The Crazy World of Our Media Obsessions

Are you watching the news less? Me too. Now that the grownups are back in charge, I’m spending much less time checking my news feed.

Whatever you might say about the last four years, it certainly was good for the news business. It was one long endless loop of driving past a horrific traffic accident. Try as we might, we just couldn’t avoid looking.

But according to Internet analysis tool Alexa.com, that may be over. I ran some traffic rank reports for major news portals and they all look the same: a ramp-up over the past 90 days to the beginning of February, and then a precipitous drop off a cliff.

While all the top portals have a similar pattern, it’s most obvious on Foxnews.com.

It was as if someone said, “Show’s over folks. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.” And after we all exhaled, we did!

Not surprisingly, we watch the news more when something terrible is happening. It’s an evolved hardwired response called negativity bias.

Good news is nice. But bad news can kill you. So it’s not surprising that bad news tends to catch our attention.

But this was more than that. We were fixated by Trump. If it were just our bias toward bad news, we would still eventually get tired of it.

That’s exactly what happened with the news on COVID-19. We worked through the initial uncertainty and fear, where we were looking for more information, and at some point moved on to the subsequent psychological stages of boredom and anger. As we did that, we threw up our hands and said, “Enough already!”

Bit when it comes to Donald Trump, there was something else happening.

It’s been said that Trump might have been the best instinctive communicator to ever take up residence in the White House. We might not agree with what he said, but we certainly were listening.

And while we — and by we, I mean me — think we would love to put him behind us, I believe it behooves us to take a peek under the hood of this particular obsession. Because if we fell for it once, we could do it again.

How the F*$k did this guy dominate our every waking, news-consuming moment for the past four years?

We may find a clue in Bob Woodward’s book on Trump, Rage. He explains that he was looking for a “reflector” — a person who knew Trump intimately and could provide some relatively objective insight into his character.

Woodward found a rather unlikely candidate for his reflector: Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

I know, I know — “Kushner?” Just bear with me.

In Woodward’s book, Kushner says there were four things you needed to read and “absorb” to understand how Trump’s mind works.

The first was an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan called “Over Trump, We’re as Divided as Ever.” It is not complimentary to Trump. But it does begin to provide a possible answer to our ongoing fixation. Noonan explains: “He’s crazy…and it’s kind of working.”

The second was the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Kushner paraphrased: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” In other words, in Trump’s world, it’s not direction that matters, it’s velocity.

The third was Chris Whipple’s book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. The insight here is that no matter how clueless Trump was about how to do his job, he still felt he knew more than his chiefs of staff.

Finally, the fourth was Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, by Scott Adams. That’s right — Scott Adams, the same guy who created the “Dilbert” comic strip. Adams calls Trump’s approach “Intentional Wrongness Persuasion.”

Remember, this is coming from Kushner, a guy who says he worships Trump. This is not apologetic. It’s explanatory — a manual on how to communicate in today’s world. Kushner is embracing Trump’s instinctive, scorched-earth approach to keeping our attention focused on him.

It’s — as Peggy Noonan realized — leaning into the “crazy.”  

Trump represented the ultimate political tribal badge. All you needed to do was read one story on Trump, and you knew exactly where you belonged. You knew it in your core, in your bones, without any shred of ambiguity or doubt. There were few things I was as sure of in this world as where I stood on Donald J. Trump.

And maybe that was somehow satisfying to me.

There was something about standing one side or the other of the divide created by Trump that was tribal in nature.

It was probably the clearest ideological signal about what was good and what was bad that we’ve seen for some time, perhaps since World War II or the ’60s — two events that happened before most of our lifetimes.

Trump’s genius was that he somehow made both halves of the world believe they were the good guys.

In 2018, Peggy Noonan said that “Crazy won’t go the distance.” I’d like to believe that’s so, but I’m not so sure. There are certainly others that are borrowing a page from Trump’s playbook.  Right-wing Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are both doing “crazy” extraordinarily well. The fact that almost none of you had to Google them to know who they are proves this.

Whether we’re loving to love, or loving to hate, we are all fixated by crazy.

