You Said, ‘Why Public Broadcasting?’ I Still Say, ‘Why Not?’

It appears my column a few weeks ago on public broadcasting hit a few raw nerves. Despite my trying to stickhandle around the emotionally charged use of the word “socialism” there were a few comments saying, in essence, why should taxpayers have to support broadcasting when there were private and corporate donors willing to do so? Why would we follow a socialist approach to ensuring fair and responsible journalism? We are the land of the free and open market. Let’s just let it do its job.

One commenter suggested that if people want to support responsible journalism, let them become subscribers. Make it a Netflix-based model for journalism. That is one solution put forward in my friend John Marshall’s  new book, “Free is Bad.”

It’s not wrong. It’s certainly one approach. I would encourage everyone to subscribe to at least one news publication that still practices real journalism.

Another commenter suggested that as long as there are donors who believe in journalism and are willing to put their money where their mouth is, we can let them carry the load. That’s another approach. 

Case in point, ProPublica. 

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom funded by donations. The quality of its reporting has garnered it six Pulitzers, five Peabodys, three Emmys and a number of other awards. It can certainly be pointed to as a great example of high-quality reporting that doesn’t rely on advertising dollars. But ProPublica has been around since 2008 and it only has a little over 100 journalists on the payroll. I’m sure its principals would love to hire more. They just don’t have enough money. 

The problem here — the one that prompted my suggestion to consider public broadcasting as an alternative — is that both subscriber and donor-based approaches are like trying to kill the elephant in the room with a flyswatter. The economics are hopelessly imbalanced and just can’t work.

Journalism is in full-scale attrition because its revenue model is irretrievably broken. Here’s why it’s broken: The usual winner in competitions based on capitalism is what’s most popular, not what’s the best. It’s a race to the shallow end of the pool.

And that’s what’s happened to real news reporting. Staying shallow in an advertising-supported marketplace is the best way to ensure profitability. 

But even the shallow end needs some water; there needs to be some news to act as the raw material for opinion and analysis content. In the news business, that water is the overflow from the deep end. And someone — somewhere — has to keep refilling the deep end.

In a market that is determined to cling to free-market capitalism, no one is willing to invest in the type of journalism required to keep the deep end full. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, applied to journalism. There are too many taking, and no one is giving back. Incentives and required outcomes are not only not aligned, they are pointed in opposite directions. 

But, as my commenters noted, that is where subscriptions and donations can come in. Obviously, a subscriber-based model has worked very well for streaming services like Netflix. Why couldn’t the same be true for journalism? 

I don’t believe the same approach will work, for a few reasons. 

First, Netflix has the advantage of exclusivity. You have to subscribe to access their content. Journalism doesn’t work that way. Once a news story has broken, there is a whole downstream gaggle of news channels that will jump on it and endlessly spin and respin it with their own analysis and commentary.  

This respun content will always be more popular that the original story, because it’s been predigested to align with the target audience’s own beliefs and perspectives. As I’ve said before, when it comes to news, we have a junk food habit. And why would you buy broccoli when you can get a cheeseburger for free?

This exclusivity also gives Netflix the ability to program both for quality and popularity. For every “Queen’s Gambit,” there are dozens of “Tiger King’s” and other brain-food junk snacks. When all the money is being dumped into the same pool, it can fill both the shallow and deep ends at the same time.

But perhaps the biggest misconception about Netflix’s success is that it’s not determined if Netflix is, in fact, successful. It is still a model in transition and is still relying heavily on licensed content to prop up the profitability of its original programming. When it comes to successfully transitioning the majority of viewer streams to its own programming, the jury is still very much out, as this analysis notes.

There are more reasons why I don’t think a subscription model is the best answer to journalism attrition, but we’ll leave it there for now. 

But what about donor-based journalism, like that found on PBS affiliates or ProPublica? While I don’t doubt their intentions or the quality of the reporting, I do have issues with the scale. There are simply not enough donor dollars flowing into these organizations to fund the type of expensive journalism that we need. 

And these donor dollars are largely missing in local markets, where the attrition of true news reporting is progressing at an even faster rate. In the big picture — and to return to our previous analogy — this represents a mere trickle into the deep end. 

There are just some things that shouldn’t exist in a for-profit setting. The dynamics of capitalism and how it aligns incentive just don’t work for these examples. These things are almost always social obligations that we must have but that require a commitment that usually represents personal sacrifice. 

This is the basis of a social democracy where personal sacrifice is typically exacted through taxation. While you may not like it, taxation is still the best way we’ve found to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. 

We are now to the point where access to true and reliable information has become a social obligation. And much as we may not like it, we all need to sacrifice a little bit to make sure we don’t lose it forever.

Analyzing the Problem with News “Analysis”

Last week, I talked about the Free News problem. In thinking about how to follow that up, I ran across an interesting study that was published earlier this year in the Science Advances Journal. One of the authors was Duncan Watts, who I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous columns.

