrage’) is that political bias has begun to leak from the opinion pages into the news coverage, giving detractors further reason to eschew what have been traditionally high-quality news outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The Fourth Estate has entered something of a crisis in which outrage, bias, entertainment, ratings, the internet (and the proliferation of un-curated sources with limited quality control filters) have merged into a fast-flowing stream of uncertain depth where those who enter have no reliable tools to navigate.

The news audience has become unmoored from its bearings, and the unreliability of a few sources has begun to taint all sources and drive the argument that if all sources are tainted, then any source is as reliable (or unreliable) as any other. False equivalence is rife, and people tend to take refuge where their bias is comfortably affirmed.

Facts, Facts, Facts

True and false do exist. Facts are not negotiable. Some people are, on some topics, more qualified to be heard than others. Better speak to an oncologist about a suspected tumour. Better listen to a physicist if you want to learn about string theory. They are both members of an elite.

Those who ignore them because of their elite membership status do so at their own risk. The skills required to report the news daily are considerable. Journalism is a craft that needs to be learned. It is not hard to discern quality in journalism or to be appalled by the lack of it.

People do, of course, have the right to choose what news they consume. Do people have a right to remain uneducated? No. All children must attend school through high school, with 26 US states setting the benchmark at 16 and other at 17 or 18. There is, however, no obligation to remain informed beyond that. The hope, presumably, is that the first 18 years will have sufficiently conveyed the importance of doing so.

The news is a worthy project in need of careful attention. Just as Amnesty International carefully examines all possible clues to veracity in examining alleged human rights abuses, so news organisations have an obligation to examine the truthfulness of facts on which they report.

The increasingly sophisticated means by which “fake news” can be produced requires the diligence process to become more sophisticated. Tools exist – examining metadata for pictures being one example – to uncover mischief, but the battle is just beginning and more tools are needed.

Conclusion

The job of the Fourth Estate is to provide the information and insights that keep the citizenry informed.

The journalists that staff the quality sources are intelligent, resourceful people – they are above the body slams and denigration to which they are currently being subjected – but they must guard their reputations jealously and, while never shirking their duty to report for fear of the consequences, must not be dragged into the wrestling ring.

Fearless Girl vs. The Wall Street Bull

Yesterday’s New York Times features an article informing us that the sculptor of the Charging Bull is insulted by the presence of the statue of the Fearless Girl, the work of sculptor Kristen Visbal that was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and installed in March of this year. Fearless Girl vs. Wall Street Bull

Background to The Charging Bull

The statue has attracted considerable attention since it was placed facing the Charging Bull in a posture of defiance, or, as one commentator has said, of finger wagging.  The Charging Bull was placed in its current location in 1989, having been fabricated by its sculptor, Arturo Di Modica, at a cost estimated at over $3o0,000. The 3.5 ton Charging Bull was initially placed by the sculptor on Broad Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange with no permit and without permission from the city (The Charging Bull) as a symbol of Wall Street’s strength after the crash in 1987. It was impounded by the police and, after some outcry, placed in its current location just north of Bowling Green, with a temporary permit. Thirty years later, the statue seems quite permanent.

Some have argued that the temporary permit granted to the Fearless Girl statue should also be extended. The Charging Bull sculptor apparently feels that the presence of the Fearless Girl undermines the message of his statue, which, he states is one of freedom, peace, strength, power and love. He believes the Fearless Girl stands in opposition to the Charging Bull making its presence a negative one.

Art in Context

This argument raises some interesting questions. Since, as a legal matter, the Charging Bull’s presence is also subject to a temporary permit, it is not clear what rights the sculptor is asserting to the space surrounding his sculpture; or whether those rights are different from or greater than the rights enjoyed by the Fearless Girl sculpture and its sponsors. If the legal right is not the issue, perhaps the issue is more artistic in nature. Does the creator of art placed in a public place have any rights to assert a particular intended meaning? Perhaps, as a matter of information and context. It is not clear that any artist may insist on his or her understanding of a piece of art being of such importance that the context in which the art is located must remain undisturbed by anything that might, in the artist’s opinion, detract from that understanding.

Context is important, but meaning is surely subjective. Once placed in the public domain, any work of art may be subject to as many interpretations as there are viewers. The artist has, in large part, lost control.

The Fearless Girl: Friend or Foe?

It is interesting to reflect on the context of the Fearless Girl. State Street Global Advisors motivation in placing the statue on the eve of the International Women’s March was apparently to represent the power of women in leadership. Among the many comments made in the New York Times piece about whether the statue of the Fearless Girl should stay or go, two are, in the opinion of this author, noteworthy. The first invites an inclusive and contemplative reaction:

“Art is a dialogue. Invite the unexpected. The bull and the little girl, they are already friends. Quiet yourself and listen to what they have to say.”

— Landon Rose, 66, Brookline, Mass.

The second points out that history is forever changed by the juxtaposition of the two statues:

“As a lawyer, woman and minority, I believe that no matter what the outcome, demanding that ‘Fearless Girl’ be removed is a losing battle. If ‘Fearless Girl’ is removed, the bull will become even more representative of men trying to stop women from achieving equality.”