The problem here is that our media ecosystem has changed. “Crazy” used to be filtered out. But somewhere along the line, news outlets discovered that “crazy” is great for their bottom lines.

As former CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said when Trump became the Republican Presidential forerunner back in 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damned good for CBS.”

Crazy draws eyeballs like, well, like crazy. It certainly generates more user views then “normal” or “competent.”

In our current media environment  — densely intertwined with the wild world of social media — we have no crazy filters. All we have now are crazy amplifiers.

And the platforms that allow this all try to crowd on the same shaky piece of moral high ground.

It’s not their job to filter out crazy. It’s anti-free speech. It’s un-American. We should be smart enough to recognize crazy when we see it.

Hmmm. Well, we know that’s not working.

The Academics of Bullsh*t

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”—

from On Bullshit,” an essay by philosopher Henry Frankfurt.

Would it surprise you to know that I have found not one, but two academic studies on organizational bullshit? And I mean that non-euphemistically. The word “bullshit” is actually in the title of both studies. I B.S. you not.

In fact, organizational bullshit has become a legitimate field of study. Academics are being paid to dig into it — so to speak. There are likely bullshit grants, bullshit labs, bullshit theories, bullshit paradigms and bullshit courses. There are definitely bullshit professors.  There is even an OBPS — the Organization Bullshit Perception Scale — a way to academically measure bullshit in a company.

Many years ago, when I was in the twilight of my time with the search agency I had founded, I had had enough of the bullshit I was being buried under, shoveled there by the company that had acquired us. I was drowning in it. So I vented right here, on MediaPost. I dared you to imagine what it would be like to actually do business without bullshit getting in the way.

My words fell on deaf ears. Bullshit has proliferated since that time. It has been enshrined up and down our social, business and governmental hierarchies, becoming part of our “new” organizational normal. It has picked up new labels, like “fake news” and “alternate facts.” It has proven more dangerous than I could have ever imagined. And it is this dangerous because we are ignoring it, which is legitimizing it.

Henry Frankfurt defined the concept and set it apart from lying. Liars know the truth and are trying to hide it. Bullshitters don’t care if what they say is true or false. They only care if their listener is persuaded. That’s as good a working definition of the last four years as any I’ve heard.

But at least one study indicates bullshit may have a social modality — acceptable in some contexts, but corrosive in others. Marketing, for example, is highlighted by the authors as an industry built on a foundation of bullshit:

“advertising and public relations agencies and consultants are likely to be ‘full of It,’ and in some cases even make the production of bullshit an important pillar of their business.”

In these studies, researchers speculate that bullshit might actually serve a purpose in organizations. It may allow for strategic motivation before there is an actual strategy in place. This brand of bullshit is otherwise known as “blue-sky thinking” or “out-of-the-box thinking.”

But if this is true, there is a very narrow window indeed where this type of bullshit could be considered beneficial. The minute there are facts to deal with, they should be dealt with. But the problem is that the facts never quite measure up to the vision of the bullshit. Once you open the door to allowing bullshit, it becomes self-perpetuating.

I grew up in the country. I know how hard it is to get rid of bullshit.

The previous example is what I would call strategic bullshit — a way to “grease the wheels” and get the corporate machine moving. But it often leads directly to operational bullshit — which is toxic to an organization, serving to “gum up the gears” and prevent anything real and meaningful from happening. This was the type of bullshit that was burying me back in 2013 when I wrote that first column. It’s also the type of bullshit that is paralyzing us today.

According to the academic research into bullshit, when we’re faced with it, we have four ways to respond: exit, voice, loyalty or neglect. Exit means we try to escape from the bullshit. Loyalty means we wallow in it, spreading it wider and thicker. Neglect means we just ignore it. And Voice means we stand up to the bullshit and confront it.  I’m guessing you’ve already found yourself in one of those four categories.

Here’s the thing. As marketers and communicators, we have to face the cold, ugly truth of our ongoing relationship with bullshit. We all have to deal with it. It’s the nature of our industry.