In the study, the research team tackled the problem of “Fake News” which is – of course – another symptom of the creeping malaise that is striking the industry of journalism. It certainly has become a buzzword in the last few years. But the team found that the problem of fake news may not be a problem at all. It makes up just 0.15% of our entire daily media diet. In fact, across all ages in the study, any type of news is – at the most – just 14.2% of our total media consumption.

The problem may be our overuse of the term “news” – applying it to things we think are news but are actually just content meant to drive advertising revenues. In most cases, this is opinion (sometimes informed but often not) masquerading as news in order to generate a lot of monetizable content. Once again, to get to the root of the problem, we have to follow the money.

If we look again at the Ad Fontes Media Bias chart, it’s not “news” that’s the problem. Most acknowledged leaders in true journalism are tightly clustered in the upper middle of the chart, which is where we want our news sources to be. They’re reliable and unbiased.

If we follow the two legs of the chart down to the right or left into the unreliable territory where we might encounter “fake” news, we find from the study mentioned above that this makes up an infinitesimal percentage of the media most of us actually pay attention to. The problem here can be found in the middle regions of the chart. This is where we find something called analysis. And that might just be our problem.

Again, we have to look at the creeping poison of incentive here. Some past students from Stanford University have an interesting essay about the economics of journalism that shows how cable tv and online have disrupted the tenuous value chain of news reporting.

The profitability of hard reporting was defined in the golden age of print journalism – specifically newspapers. The problem with reporting as a product is twofold. One is that news in non-excludable. Once news is reported anyone can use it. And two is that while reporting is expensive, the cost of distribution is independent of the cost of reporting. The cost of getting the news out is the same, regardless of how much news is produced.

While newspapers were the primary source of news, these two factors could be worked around. Newspapers came with a built-in 24-hour time lag. If you could get a one day jump on the competition, you could be very profitable indeed.

Secondly, the fixed distribution costs made newspapers a very cost-effective ad delivery vehicle. It cost the newspapers next to nothing to add advertising to the paper, thereby boosting revenues.

But these two factors were turned around by Internet and Cable News. If a newspaper bore the bulk of the costs by breaking a story, Cable TV and the Internet could immediately jump on board and rake in the benefits of using content they didn’t have to pay for.

And that brings us to the question of news “analysis”. Business models that rely on advertising need eyeballs. And those eyeballs need content. Original content – in the form of real reporting – is expensive and eats into profit. But analysis of news that comes from other sources costs almost nothing. You load up on talking heads and have them talk endlessly about the latest story. You can spin off never ending reams of content without having to invest anything in actually breaking the story.

This type of content has another benefit; customers love analysis. Real news can be tough to swallow. If done correctly, it should be objective and based on fact.  Sometimes it will force us to reconsider our beliefs. As is often the case with news, we may not like what we hear.

Analysis – or opinion – is much more palatable. It can be either partially or completely set free from facts and swayed and colored to match the audience’s beliefs and biases. It scores highly on the confirmation bias scale. It hits all the right (or left) emotional buttons. And by doing this, it stands a better chance of being shared on social media feeds. Eyeballs beget eyeballs. The gods of corporate finance smile benignly on analysis content because of its effectiveness at boosting profitability.

By understanding how the value chain of good reporting has broken down due to this parasitic piling on by online and cable platforms in the pursuit of profit, we begin to understand how we can perhaps save journalism. There is simply too much analytical superstructure built on top of the few real journalists that are doing real reporting. And the business model that once supported that reporting is gone.

The further that analysis gets away from the facts that fuel it, the more dangerous it becomes. At some point it crosses the lines from analysis to opinion to propaganda. The one thing it’s not is “news.” We need to financially support through subscription the few that are still reporting on the things that are actually happening.

Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

Our Brain And Its Junk News Habit

Today, I’m going to return to the Reuter’s Digital News Report and look at the relationship between us, news and social media. But what I’m going to talk about is probably not what you think I’m going to talk about.

Forget all the many, many problems that come with relying on social media to be informed. Forget about filter bubbles and echo chambers. Forget about misleading or outright false stories. Forget about algorithmic targeting. Forget about the gaping vulnerabilities that leave social media open to nefarious manipulation. Forget all that (but just for the moment, because those are all horrible and very real problems that we need to focus on).

Today, I want to talk about one specific problem that comes when we get our news through social media. When we do that, our brains don’t work the way they should if we want to be well informed.

First, let’s talk about the scope of the issue here. According to the Reuter’s study, in the U.S. more people — 72% — turn online for news than any other source. Television comes in second at 59%. If we single out social media, it comes in third at 48%. Trailing the pack is print media at just 20%.