— Elizabeth Veit, 35, Alexandria, Va

Evolution of Meaning

To attempt to claim a continuity of meaning for the presence of the Charging Bull thirty years after its placement as guerilla art seems naïve. Wall Street has changed dramatically over this period. The culture has evolved, its shortcomings well documented in many movies and court cases and its daily routines reshaped by technology. The role of women in financial services and in the broader economy remains a work in process and falls well short of parity. The Fearless Girl suggests that change has occurred and is continuing. The Charging Bull is not humbled or disparaged:

“I do not see the bull in a negative way now that the ‘Fearless Girl’ has shown up. Rather, the bull is now confronted with a formidable counterpoint to an emerging vision of a new kind of power.”

This one is for Janet….

This is for my good friend and fellow parishioner, Janet D. Janet, you are kind enough to admit that you occasionally read my blog posts. You have asked whether I have been writing in this tortured period of election politics. The answer is that I have, but on the private side of the firewall that separates my journal from my blog.

So, crossing over to the public side, here you go.

I was saddened by the outcome. I really disliked the Trump campaign. I need not repeat the reasons – they are well known. I had managed to convince myself that Hillary was a supportable candidate who deserved to win. I was good with that. I loved the fact that we were going to have a female president (#overdue) and I loathed what I saw as a clear double standard in many of the critiques of Hillary.

She was the better candidate, in my opinion (and that of 61 million Americans). But she was not a great candidate. The values she stood for were very much aligned with the Christian values we share and that Bishop Dietsche set out in his recent letter to the parishes in the Diocese of New York:

(https://www.dioceseny.org/we-pray-bishop-dietsche-writes-in-a-letter-to-the-diocese-that-god-grace-mr-trump-with-the-wisdom-and-courage-to-rise-to-the-high-calling-of-his-office-as-we-will-also-pray-that-he-be-imbu/)

I would not have been nervous and fearful as I now am if Hillary had been elected. I would not have been fearful about the safety of those whose rights and concerns have been lifted up over the past 8 years. I would have been more hopeful about improvements in women’s lives. I would have been hopeful about continuing focus on climate change.

However, I believe that the forces of the progressive left – I hate labels but that will have to do for now – have a large measure of responsibility for the position in which we now find ourselves. The near obsession with shutting down speech that has been deemed offensive; the celebration of safe places in which one can hold one’s politically correct views without fear of being challenged or triggered have created something of an echo chamber in which all are in agreement. Within this echo chamber all adherents are affirmed and all who are outside are just wrong. The news media, also, on the whole, horrified by Trump, provided further affirmation for this echo chamber. The polls took the pulse of the world according to the respectable news media and found it to be healthy.

Settled upon the chosen candidate and affirmed in our belief that what was right was good and that Hillary ought to be elected, we marched to victory.

Along the way, we managed to convince ourselves that, because Hillary was our choice, she was a good choice – the best choice in fact. But she really wasn’t. People hated the email and the inside the beltway politics as usual. We all knew she was not inspiring, but we told ourselves we were done with inspiring. Competent, detail-oriented, serious, committed to worthy things would do.

Not enough. We needed a better candidate who could appeal more broadly to the WWC (white working class). WWC did not enjoy being referred to as deplorable – who does? Labels are the language of division and we were (are) divided enough. Not enough inspired, enthusiastic support; too much hatred. Hate trumped “good enough”.

So now we have to pray that this new president clears away the brush without starting a forest fire we cannot contain. We have to pray (and take appropriate action to ensure) that the institutions of our democracy are robust enough to contain the worst potential excesses of a Trump administration.

We have to try to recover some civility and mutual respect in our national discourse because courtesy, respect and civility are the necessary ingredients of the infinitely connected lives we all lead (#ubuntu).

I hope that’s helpful Janet. Continue reading This one is for Janet….

US Election

It upsets me that we are where we are in this process.

It is easy to be upset by Donald Trump – his candidacy is an embarrassment of bad ideas, poorly expressed in a vulgar manner that devalues public discourse. It is embarrassing that he has such traction with primary voters.

It was easy to be upset by Ted Cruz. His ideas were well articulated but offensively presented.

Hillary is disturbingly inexorable given the known negatives.

It is upsetting that Kasich did not do better.

When I was granted US citizenship I said I was happy that one day I would be able to vote against Hillary Clinton – this was in 1995. How ironic that 20 years later I may end up having to vote for her against Donald Trump. Hey, you have to make a choice and I don’t think not voting is a good choice.

We are coming to the end of 8 years of a President who, while he has certainly not besmirched the office as some of his predecessors have, has certainly not lived up to the promise of his 2008 campaign.  His speech has been divisive and I believe he has contributed to the demise of the ‘reasonable people can differ’ doctrine. The idea that failure to agree with any aspect of the Obama doctrine constitutes ideological failure that must ultimately be corrected has become an orthodoxy of the left. It may also be an orthodoxy of the right. Everyone with a firmly held view based on reasoned thought and sound evidence is an advocate for that view. There must, however, be an element of humility, a recognition that, if there is an opposing view that is also well researched and based on sound evidence, there are differences to be explore in the spirit of earnest inquiry rather than a zero-sum clash that all too often results in further entrenchment of both views.