But how do we deal with it? Most times, in most situations, it’s just easier to escape or ignore it. Sometimes it may serve our purpose to jump on the bullshit bandwagon and spread it. But given the overwhelming evidence of where bullshit has led us in the recent past, we all should be finding our voice to call bullshit on bullshit.

Missing the Mundane

I realize something: I miss the mundane.

Somewhere along the line, mundanity got a bad rap. It became a synonym for boring. But it actually means worldly. It refers to the things you experience when you’re out in the world.

And I miss that — a lot.

There is a lot of stuff that happens when we’re living our lives that we don’t give enough credit to: Petting a dog being taken for a walk. A little flirting with another human we find attractive. Doing some people-watching while we eat our bagel in a mall’s food court. Random situational humor that plays itself out on the sidewalk in front of us. Discovering that the person cutting your hair is also a Monty Python fan. Snippets of conversation — either ones we’re participating in, or ones we overhear while we wait for the bus. Running into an old acquaintance. Even being able to smile at a stranger and have them smile back at you.

The mundane is built of all those hundreds of little, inconsequential social exchanges that happen daily in a normal world that we ordinarily wouldn’t give a second thought to.

And sometimes, serendipitously, we luck upon the holy grail of mundanity — that random “thing” that makes our day.

These are the things we live for. And now, almost all of these things have been stripped from our lives.

I didn’t realize I missed them because I never assigned any importance to them. If I did a signal-to-noise ratio analysis of my life, all these things would fall in the latter category. Most of the time, I wasn’t even fully aware that they were occurring. But I now realize when you add them all up, they’re actually a big part of what I’m missing the most. And I’ve realized that because I’ve been forced to subtract them — one by one — from my life.

I have found that the mundane isn’t boring. It’s the opposite — the seasoning that adds a little flavor to my day-to-day existence.

For the past 10 months, I thought the problem was that I was missing the big things: travel, visiting loved ones, big social gatherings. And I do miss those things. But those things are the tentpoles – the infrequent, yet consequential things that we tend to hang our happiness on. We failed to realize that in between those tentpoles, there is also the fabric of everyday life that has also been eliminated.

It’s not just that we don’t have them. It’s also that we’ve tried to substitute other things for them. And those other things may be making it worse. Things like social media and way too much time spent looking at the news. Bingeing on Netflix. Forcing ourselves into awkward online Zoom encounters just because it seems like the thing to do. A suddenly developed desire to learn Portuguese, or how to bake sourdough bread.

It’s not that all these things are bad. It’s just that they’re different from what we used to consider normal — and by doing them, it reinforces the gap that lies between then and now. They add to that gnawing discontent we have with our new forced coping mechanisms.

The mundane has always leavened our lives. But now, we’ve swapped the living of our lives for being entertained — and whether it’s the news or the new show we’re bingeing, entertainment has to be overplayed. It is nothing but peaks and valleys, with no middle ground. When we actually do the living, rather than the watching, we spend the vast majority of our time in that middle ground — the mundane, which is our emotional reprieve.

I’ve also noticed my social muscles have atrophied over the past several months due to lack of exercise. It’s been ages since I’ve had to make small talk. Every encounter now — as infrequent as they are — seems awkward. Either I’m overeager, like a puppy that’s been left alone in a house all day, or I’m just not in any mood to palaver.  

Finally, it’s these everyday mundane encounters that used to give me anecdotal evidence that not all people were awful. Every day I used to see examples of small kindnesses, unexpected generosity and just plain common courtesy. Yes, there were also counterpoints to all of these, but it almost always netted out to the good. It used to reaffirm my faith in people on a daily basis.

With that source of reaffirmation gone, I have to rely on the news and social media. And — given what those two things are — I know I will only see the extremes of human nature. It’s my “angel and asshole” theory : That we all lie on a bell curve somewhere between the two, and our current situation will push us from the center closer to those two extremes. You also know that the news and social media are going to be biased towards the “asshole” end of the spectrum.

There’s a lot to be said for the mundane — and I have. So I’ll just wrap up with my hope that my life — and yours — will become a little more mundane in the not-too-distant future.

