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.

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.

How to Look Past the Nearest Crisis

I was talking to someone the other day who was trying to make plans for 2021. Those plans were dependent on the plans of others. In the course of our conversation, she said something interesting: “It’s so hard to plan because most of the people I’m talking to can’t see past COVID.” 

If anything sums up our current reality, it might be that. We’re all having a lot of trouble seeing past COVID. Or the upcoming U.S. election. Or catastrophic weather events. Or an impending economic crisis. Take your pick. There are so many looming storm clouds on the horizon that it’s difficult to even make out that horizon any more. 

We humans are pretty dependent on the past to tell us what may be happening in the future. We evolved in an environment that — thanks to its stability — was reasonably predictable. In evolutionary survival terms, it was smart to hedge our bets on the future by glancing over our shoulders at the past. If a saber-toothed tiger was likely to eat you yesterday, the odds were very much in favor of it also wanting to eat you tomorrow. 

But our ability to predict things gets thrown for a loop in the face of uncertainty like we’re currently processing. There are just too many variables forced into the equation for us to be able to rely on what has happened in the past. Both the number of variables and the range of variation pushes our prediction probability of error past the breaking point. 

When it comes to planning for the future, we become functionally paralyzed and start living day to day, waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.” 

The bigger problem, however, is that when the world is going to hell in a hand basket, we don’t realize that the past is a poor foundation on which to build our future. Evolved habits die hard, and so we continue to use hindsight to try to move forward. 

And by “we,” I mean everyone — most especially the leaders we elect and the experts we rely on to point us in the right direction.  Many seem to think that a post-COVID world will snap back to be very much like a pre-COVID world.

And that, I’m afraid, may be the biggest problem. You’d think that when worrying about an uncertain future is above our pay grade, there would be someone wiser and smarter than us to rely on and save our collective asses. But if common folk tend to consistently bet on the past as a guide to our future, it’s been shown that people we think of as “experts” double down on that bet. 

A famous study by Philip Tetlock showed just how excruciatingly awful experts were at predicting the future. He assembled a group of 284 experts and got them to make predictions about future events, including those that fell into their area of expertise. Across the board, he found their track record of being correct was only slightly ahead of a random coin toss or a troupe of chimpanzees throwing darts. The more famous the expert, the worse their track record.

Expertise is rooted in experience. Both words spring from the same root: The Latin experiri for “try.” Experience is gained in the past. For experts, their worth comes from their experience in one particular area, so they are highly unlikely to ignore it when predicting the future. They are like the hedgehog in Isiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and The Fox“: They “know one important thing.”

But when it comes to predicting the future, Tetlock found it’s better to be a fox: to “know many little things.” In a complex, highly uncertain world, it’s the generalist  who thrives. 

The reason is pretty simple. In an uncertain world, we have to be more open to sense making in the classic cognitive sense. We have to be attuned to the signals that are playing out in real time and not be afraid to consider new information that may conflict with our current beliefs.

This is how generalists operate. It’s also how science is supposed to operate. Our view of the future should be no more than a hypothesis that we’re willing to have proven wrong. Hedgehogs dig in when their expertise about “one big thing” is questioned. Foxes use it as an opportunity to update their take on reality. 

Foxes have another advantage over hedgehogs. They tend to be dilettantes, spreading their interest over a wide range of topics without diving too deeply into any of them. This keeps their network diverse and expansive, giving them the opportunity to synthesize their sense of reality from the broadest range of signals possible. 

In a world that depends on being nimble enough to shift directions depending on the input your receive, this stacks the odds in favor of the fox. 

Still, it’s against human nature to be so cavalier about our future. We like certainty. We crave predictability. We are big fans of transparent causes and effects. If those things are clouded by complexity and uncertainty, we start constructing our own narratives. Hence the current spike of conspiracy theories, as I noted previously. This is especially true when the stakes are as high as they are now. 

I don’t blame those having a very hard time looking past COVID — or any other imminent disaster. But someone should be. 

It’s time to start honing those fox instincts. 

Tired of Reality? Take 2 Full-Strength Schitt’s Creeks

“Schitt’s Creek” stormed the Emmys by winning awards in every comedy series category — a new record. It was co-creators Dan and Eugene Levy’s gift to the world: a warm bowl of hot cultural soup, brimming with life-affirming values, acceptance and big-hearted Canadian corniness.

It was the perfect entertainment solution to an imperfect time. It was good for what ails us.

It’s not the first time we’ve turned to entertainment for comfort. In fact, if there is anything as predictable as death and taxes, it’s that during times of trial, we need to be entertained.

There is a direct correlation between feel-good fantasy and feeling-shitty reality. The worse things get, the more we want to escape it.

But the ways we choose to be entertained have changed. And maybe — just maybe — the media channels we’re looking to for our entertainment are adding to the problem. 

The Immersiveness of Media

A medium’s ability to distract us from reality depends on how much it removes us from that reality.

Our media channels have historically been quite separate from the real world. Each channel offered its own opportunity to escape. But as the technology we rely on to be entertained has become more capable of doing multiple things, that escape from the real world has become more difficult.

Books, for example, require a cognitive commitment unlike any other form of entertainment. When we read a book, we — in effect — enter into a co-work partnership with the author. Our brains have to pick up where theirs left off, and we together build a fictional world to which we can escape. 

As the science of interpreting our brain’s behavior has advanced, we have discovered that our brains actually change while we read.

Maryanne Wolf explains in her book, “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”: “Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. . . . Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be reshaped by experience.”

Even movies, which dramatically lowered the bar for the cognitive commitments they ask by supplying content specifically designed for two of our senses, do so by immersing us in a dedicated single-purpose environment. The distraction of the real world is locked outside the theater doors.

But today’s entertainment media platforms not only live in the real world, they are the very same platforms we use to function in said world. They are our laptops, our tablets, our phones and our connected TVs.

It’s hard to ignore that world when the flotsam and jetsam of reality is constantly bumping into us. And that brings us to the problem of the multitasking myth.

Multitasking Anxiety

The problem is not so much that we can’t escape from the real world for a brief reprise in a fictional one. It’s that we don’t want to. 

Even if we’re watching our entertainment in our home theater room on a big screen, the odds are very good that we have a small screen in our hands at the same time. We mistakenly believe we can successfully multitask, and our mental health is paying the price for that mistake.

Research has found that trying to multitask brings on a toxic mix of social anxiety, depression, a lessening of our ability to focus attention, and a sociopsychological impairment that impacts our ability to have rewarding relationships. 

When we use the same technology to be entertained that we use to stay on top of our social networks we fall prey to the fear of missing out.

It’s called Internet Communication Disorder, and it’s an addictive need to continually scroll through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and our other social media platforms. It’s these same platforms that are feeding us a constant stream of the very things we’re looking to escape from. 

It may be that laughter is the best medicine, but the efficacy of that medicine is wholly dependent on where we get our laughs.

The ability for entertainment to smooth the jagged edges of reality depend on our being able to shift our minds off the track that leads to chronic anxiety and depression — and successfully escape into a fictional kinder, gentler, funnier world.

For entertainment to be a beneficial distraction, we first have to mentally disengage from the real world, and then fully engage in the fictional one.

That doesn’t work nearly as well when our entertainment delivery channel also happens to be the same addictive channel that is constantly tempting us to tiptoe through the anxiety-strewn landscape that is our social media feed. 

In other words, before going to “Schitt’s Creek,” unpack your other shit and leave it behind. I guarantee it will be waiting for you when you get back.

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!