Reuters Digital News Study 2020 – Sources of News in US

If we plot this on a chart over the last seven years, print and social media basically swapped spots, with their respective lines crossing each other in 2014; one trending up and one trending down. In 2013, 47% of us turned to print as a primary news source and just 27% of us went to social media.

If we further look at those under 35, accessing news through social media jumps to the number-one spot by a fairly wide margin. And because they’re young, we’re not talking Facebook here. Those aged 18 to 24 are getting their news through Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

The point, if it’s not clear by now, is that many of us get our news through a social media channel — and the younger we are, the more that’s true. The paradox is that the vast majority of us — over 70% — don’t trust the news we see on our social media feeds. If we were to pick an information source we trusted, we would never go to social media.

This brings up an interesting juxtaposition in how we’re being informed about the world: almost all of us are getting our news through social media, but almost none of us are looking for it when we do.

According to the Reuter’s Report, 72% of us (all ages, all markets) get our news through the “side door.” This means we are delivered news — primarily through social media and search — without us intentionally going directly to the source of the information. For those aged 18 to 24, “side door” access jumps to 84% and, of that, access through social media jumps to 38%.

Our loyalty to the brand and quality of an information provider is slipping between our fingers and we don’t seem to care. We say we want objective, non-biased, quality news sources, but in practice we lap up whatever dubious crap is spoon-fed to us by Facebook or Instagram. It’s the difference between telling our doctor what we intend to eat and what we actually eat when we get home to the leftover pizza and the pint of Häagen-Dazs in our fridge.

The difference between looking for and passively receiving information is key to understanding how our brain works. Let’s talk a little bit about “top-down” and “bottom-up” activation and the “priming” of our brain.

When our brain has a goal — like looking for COVID-19 information — it behaves significantly differently than when it is just bored and wanting to be entertained.

The goal sets a “top down” intent. It’s like an executive order to the various bits and pieces of our brain to get their shit together and start working as a team. Suddenly the entire brain focuses on the task at hand and things like reliability of information become much more important to us. If we’re going to go directly to a information source we trust, this is going to be when we do it.

If the brain isn’t actively engaged in a goal, then information has to initiate a “bottom-up” activation. And that is an entirely different animal.

We never go to social media looking for a specific piece of news. That’s not how social media works. We go to our preferred social channels either out of sheer boredom or a need for social affirmation. We hope there’s something in the highly addictive endlessly scrolling format that will catch our attention.

For a news piece to do that, it has to somehow find a “hook” in our brain.  Often, that “hook” is an existing belief. The parts of our brain that act as gatekeepers against unreliable information are bypassed because no one bothered to wake them up.

There is a further brain-related problem with relying on social media, and that’s the “priming” issue. This is where one stimulus sets a subconscious “lens” that will impact subsequent stimuli. Priming sets the brain on a track we’re not aware of, which makes it difficult to control.

Social media is the perfect priming platform. One post sets the stage for the next, even if they’re completely unrelated.

These are just two factors that make social media an inherently dangerous platform to rely on for being informed.

The third is that social media makes information digestion much too easy. Our brain barely needs to work at all. And if it does need to work, we quickly click back and scroll down to the next post. Because we’re looking to be entertained, not informed, the brain is reluctant to do any unnecessary heavy lifting.   

This is a big reason why we may know the news we get through social media channels is probably not good for us, but we gulp it down anyway, destroying our appetite for more trustworthy information sources.

These three things create a perfect cognitive storm for huge portions of the population to be continually and willingly misinformed. That’s not even factoring in all the other problems with social media that I mentioned at the outset of this column. We need to rethink this — soon!

Playing Fast and Loose with the Truth

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with someone and they said something that I was pretty sure was not true. I don’t know if it was a deliberate lie. It may have just been that this particular person was uninformed. But they said it with the full confidence that what they said was true. I pushed back a little and they instantly defended their position.

My first instinct was just to let it go. I typically don’t go out of my way to cause friction in social settings. Besides, it was an inconsequential thing. I didn’t really care about it. But I was feeling a little pissy at the time, so I fact checked her by looking it up on my phone. And I was right. She had stated something that wasn’t true and then doubled down on it.

Like I said, it was inconsequential – a trivial conversation point. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was a lot riding on whether or not what they said was true? What if this person was in a position of power, like – oh, I don’t know – the President of the United States?

The role of truth in our social environment is currently a thing in flux. I cannot remember a time when we have been more suspicious of what we see, read and hear on a daily basis. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, less than 40% of us trust what we hear on the news. And when that news comes through our social media feed, the level of distrust jumps to a staggering 80%

Catching someone in a lie has significant social and cognitive implications. We humans like to start from a default position of trust. If we can do that, it eliminates a lot of social friction and cognitive effort. We only go to not trusting when we have to protect ourselves.