The Timeline of Factfulness

After last Wednesday, when it seemed that our reality was splitting at the seams, I was surprised to see financial markets seemed to ignore what was happening in Washington. It racked up a 1% gain. I later learned that financial markets have a history of being rather oblivious to social upheaval.

Similarly, a newsletter I subscribe to about recent academic research was packed with recent discoveries. Not one of the 35 links in that day’s edition pointed to anything remotely relevant to what was happening at that time in Washington, D.C (or various other state capitals in the country). That was less surprising to me than the collective shrugging off of events by financial markets, but it still made an interesting contrast clear to me.

These two corners of the world are not tied to the happenings of today. Markets look forward and lay economic bets on what will be. And apparently it had bet that the events of January 6 wouldn’t have any lasting impact.

Scientific journals look backward and report on what has already happened in the world of academic research. Neither are very focused on today.

But there is another reason why these two corners of the world seemed unfazed by the news headlines of January 6th. Science and the Markets are two examples of things driven by facts and data. Yes, emotion certainly plays a part. Investors have long known that irrational exuberance or fear can drive artificial bubbles or crashes. And the choice of research paths to take is a human one, which means it’s inevitably driven by emotions.

But both these ecosystems try to systematically reduce the role of emotion as much as possible by relying on facts and data. And because facts and data do not reveal their stories immediately but rather over time in the form of trends, they have to take a longer view of the world.

Therefore, these things operate on different timelines from the news. Financial markets use what’s happening now – today – as just one of many inputs into a calculated bet that will be weeks or months in the future.

Science takes a longer view, using the challenges of today to set a research agenda that may be years away from realizing its pay-off.  Both finance and science use what’s happening right now as one input to determine what will be in the future, but neither focus exclusively on today.

In contrast, that’s exactly what the news has to do. And it hyperbolizes the now, stripping the ordinary from the extraordinary, separating it, picking it out, and concentrating it for our consumption

The fact is, both markets and science have to operate by Factfulness, to use the term coined by the late Hans Rosling, Swedish physician and well known TED speaker. To run like the rest of the world, over-focused on the amplified volatility of the here and now that fills our news feeds, would be to render them dysfunctional. They couldn’t operate. They would be in a constant state of anxiety.

Increasingly, the engines that drive our world  – such as science and financial markets – have to decouple themselves from the froth and frenzy of the immediate. They do so because the rest of the world is following a very different path – one where hyper-emotionality and polarized news outlets whip us back and forth like a rag-doll caught by a Doberman.

This decoupling has accelerated thanks to the role of technology in compressing the timelines of the worldview of most of us. We are instantly alerted to what’s happening now and are then ushered into a highly biased bubble from in which we look at the world. Our world view is not only formed by emotion, it is deliberately designed to manipulate those emotions.

Emotions are our instant response to the world. They run fully hot or cold, with nary a nuance of ration to modulate them. Also, because emotions are our natural early warning systems, we tend to be hyper-aware of them and are immediately drawn to anything that promises to push our emotional buttons. As such, they are a notoriously inaccurate lens from which to look at reality.  That is why efforts are made to minimize their impact in the worlds of science and finance.

We should hold other critical systems to the same standards. Take government, for instance. Now, more than ever, we need those that govern us to be clear eyed and dealing with facts. Unfortunately, as we saw last week, they’re running as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

Happy New Year?

“Speaking of the happy new year, I wonder if any year ever had less chance of being happy. It’s as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion — as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn’t very pretty… So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, can, as a race, learn nothing — that the experience of ten thousand years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that preceded.”

That sentiment, relevant as it is to today, was not written about 2021. It was actually written 80 years ago — in 1941 — by none other than John Steinbeck.

John was feeling a little down. I’m sure we can all relate.

It’s pretty easy to say that we have hopefully put the worst year ever behind us. I don’t know about your news feed, but mine has been like a never-ending bus tour of Dante’s 7 Circles of Hell — and I’m sitting next to the life insurance salesman from Des Moines who decided to have a Caesar salad for lunch.

