Healthy skepticism and how to read the paper

Everyone is familiar with the term Fakenews.  But actually, this is nothing new.  If you were into politics in the 90s, then you remember CNN being dubbed the “Clinton News Network”.  The alternative media revolution began with the Rush Limbaugh radio program and has grown to include other programmers as well.  The rise of Fox News initially made for competition between the normal mainstream media outlets and more conservative outlets.

David Hume was a philosopher and skeptic who came up with a guide for reading about miracles.  I think that guide is helpful when reading the paper too.  Is the headline incredible?  Does the person writing it stand to gain?  Does it contradict what you know to be true?  Many people get sucked into clickbait or shocking stories from unnamed sources because they don’t ask these questions.  The Russian Dossier made it into four FISA court applications because it took so long for the FBI to ask themselves what Christopher Steele was getting paid, or whether his incredible and shocking claims had been fact checked.

I would add to Hume’s rules a few of my own.  Do the sources have names?  In the past, you would have an unnamed source because they didn’t want their cover blown.  But they would collect data and release it at a point where it was safe to do so.  Today, the use of unnamed sources often masks the fact that they are embellishing, outright lying, non-existent, or delivering their information to the media illegally.  That last one is especially true in the context of FBI investigations or foreign intelligence.  If you were sitting in a court room and you heard testimony read from a frightened victim who preferred anonymity for her or his own protection, you might give that some credence.  If the prosecutor gets up and announces that according to an unnamed source the defendant also doesn’t wear deodorant and picks his nose, the judge would have some things to say to that prosecutor.

Look at the context.  I recently saw a political ad where an opponent was accused of wanting to raise taxes 23%.  What they were talking about is the Fairtax.  The Fairtax is a 23% tax, but it replaces all income tax, payroll tax and capital gains tax.  Now, I have my own personal feelings about the Fairtax, but without that context this sounded awful.  Once you add that context, it sounds pretty great.

Understand the writer’s bias.  For example, if you’ve been reading my stuff you know that I tend towards libertarian conservatism.  It helps to know who the authors previously worked for or are related to.  Chris Cuomo from CNN is the brother of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and son of Mario Cuomo.  That’s a good place to start.  And sure enough, you’ll discover he is a New York liberal who sees everything through that lens.  Sean Hannity is obviously biased heavily towards the right.  If Trump says “we need to stop the Mexicans”, Cuomo is going to read that in the worst possible light while Hannity gives Trump the benefit of the doubt.   The best way to combat this is to use multiple sources and check them against each other.

Understand the business.  Let’s go back to the Trump “Mexicans” example.  There may be nuance in that statement.  But nuance doesn’t sell news.  Flashy headlines and shock drive the industry.  So when Trump talks about illegal immigrants, no one wants to take the time to try to figure out if he’s talking about gang members, if he has a slight personal bias against Hispanics, or what his statement was actually all about.  The important thing for the media is getting a headline that people will read.  The partisan sides can do with it what they will.

From time to time you’ll see what I like to call a “false quotable”.  It’s a misstated fact, bad statistic, or urban legend sort of quote that takes on a life of it’s own.  A good example was Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my house” quote.  Except, she never said that.  It was a line by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live impersonating Palin.  But the idea that Palin herself said that persisted in the media.  Another good one is Trump calling Mexicans murderers and rapists.  At the time, he was talking about MS-13 gang members.  But the quote took on a life of it’s own and there are still people who insist that Trump thinks all Mexicans are murderers and rapists.

Lastly, it’s important to understand how narrative works.  Narrative is like an assembly line.  It makes for efficient story writing and disseminating of the news without much worry about content.  If it is commonly accepted for instance, that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, then articles can be written about various instances in accordance with that narrative without having to do the hard work of fact checking.  Trump Russia collusion was a good example of this.  Once the narrative was established, no one seemed to care things happened like Comey said Trump wasn’t a target of the investigation.  Instead, the only stories that were made a focus were ones that fit the narrative.  It took Trump firing Comey and saying that one of the reasons was Comey’s failure to counter the narrative to get any media outlets to even talk about that.

The use of narrative to avoid the hard work of journalism is difficult for the reader to compensate for.  Multiple sources will often run the exact same story even down to the headline rather than balancing one another.  A great recent example was Fox News and CNN both saying that the White House wouldn’t deny the existence of a tape of Trump using a racist slur.  Of course, Trump had already denied it, but that didn’t stop all of the media outlets from persisting with the false narrative based on a false quotable.  To combat a false narrative, the reader needs to go to the source video or documents themselves and do the hard work.  At Political Brief, sometimes we have to go back and listen to several minutes of video to get the context and figure out what truly happened.

It’s sad that the media is so careless and sometimes intentionally biased.  But a reader armed with skepticism and the desire to find the truth can combat this and discover reality.

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