Our proclivity for trust is what has made a global commerce and human advancement possible. But, unfortunately, it does leave us vulnerable. Collectively, we usually play by the same playbook I was initially going to use in my opening example. It’s just easier to go along with what people say, even if we may doubt that it’s true. This is especially so if the untruth is delivered with confidence. We humans love confidence in others because it means we don’t have to work as hard. Confidence is a signal we use to decide to trust and trust is always easier than distrust. The more confident the delivery, the less likely we are to question it.

It’s this natural human tendency that put the “con” in “con artist.” “Con” is short for confidence, and it originates with an individual named William Thompson, who plied the streets of New York in the 1840’s. He would walk up to a total stranger who was obviously well off and greet them like a long-lost friend. After a few minutes of friendly conversation during which the target would be desperately trying to place this individual, Thompson would ask for the loan of something of value. He would then set his hook with this, “Do you have confidence in me to loan me this [item] til tomorrow?”  The success of this scam was totally dependent on an imbalance of confidence; extreme confidence on the part of the con artist and a lack of confidence on the part of the target.

It is ironic that in an era where it’s easier than ever to fact check, we are seeing increasing disregard for the truth. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump passed a misinformation milestone on July 9, making 20,000 false or misleading claims since he became President. He surged past that particular post when he lied 62 times on that day alone. I don’t even think I talk 62 times per day.

This habit of playing fast and loose with the truth is not Trump’s alone. Unfortunately, egregious lying has been normalized in today’s world. We have now entered an era where full time fact checking is necessary. On July 7, NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman said we need a Biden-Trump debate, but only on two conditions: First, only if Trump releases his tax returns, and second, only if there is a non-partisan real-time fact-checking team keeping the debaters accountable.

We have accepted this as the new normal. But we shouldn’t. There is an unacceptable cost we’re paying by doing so. And that cost becomes apparent when we think about the consequence of lying on a personal basis.

If we catch an acquaintance in a deliberate lie, we put them in the untrustworthy column. We are forced into a default position of suspicion whenever we deal with them in the future. This puts a huge cognitive load on us. As I said before, it takes much more effort to not trust someone. It makes it exponentially harder to do business with them. It makes it more difficult to enjoy their company. It introduces friction into our relationship with them.

Even if the lie is not deliberate but stated with confidence, we label them as uninformed. Again, we trust them less.

Now multiply this effort by everyone. You quickly see where the model breaks down. Lying may give the liar a temporary advantage, but it’s akin to a self-limiting predator-prey model. If it went unchecked, soon the liars would only have other liars to deal with. It’s just not sustainable.

Truth exists for a reason. It’s the best social strategy for the long term. We should fight harder for it.

How We Forage for the News We Want

Reuters Institute out of the UK just released a comprehensive study looking at how people around the world are finding their news. There is a lot here, so I’ll break it into pieces over a few columns and look at the most interesting aspects. Today, I’ll look at the 50,000-foot view, which can best be summarized as a dysfunctional relationship between our news sources and ourselves. And like most dysfunctional relationships, the culprit here is a lack of trust.

Before we dive in, we should spend some time looking at how the way we access news has changed over the last several years.

Over my lifetime, we have trended in two general directions – less cognitively demanding news channels and less destination specific news sources. The most obvious shift has been away from print. According to Journalism.org and the Pew Research Center, circulation of U.S. Daily newspapers peaked around 1990, at about 62 and a half million. That’s one subscription for every 4 people in the country at that time.

In 2018, it was projected that circulation had dropped more than 50%, to less than 30 million. That would have been one subscription for every 10 people. We were no longer reading our news in a non-digital format. And that may have significant impact on our understanding of the news. I’ll return to this in another column, but for now, let’s just understand that our brain operates in a significantly different way when it’s reading rather than watching or listening.

Up the end of the last century, we generally trusted news destinations. Whether it be a daily newspaper like the New York Times, a news magazine like Time or a nightly newscast such as any of the network news shows, each was a destination that offered one thing above all others – the news. And whether you agreed with them or not, each had an editorial process that governed what news was shared. We had a loyalty to our chosen news destinations that was built on trust.

Over the past two decades, this trust has broken down due to one primary factor – our continuing use of social media. And that has dramatically shifted how we get our news.

In the US, three out of every four people use online sources to get their news. One in two use social media.  Those aged 18 to 24 are more than twice as likely to rely on social media. In the UK, under-35s get more of their news from Social Media than any other source.

Also, influencers have become a source of news, particularly amongst young people. In the US, a quarter of those 18 to 24 used Instagram as a source of news about COVID.

This means that most times, we’re getting our news through a social media lens. Let’s set aside for a moment the filtering and information veracity problems that introduces. Let’s just talk about intent for a moment.

I have talked extensively in the past about information foraging when it comes to search. When information is “patchy” and spread diversely, the brain has to make a quickly calculated guess about which patch it’s most likely to find the information in it’s looking for. With Information Foraging, the intent we have frames everything that comes after.