An online essay by Umair Haque kind of summed up 2020 for me: “The Year of the Idiot.” In it, Haque doesn’t pull any punches,

“It was the year that a pandemic searched the ocean of human stupidity, and found, to its gleeful delight, that it appeared to be bottomless. 2020 was the year that idiots wrecked our societies.”

In case you’re not catching the drift yet, Haque goes on to say, “The average person is a massive, gigantic, malicious, selfish idiot.”

Yeah. That pretty much covers it.

Or does it? Were our societies wrecked? Is the average person truly that shitty? Is the world a vast, soul sucking, rotten-cabbage-reeking dumpster fire? Or is it just the lens we’re looking through?

If you search hard enough, you can find those who are looking through a different lens — one that happens to be backed by statistical evidence rather than what bubbles to the top of our newsfeed. One of those people is Ola Rosling. He’s carrying on the mission of his late father, Hans Rosling, who was working on the book “Factfulness” when he passed away in 2017. Bill Gates called it “one of the most educational books I’ve ever read.” And Bill reads a lot of books!

Believe it or not, if you remove a global pandemic from the equation (which, admittedly, is a whole new scale of awful) the world may actually be in better shape than it was 12 months ago. And even if you throw the pandemic into the mix, there are some glimmers of silver peeking through the clouds.

Here are some things you may have missed in your news feed:

Wild polio was eradicated from Africa. That’s big news. It’s a massive achievement that had its to-do box ticked last August. And I’m betting you never heard about it.

Also, the medical and scientific world has never before mobilized and worked together on a project like the new COVID mRNA vaccines now rolling out. Again, this is a huge step forward that will have far reaching impacts on healthcare in the future. But that’s not what the news is talking about.

Here’s another thing. At long last, it looks like the world may finally be ready to start tearing apart the layers that hide systemic racism. What we’re learning is that it may not be the idiots  — and, granted, there are many, many idiots — who are the biggest problem. It may be people like me, who have unknowingly perpetuated the system and are finally beginning to see the endemic bias baked into our culture.

These are just three big steps forward that happened in 2020. There are others. We just aren’t talking about them.

We always look on the dark side. We’re a “glass half-empty” species. That’s what Rosling’s book is about: our tendency to skip over the facts to rush to the worst possible view of things. We need no help in that regard — but we get it anyway from the news business, which, run by humans and aimed at humans, amplifies our proclivity for pessimism.

I’m as glad as anyone to see 2020 in my rear-view mirror. But I am carrying something of that year forward with me: a resolution to spend more time looking for facts and relying less on media “spun” for profit to understand the state of the world.

As we consume media, we have to remember that good news is just not as profitable as bad news. We need to broaden our view to find the facts. Hans Rosling warned us, “Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot.”

Yes, 2020 was bad, but it was also good. And because there are forces that swing the pendulum both ways, many of the things that were good may not have happened without the bad. In the same letter in which Steinbeck expressed his pessimism about 1941, he went on to say this:

“Not that I have lost any hope. All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die. I don’t know why we should expect it to. It seems fairly obvious that two sides of a mirror are required before one has a mirror, that two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

There are two sides to every story, even when it’s a horror story like 2020.

Facebook Vs. Apple Vs. Your Privacy

As I was writing last week’s words about Mark Zuckerberg’s hubris-driven view of world domination, little did I know that the next chapter was literally being written. The very next day, a full-page ad from Facebook ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal attacking Apple for building privacy protection prompts into iOS 14.

It will come as a surprise to no one that I line up firmly on the side of Apple in this cat fight. I have always said we need to retain control over our personal data, choosing what’s shared and when. I also believe we need to have more control over the nature of the data being shared. iOS 14 is taking some much-needed steps in that direction.

Facebook is taking a stand that sadly underlines everything I wrote just last week — a disingenuous stand for a free-market environment — by unfurling the “Save small business” banner. Zuckerberg loves to stand up for “free” things — be it speech or markets — when it serves his purpose.