So, we appear to have lost the ability to have a reasoned debate of contending viewpoints with the goal of achieving an executable way forward that can be supported by all contenders.

It is not such a surprising goal. The adversarial system of justice is based on this premise: vigorously contend for opposing points of view based on the presentation of arguments and evidence within a system of rules designed to be fair, based on legislation and precedent. The sanction of failure to respect the rules is contempt of court – a kind of judicial time out for the offender that ultimately can result in disqualification from being able to proceed. The problem is that there seems to be no such constraint in the arena of politics. The only practical limit seems to be the court of public opinion.  Given the tools available to manipulate the message, the biases of the various media and the short-attention span of the typical listener,  the limit is largely non-binding. And so we have a mess: a face-off between the ‘oppo research’ teams on either side.

What we miss is an informed and informative discussion about the size of the safety net, the financing of entitlements, the proper role of government, foreign policy, immigration, trade policy, the sources of economic growth, the limits of capitalism and socialism. These are all great discussions that everyone acknowledges as such but has little expectation they will be discussed, or, perhaps, patience to listen to such a discussion.

More to follow….

 

Language Matters – (T)read carefully

Just read an article about recently deceased author on language and usage, Robert Fiske and was inclined to get busy.

Precise use of language is such a fundamental tool in effective communication, it saddens me that it’s importance is undermined by the plethora of media sacrificing precise and correct usage in favor of timely posting.

People judge typos and incorrect usage as indicia of an untidy or poorly educated mind. These failures contribute to misunderstandings and misunderstandings are a mischief guilty of causing countless hours of wasted time and emotions.

So why compromise? I fear the answer is our reluctance to hold people to standards whose attainment is challenging in case we injure their self-esteem and erect barriers to their happiness or progress that may indict us for lack of sensitivity.

Separating what matters from what is merely pleasant decoration is, of course, important. We must not be distracted from the weighty business of arbitrating the many aspects of social discourse by matters that only serve to establish our credentials as members of a privileged, cultured elite concerned only with self-aggrandizement at the expense of those who have not gained admittance to such rarefied ether.

And yet. If one wishes to acquire a skill, there is a necessary apprenticeship to the cause of learning the key ingredients without which one simply never acquires that skill. An unequal distribution of opportunity for educational advancement must not incline us to devalue the worth of the advantages that a good education affords. Rather, we should redouble our efforts to make sure the access improves. Failure to attain a goal for lack of opportunity or application does not make that goal any less worthy.

Habits form us, so they may as well be good ones. Habits of hard work, study, self-improvement, self-awareness, cordial, empathetic behavior, respect and the pursuit of high quality relationships are to be prized. They do not come easily and require life-long application. The challenge to do better, wherever it arises, should be embraced as an invitation to do and be better and not derided as an attempt to undermine our self worth. Language touches this at many points and must be embraced as one of those challenges. Thank you Mr. Fiske.

Scalia

Before his body has been interred, the battles have begun. Probably inevitable during this primary season and general election year, but unseemly nevertheless.

Over 300 days left in Obama’s presidency. The prospect of nominating someone whose voice is assumed to be sympathetic to the views of each side of the political spectrum is just too alluring to be left alone.

Of course Obama is going to nominate someone. Of course the Republicans in the Senate are going to fight. Each side is trying to grab the wheel of the political process and move it their way.

It’s about control mostly. I watched an interesting TED talk yesterday by economist Dambisa Moyo. It wasn’t fascinating but it reminded me of an interesting definition – that of capitalism having the requirement that the factors of production, capital and labor, be in the control of the private sector. It’s about where control rests: the wisdom of the market or the wisdom of the ‘government’.

Most of the angst concerning the nomination of Supreme Court Justices seems to focus on social and constitutional issues: abortion, gun control, gay marriage, states rights. Should the constitution be interpreted in the context of today’s societal needs or did the founding fathers give us everything we need in perpetuity?

It’s a familiar debate and reminds me of the debates, when I was studying law 30 years ago, about the judicial philosophy of Lord Denning, an icon of the British legal establishment. He was a proponent of judge made law to fill in the gaps and round out the legislative process. Others disagreed.

It is not clear to me that the justices always vote in the direction of their assumed political preferences – liberal or conservative. Some do; some don’t.

Obama is widely considered by conservatives to be frustrated with Congress to the point that he is prepared to circumvent it at any point. Liberals are annoyed he has not done more to bypass an intransigent Congress. Maybe. I understand his frustration. Partly, it reflects his distaste for the political process of horse-trading. Partly, it reflects a legitimate concern – held it seems by much of the electorate – about the dysfunction of Congress.

I am interested to see who he will nominate. I am not convinced, though my politics are largely different from his, that he will nominate someone who does not have the highest judicial qualifications.