In today’s digital world, information sources have disaggregated into profoundly patchy environments. We still go to news-first destinations like CNN or Fox News but we also get much of our information about the world through our social media feeds. What was interesting about the Reuters report was that it was started before the COVID pandemic, but the second part of the study was conducted during COVID. And it highlights a fascinating truth about our relationship with the news when it comes to trust.

The study shows that the majority of us don’t trust the news we get through social media but most times, we’re okay with that. Less than 40% of people trust the news in general, and even when we pick a source, less than half of us trust that particular channel. Only 22% indicated they trust the news they see in social media. Yet half of us admit we use social media to get our news. The younger we are, the more reliant we are on social media for news. The fastest growing sources for news amongst all age groups – but especially those under 30 – are Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp.

Here’s another troubling fact that fell out of the study. Social platforms, especially Instagram and SnapChat, are dominated by influencers. That means that much of our news comes to us by way of a celebrity influencer reposting it on their feed. This is a far cry from the editorial review process that used to act as a gate keeper on our trusted news sources.

So why do we continue to use news sources we admit we don’t trust? I suspect it may have to do with something called the Meaning Maintenance Model. Proposed in 2006 by Heine, Proulx and Vohs, the model speculates that a primary driver for us is to maintain our beliefs in how the world works. This is related to the sense making loop (Klein, Moon and Hoffman) I’ve also talked about in the past. We make sense of the world by first starting with the existing frame of what we believe to be true. If what we’re experiencing is significantly different from what we believe, we will update our frame to align with the new evidence.

What the Meaning Maintenance Model suggests is that we will go to great lengths to avoid updating our frame. It’s much easier just to find supposed evidence that supports our current beliefs. So, if our intent is to get news that supports our existing world view, social media is the perfect source. It’s algorithmically filtered to match our current frame. Even if we believe the information is suspect, it still comforts us to have our beliefs confirmed. This works well for news about politics, societal concerns and other ideologically polarized topics.

We don’t like to admit this is the case. According to the Reuter’s study, 60% of us indicate we want news sources that are objective and not biased to any particular point of view. But this doesn’t jive with reality at all. As I wrote about in a previous column, almost all mainstream news sources in the US appear to have a significant bias to the right or left. If we’re talking about news that comes through social media channels, that bias is doubled down on. In practice, we are quite happy foraging from news sources that are biased, as long as that bias matches our own.

But then something like COVID comes along. Suddenly, we all have skin in the game in a very real and immediate way. Our information foraging intent changes and our minimum threshold for the reliability of our news sources goes way up. The Reuters study found that when it comes to sourcing COVID information, the most trusted sources are official sites of health and scientific organizations. The least trusted sources are random strangers, social media and messaging apps.

It requires some reading between the lines, but the Reuters study paints a troubling picture of the state of journalism and our relationship with it. Where we get our information directly impacts what we believe. And what we believe determines what we do.

These are high stakes in an all-in game of survival.

TV and My Generation

My Generation has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. I am a baby boomer, born in 1961, at the tail end of the boom. And, according to Time magazine, we broke America.  We probably destroyed the planet. And, oh yeah, we’ve also screwed up the economy. I’d like to say it isn’t true, but I’m pretty sure it is. As a generation, we have an extensive rap sheet.

Statistically, baby boomers are one of the most politically polarized generations alive today. So, the vast chasm that exists between the right and the left may also be our fault. 

As I said, we’re a generational dumpster fire. 

A few columns back I said this: “We create the medium — which then becomes part of the environment we adapt to.”  I was referring to social media and its impact on today’s generations. 

But what about us? What about the generation that has wreaked all this havoc? If I am right and the media we make in turn makes us who we are, what the hell happened to our generation?

Television, that’s what. 

There have been innumerable treatises on how baby boomers got to be in the sorry state we’re in. Most blame the post-war affluence of America and the never-ending consumer orgy it sparked. 

But we were also the first generation to grow up in front of a television screen. Surely that must have had some impact. 

I suspect television was one of the factors that started driving the wedge between the right and left halves of our generation, creating a non-stretchable world in between. Further, I think it may have been the prime suspect.

Let’s plot the trends of what was on TV against my most influential formative years, and — by extension — my generation. 

When I was 5 years old, in 1966, the most popular TV shows fell into two categories: westerns like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke,” or cornfed comedies like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” Social commentary and satire were virtually nonexistent on American prime-time TV. The values of America were tightly censored, wholesome and non-confrontational. The only person of color in the line-up was Bill Cosby on “I Spy.” Thanks to “Hogan’s Heroes,” even the Nazis were lovable doofuses. 

I suspect when certain people of my generation want to Make America Great Again, it is this America they’re talking about. It was a white, wholesome America that was seen through the universally rose-colored glasses given to us by the three networks. 