And the hidden agenda here is not really hidden at all. It’s not the small business around the corner Mark is worried about. It’s the 800-billion-dollar business that he owns 60% of the voting shares in.

The headline of the ad reads, “We’re standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.”

Ummm — yeah, right.

What you’re standing up for, Mark, is your revenue model, which depends on Facebook’s being free to hoover up as much personal data on you as possible, across as many platforms as possible.

The only thing that you care about when it comes to small businesses is that they spend as much with Facebook as possible. What you’re trying to defend is not “free” markets or “free” speech. What you’re defending is about the furthest thing imaginable away from  “free.”  It’s $70 billion plus in revenues and $18 and a half billion in profits. What you’re trying to protect is your number-five slot on the Forbes richest people in the world list, with your net worth of $100 billion.

Then, on the very next day, Facebook added insult to injury with a second ad, this time defending the “Free Internet,”  saying Apple “will change the internet as we know it” by forcing websites and blogs “to start charging you subscription fees.”

Good. The “internet as we know it” is a crap sandwich. “Free” has led us to exactly where we are now, with democracy hanging on by a thread, with true journalism in the last paroxysms of its battle for survival, and with anyone with half a brain feeling like they’re swimming in a sea of stupidity.

Bravo to Apple for pushing us away from the toxicity of “free” that comes with our enthralled reverence for “free” things to prop up a rapidly disintegrating information marketplace. If we accept a free model for our access to information, we must also accept advertising that will become increasingly intrusive, with even less regard for our personal privacy. We must accept all the things that come with “free”: the things that have proven to be so detrimental to our ability to function as a caring and compassionate democratic society over the past decade.

In doing the research for this column, I ran into an op-ed piece that ran last year in The New York Times. In it, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes lays out the case for antitrust regulators dismantling Facebook’s dominance in social media.

This is a guy who was one of Zuckerberg’s best friends in college, who shared in the thrill of starting Facebook, and whose name is on the patent for Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. It’s a major move when a guy like that, knowing what he knows, says, “The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.”

Hughes admits that the drive to break up Facebook won’t be easy. In the end, it may not even be successful. But it has to be attempted.

Too much power sits in the Zuckerberg’s hands. An attempt has to be made to break down the walls behind which our private data is being manipulated. We cannot trust Facebook — or Mark Zuckerberg — to do the right thing with the data. It would be so much easier if we could, but it has been proven again and again and again that our trust is misplaced.

The very fact that those calling the shots at Facebook believe you’ll fall for yet another public appeal wrapped in some altruistic bullshit appeal about protecting “free” that’s as substantial as Saran Wrap should be taken as an insult. It should make you mad as hell.

And it should put Apple’s stand to protect your privacy in the right perspective: a long overdue attempt to stop the runaway train that is social media.

Have More People Become More Awful?

Is it just me, or do people seem a little more awful lately? There seems to be a little more ignorance in the world, a little less compassion, a little more bullying and a lot less courtesy.

Maybe it’s just me.

It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with eternal optimist Steven Pinker.  The Harvard psychologist is probably the best-known proponent of the argument that the world is consistently trending towards being a better place.  According to Pinker, we are less bigoted, less homophobic, less misogynist and less violent. At least, that’s what he felt pre-COVID lockdown. As I said, I haven’t checked in with him lately, but I suspect he would say the long-term trends haven’t appreciably changed. Maybe we’re just going through a blip.

Why, then, does the world seem to be going to hell in a hand cart?  Why do people — at least some people — seem so awful?

I think it’s important to remember that our brain likes to play tricks on us. It’s in a never-ending quest to connect cause and effect. Sometimes, to do so, the brain jumps to conclusions. Unfortunately, it is aided in this unfortunate tendency by a couple of accomplices — namely news reporting and social media. Even if the world isn’t getting shittier, it certainly seems to be. 

Let me give you one example. In my local town, an anti-masking rally was recently held at a nearby shopping mall. Local news outlets jumped on it, with pictures and video of non-masked, non-socially distanced protesters carrying signs and chanting about our decline into Communism and how their rights were being violated.