It was also completely fictional, ignoring inconveniences like the civil rights movement, Vietnam and rampant gender inequality. This America never existed. 

When we talk about the cultural environment my generation literally cut our teeth in, this is what we refer to. There was no moral ambiguity. It was clear who the good guys were, because they all wore white hats. 

This moral baseline was spoon-fed to us right when we were first making sense of our own realities. Unfortunately, it bore little to no resemblance to what was actually real.

The fact was, through the late ’60s, America was already increasingly polarized politically. Left and right were drifting apart. Even Bob Hope felt the earth splitting beneath his feet. In November, 1969, he asked all the elected leaders of the country, no matter their politics, to join him in a week of national unity. One of those leaders called it “a time of crisis, greater today perhaps than since the Civil War.” 

But rather than trying to heal the wounds, politicians capitalized on them, further splitting the country apart by affixing labels like Nixon’s “The Silent Majority.” 

Now, let’s move ahead to my teen years. From our mid-teens to our mid-twenties, we create our social identities. Our values and morals take on some complexity. The foundations for our lifelong belief structures are formed during these years. 

In 1976, when I was 15, the TV line-up had become a lot more controversial. We had many shows regularly tackling social commentary: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “Sanford and Son,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Barney Miller” and “Good Times.” Of course, we still had heaps of wholesome, thanks to “Happy Days,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “The Waltons.

Just when my generation was forming the values that would define us, our prime-time line-up was splitting left and right. You had the social moralizing of left-leaning show runners like Norman Lear (“All in the Family”) and Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”) vs the God and Country values of “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.” 

I don’t know what happened in your hometown, but in mine, we started to be identified by the shows we watched (or, often, what our parents let us watch). You had the “All in the Family” Group and “The Waltons” Group. In the middle, we could generally agree on “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The cracks in the ideologies of my generation were starting to show.

I suspect as time went forward, the two halves of my generation started looking to television with two different intents: either to inform ourselves of the world that is, warts and all — or to escape to a world that never was. As our programming choices expanded, those two halves got further and further apart, and the middle ground disappeared. 

There are other factors, I’m sure. But speaking for myself, I spent an unhealthy amount of time watching TV when I was young. It couldn’t help but partially form the person I am today. And if that is true for me, I suspect it is also true for the rest of my generation.

Crisis? What Crisis?

You would think that a global pandemic would hold our attention for a while.

Nope.

We’re tired of it. We’re moving on.  We’re off to the next thing.

Granted, in this case the next thing deserves to be focused on. It is abysmal that it still exists. So it should be focused on. Probably for the rest of our lives and beyond – going forward until it ceases to be a thing. But it won’t be. Soon we’ll be talking about something else.

And that’s the point of this post – our collective inability to remain focused on anything without being distracted by the next breaking story in our news feed. How did we come to this?

I blame memes.

To a certain extent, our culture is the product of who we are and who we are is a product of our culture. Each is shaped by the other, going forward in a constantly improvised pas de deux. Humans create the medium – which then becomes part of the environment we adapt too.

Books and the printed word changed who we were for over five centuries.  Cinema has been helping to define us for almost 150 years. And radio and television has been moulding us for the past century. Our creations have helped create who we are.

This has never been truer than with social media. Unlike other media which took discrete chunks of our time and attention, social media is ubiquitous and pervasive. According to a recent survey, we spend on average 2 hours and 23 minutes per day on social media. That is about 13% of our waking hours.  Social media has become intertwined with our lives to the point that we had to start qualifying what happens where with labels like “IRL” (In Real Life).

There is another difference between social media and what has come before it. Almost every previous entertainment medium that has demanded our attention has been built on the foundation of a long form narrative arc. Interacting with each medium has been a process – a commitment to invest a certain amount of time to go on a journey with the storyteller. The construction of a story depends on patterns that are instantly recognized by us. Once we identify them, we are invested in discovering the outcome. We understand that our part of the bargain is to exchange our time and attention. The payoff is the joy that comes from us making sense of a new world or situation, even if it is imaginary.  

But social media depends on a different exchange. Rather than tapping into our inherent love of the structure of a story it depends on something called variable intermittent rewards. Essentially, it’s the same hook that casinos use to keep people at a slot machine or table. Not only is it highly addictive, it also pushes us to continually scroll to the next thing. It completely bypasses the thinking part of our brains and connects directly to the reward center buried in our limbic system. Rather than ask for our time and attention social media dangles a never-ending array of bright, shiny memes that asks nothing from us: no thinking, almost no attention and a few seconds of our time at most. For a lazy brain, this is the bargain of a lifetime.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the media that are most dependent on advertising are also the media that avoids locking our attention on a single topic for an extended period. This makes social media the perfect match for interruptive ad forms. They are simply slotted into the never-ending scroll of memes.

Social media has only been around for a little over 2 decades. It has been a significant part of our lives for half that time. If even a little bit of what I suspect is happening is indeed taking place, that scares the hell out of me. It would mean that no other medium has changed us so much and so quickly.

That is something worth paying attention to. 

A.I. and Our Current Rugged Landscape

In evolution, there’s something called the adaptive landscape. It’s a complex concept, but in the smallest nutshell possible, it refers to how fit species are for a particular environment. In a relatively static landscape, status quos tend to be maintained. It’s business as usual. 

But a rugged adaptive landscape —-one beset by disruption and adversity — drives evolutionary change through speciation, the introduction of new and distinct species. 

The concept is not unique to evolution. Adapting to adversity is a feature in all complex, dynamic systems. Our economy has its own version. Economist Joseph Schumpeter called them Gales of Creative Destruction.

The same is true for cultural evolution. When shit gets real, the status quo crumbles like a sandcastle at high tide. When it comes to life today and everything we know about it, we are definitely in a rugged landscape. COVID-19 might be driving us to our new future faster than we ever suspected. The question is, what does that future look like?

Homo Deus

In his follow up to his best-seller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” author Yuval Noah Harari takes a shot at predicting just that. “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” looks at what our future might be. Written well before the pandemic (in 2015) the book deals frankly with the impending irrelevance of humanity. 

The issue, according to Harari, is the decoupling of intelligence and consciousness. Once we break the link between the two, the human vessels that have traditionally carried intelligence become superfluous. 

In his book, Harari foresees two possible paths: techno-humanism and Dataism. 

Techno-humanism

In this version of our future, we humans remain essential, but not in our current form. Thanks to technology, we get an upgrade and become “super-human.”

Dataism

Alternatively, why do we need humans at all? Once intelligence becomes decoupled from human consciousness, will it simply decide that our corporeal forms are a charming but antiquated oddity and just start with a clean slate?

Our Current Landscape

Speaking of clean slates, many have been talking about the opportunity COVID-19 has presented to us to start anew. As I was writing this column, I received a press release from MIT promoting a new book “Building the New Economy,” edited by Alex Pentland. I haven’t read it yet, but based on the first two lines in the release, it certainly seems to be following this type of thinking:“With each major crisis, be it war, pandemic, or major new technology, there has been a need to reinvent the relationships between individuals, businesses, and governments. Today’s pandemic, joined with the tsunami of data, crypto and AI technologies, is such a crisis.”

We are intrigued by the idea of using the technologies we have available to us to build a societal framework less susceptible to inevitable Black Swans. But is this just an invitation to pry open Pandora’s Box and allow the future Yuval Noah Harari is warning us about?

The Debate 

Harari isn’t the only one seeing the impending doom of the human race. Elon Musk has been warning us about it for years. As we race to embrace artificial intelligence, Musk sees the biggest threat to human existence we have ever faced. 

“I am really quite close, I am very close, to the cutting edge in AI and it scares the hell out of me,” warns Musk. “It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows and the rate of improvement is exponential.”

There are those that pooh-pooh Musk’s alarmism, calling it much ado about nothing. Noted Harvard cognitive psychologist and author Steven Pinker, whose rose-colored vision of humanity’s future reliably trends up and to the right, dismissed Musk’s warnings with this: “If Elon Musk was really serious about the AI threat, he’d stop building those self-driving cars, which are the first kind of advanced AI that we’re going to see.”

In turn, Musk puts Pinker’s Pollyanna perspective down to human hubris: “This tends to plague smart people. They define themselves by their intelligence and they don’t like the idea that a machine could be way smarter than them, so they discount the idea — which is fundamentally flawed.”

From Today Forward

This brings us back to our current adaptive landscape. It’s rugged. The peaks and valleys of our day-to-day reality are more rugged then they have ever been — at least in our lifetimes. 

We need help. And when you’re dealing with a massive threat that involves probability modeling and statistical inference, more advanced artificial intelligence is a natural place to look. 

Would we trade more invasive monitoring of our own bio-status and aggregation of that data to prevent more deaths? In a heartbeat.

Would we put our trust in algorithms that can instantly crunch vast amounts of data our own brains couldn’t possibly comprehend? We already have.

Will we even adopt connected devices constantly streaming the bits of data that define our existence to some corporate third party or government agency in return for a promise of better odds that we can extend that existence? Sign us up.

We are willingly tossing the keys to our future to the Googles, Apples, Amazons and Facebooks of the world. As much as the present may be frightening, we should consider the steps we’re taking carefully.

If we continue rushing down the path towards Yuval Noah Harari’s Dataism, we should be prepared for what we find there: “This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.”

Media’s Mea Culpa Moment

It’s hard to see when you’re stuck inside. And I’m not talking about self-isolating during a pandemic. I’m talking about our perspective of the media landscape.