What a bunch of boneheads — right? That was certainly the consensus in my social media circle. How could people care so little about the health and safety of their community? Why are they so awful?

But when you take the time to unpack this a bit, you realize that everyone is probably overplaying their hands. I don’t have exact numbers, but I don’t think there were more than 30 or 40 protestors at the rally. The population of my city is about 150,000. These protestors represented .03% of the total population. 

Let’s say for every person at the rally, there were 10 that felt the same way but weren’t there. That’s still less than 1%. Even if you multiplied the number of protesters by 100, it would still be just 3% of my community. We’re still talking about a tiny fraction of all the people who live in my city. 

But both the news media and my social media feed have ensured that these people are highly visible. And because they are, our brain likes to use that small and very visible sample and extrapolate it to the world in general. It’s called availability bias, a cognitive shortcut where the brain uses whatever’s easy to grab to create our understanding of the world.

But availability bias is nothing new. Our brains have always done this. So, what’s different about now?

Here, we have to understand that the current reality may be leading us into another “mind-trap.” A 2018 study from Harvard introduced something called “prevalence-induced concept change,” which gives us a better understanding of how the brain focuses on signals in a field of noise. 

Basically, when signals of bad things become less common, the brain works harder to find them. We expand our definition of what is “bad” to include more examples so we can feel more successful in finding them.

I’m probably stretching beyond the limits of the original study here, but could this same thing be happening now? Are we all super-attuned to any hint of what we see as antisocial behavior so we can jump on it? 

If this is the case, again social media is largely to blame. It’s another example of our current toxic mix of dog whistlecancel culturevirtue signaling, pseudo-reality that is being driven by social media. 

That’s two possible things that are happening. But if we add one more, it becomes a perfect storm of perceived awfulness. 

In a normal world, we all have different definitions of the ethical signals we’re paying attention to. What you are focused on right now in your balancing of what is right and wrong is probably different from what I’m currently focused on. I may be thinking about gun control while you’re thinking about reducing your carbon footprint.

But now, we’re all thinking about the same thing: surviving a pandemic. And this isn’t just some theoretical mind exercise. This is something that surrounds us, affecting us every single day. When it comes to this topic, our nerves have been rubbed raw and our patience has run out. 

Worst of all, we feel helpless. There seems to be nothing we can do to edge the world toward being a less awful place. Behaviors that in another reality and on another topic would have never crossed our radar now have us enraged. And, when we’re enraged, we do the one thing we can do: We share our rage on social media. Unfortunately, by doing so, we’re not part of the solution. We are just pouring fuel on the fire.

Yes, some people probably are awful. But are they more awful than they were this time last year? I don’t think so. I also can’t believe that the essential moral balance of our society has collectively nosedived in the last several months. 

What I do believe is that we are living in a time where we’re facing new challenges in how we perceive the world. Now, more than ever before, we’re on the lookout for what we believe to be awful. And if we’re looking for it, we’re sure to find it.

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.

Dear US: Start Thinking Differently about Public Broadcasting

In my ongoing discussion about how to support true and reliable journalism, there is one option I haven’t talked about: public broadcasting. 

In a previous column, I talked about the difference I saw on one day in the way the news was reported in Canada vs the U.S. Largely missing in Canada was the extreme polarization I saw in editorial tone in the U.S. 

And, as I mentioned in my previous two columns — one on why free news is bad news and one on the problems with “news” analysis — the divide between news on the right and news on the left has the same root cause: the need for profitability.

The one thing I didn’t talk about in that U.S. versus Canada column is that we have a robust public broadcaster in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

“Ah,” you say, “We have public broadcasting, too. We have PBS and NPR.” 

Well, yes, but no. There are important differences in how these institutions are funded.

Let’s take PBS, for example. PBS stations are independently operated, and each have their own financials. They are members of PBS, which is not a network but rather a programming partner. Affiliates pay member dues to belong to PBS.

For example, the Seattle PBS affiliate is KCTS, whose 2019 financials show that the lion’s share of its income, over half, comes from individual donations. Corporate donations represent another 16.5%. Just 9% of its funding comes from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), supposedly representing U.S. taxpayers’ support of public broadcasting on PBS and NPR.