The Problem with Politics

Currently, the concept of “Us vs Them” is embedded into our modern idea of politics. Populist politics, by its very nature, needs an enemy to blame. It forces you to pick sides. It creates a culture of antagonism, eroding social capital and dismantling any bipartisan trust. We are far down this path. Perhaps too far to turn back. But we have to realize that no nation or region in modern history has ever prospered in the long term by wantonly destroying social capital. There are many examples of how regionalism, xenophobia and populism have caused nations to regress. There is no example of these things leading to prosperity and long-term success. Not one. Yet this is the path we seem to have chosen.

If you look at the media, it’s politicians that are to blame for all our problems, whether they’re on the right or left. Based on most mainstream media, with its inherent, left wing bias, there is a personification of the problem, primarily in the President. “If Trump wasn’t there, things would be better.” But the problem would still persist. Much as we left leaning individuals found Obama a more palatable choice for president, the problem was here then as well. That’s how we got to where we are today.

The sad truth is, Trump didn’t cause the problem. He just capitalized on it. So we have to look elsewhere for where the problem originated. And that leads us to an uncomfortable reality. We are the problem – meaning we – the media, particularly in the U.S. But it’s hard to see that when you’re looking from the inside. So last week I changed my perspective.

Because of COVID-19, we should all be focused on the same story, perhaps for the first time in our lives. This gives us an unprecedented opportunity to compare the media landscapes against what should be a fairly objective baseline.

The Canadian Litmus Test

I’m Canadian — and for Americans, I know that living next to Canada is like having “The Simpsons'” Ned Flanders for a neighbor. We seem nice and polite, but you can’t help feeling that we’re constantly judging you. 

But Canada does offers Americans the chance to compare cultures that have much in common but with some key critical differences. It was this comparison that geographer, historian and anthropologist Jared Diamond employed in his latest book, “UpheavalTurning Points for Nations in Crisis.”

“Many of Canada’s social and political practices are drastically different from those of the U.S., such as with regards to national health plans, immigration, education, prisons, and balance between community and individual interests,” he writes. ”Some problems that Americans regard as frustratingly insoluble are solved by Canadians in ways that earn widespread public support.”

As a case in point, Canada has handled COVID-19 in a notably different way. Our pandemic response has been remarkably non-partisan. For example, we have the unusual spectacle of our most Trump-like politician, Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford, stepping up as a compassionate leader who is working effectively with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his own opposition.

The Myth of Impartial Reporting

This is not the case in the U.S. Because of America’s political divides, it can’t even agree on what should be a simple presentation of fact on the story that affects us all equally. 

A recent PEW study found that where you turn for your news will significantly impact your understanding of things like when a vaccine will be ready or whether coronavirus came about naturally. 

To check this out, I did a comparison of the three most popular U.S. news sites on April 29.

Let’s start with CNN.  Of the 28 news items featured on the home page “above the fold,” 16 had an overt left bias. The most prominent was  inflammatory, dealing with Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his blowing up at press criticism. A Biden story on the Tara Reade accusations was buried in small print links near the bottom.

Now let’s go to the other side of the spectrum: Fox News, which also featured 28 news items “above the fold.” Of these 14 had an overt right bias. Again, the headline was inflammatory, calling out Biden on the Tara Reade allegations. There was no mention of any Trump temper tantrums on the home page. 

Finally, MSNBC’s headline story was actually focused on COVID-19 and the Remdesivir trial results and had no political bias. The site only had nine news items above the fold. Four of these had a left-leaning bias. 

The home pages bore almost no resemblance to each other. You would be hard-pressed to understand that each of these sites represented the news from the same country on the same day.

Now, let’s compare with Canada’s top two news sites, CBC and Global News. 

About 60% of the stories covered were the same on both sites and given roughly the same priority. The same lead story was featured on both — about a missing Canadian military helicopter. On CBC, only one appeared to have any political bias at all and it was definitely not explicit, while none of Global’s did.

That’s in comparison to the American news sites, where over half the stories featured — and all the lead ones — were designed and written to provoke anger, pitting “us” against “them.”

Once mainstream media normalizes this antagonistic approach, it then gets shunted over to social media, where it’s stripped of context, amplified and shared. Mainstream media sets the mood of the nation, and that mood is anger. Social media then whips it into a frenzy. 

Both left- and right-wing media outlets are equally guilty. CNN’s overriding editorial tone is, “Can you believe how stupid they are?” Fox’s is, “They think you’re stupid and they’re trying to pull a fast one on you.” No wonder there is no common ground where public discourse across the political divide can begin.

Before COVID-19, perhaps we could look at this with a certain amount of resignation and even bemusement. If you’re “us” there is a certain satisfaction in vilifying “them.” But today, the stakes are too high. People are dying because of it. Somehow, the media has to turn America’s ideological landscape from a war zone into a safe space.