CPB has been a punching bag for Republicans for years now. What meager support public broadcasting does receive from CPB is constantly at risk of being chopped by Congress.  Most recently — and not surprisingly — Trump threatened to cut funding for CPB from its current level of $445 million to just $30 million. 

He did this after an NPR reporter asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if he owed an apology to the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Conservative radio jumped on the altercation, with one station tweeting, “Why does NPR still exist? We have thousands of radio stations in the U.S. plus satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big-government, Democrat Party propaganda operation.”

Trump retweeted, “A very good question.”

It actually is a good question, but from a very different perspective than what Trump intended. 

I am Canadian. I come from a social democratic country. I am free of the knee-jerk reactionism of many Americans (as shown in last week’s election) toward the word “socialism.” You have to start with that idea to understand our approach to broadcasting.

While the CBC does sell advertising, it’s not dependent on it. In its last financial report, just 14.5% of all CBC revenues came from advertising. Sixty-five percent of the CBC’s funds come directly from taxpayer dollars. As a comparison, the amount of money CBC received from the government last year was 1.1 billion, almost three times the total budget of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in the U.S. 

That highlights the difference in attitude about the importance of public broadcasting in our two countries. In Canada — following the model of Britain and the BBC — we have enshrined public broadcasting as an important part of our society that we directly support through our taxes. Not only do we have the CBC across Canada, but each province also has its own public broadcaster. 

In the more capitalistic and laissez-faire U.S., public broadcasting largely depends on the kindness of strangers. What little taxpayer support it does receive is constantly being used as a pawn in political posturing between the right and left. 

So, who’s right?

I’ll be honest. There are many Canadians — not a majority, but a significant percentage — who would like to see Canada pursue a more American path when it comes to broadcasting. “Who needs the CBC?” they say. 

But I believe strongly that the relative health of Canadian journalism when compared to the U.S. is largely due to our investment in public broadcasting. The CBC sets the norm of what’s acceptable in Canada. Its biggest private competitors, CTV and Global, don’t stray far from the relatively neutral, reliable and objective tone set by the CBC. 

If we look at reliability when it comes to public broadcasters in the U.S., we see that both NPR and PBS score top marks when it comes to lack of bias and reliability on the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart.

Unfortunately, Canadian broadcasters are not represented on the chart, so we’ll have to look for another measure. Luckily, one exists. More on this in a bit.

The doubters of my proposed hypothesis that taxpayer-funded public broadcasting means better journalism will be quick to point out that Russia, China, Cuba — heck, even Iran — all have state-owned broadcasters. These are all — as the conservative radio tweeter above said — simply “propaganda machines.” How is this different from public broadcasting?

Again, we have the conflation of democratic socialism with the U.S. right’s favorite bogeyman: communism. Y’all really have to stop doing that. 

Public broadcasting in places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden are all modeled after the originator of the concept: Britain and the BBC. Although there have been many British prime ministers — Winston Churchill included — who sought to co-opt the BBC for their government’s purposes, over the past century a legislative firewall has been built to maintain the public broadcaster’s independence from the government of the day. Similar legislation is in place in Canada and other democracies with strong public broadcasters. 

So, how is that working?

Pretty well, according to Reporters Without Borders, the “biggest NGO specializing in the defense of media freedom.”

The organization’s World Press Freedom Index ranks media freedom in every country in the world. The top five countries (all Nordic and northern European countries — and all social democracies) have strong public broadcasters. In case you’re wondering, Canada scores 16th on the list. The U.S. scores 45th out of 180 countries. 

Public broadcasting — real public broadcasting, with taxpayers’ skin in the game — seems to be working pretty damned well in Canada and other places in the world. (As an interesting side note, the Reporters without Borders ranking of countries bears more than a little resemblance to US News’ Quality of Life Index). 

You should think differently about public broadcasting, because the biggest problem facing journalism in the U.S. isn’t socialism or government propaganda. It’s capitalism. 

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.