The Seattle Times has caused something of a stir in the world of journalism with a report that Microsoft News is aiming to use computers operating on “artificial intelligence” to replace dozens of people the newspaper described as “news production contractors.”
‘The roughly 50 employees – contracted through staffing agencies Aquent, IFG and MAQ Consulting – were notified Wednesday that their services would no longer be needed beyond June 30,” Geoff Baker reported Friday.
He went on to note that MSN, as it is called, is not exactly a news organization. It’s more a platform for the distribution of news gathered by others.
“Curating stories rather than actually generating them made it easier for MSN to increasingly rely on an automated editing system, though several of the terminated employees expressed skepticism it will work as well with fewer human beings to monitor the technology” is how Baker described the situation.
Skepticism is something most news organizations could use more of. It was once one of the big traits of the best journalists, and it is a big weakness in AI, which forms its thoughts based solely on patterns.
As Wired columnist Clive Thompson observed, “truly humanlike intelligence isn’t just pattern recognition. We need to start figuring out how to imbue AI with everyday common sense, the stuff of human smarts.”
If you ask that little tube-head we call Alexa the simple question of “why aren’t you more skeptical,” her answer is “Here is something I found on the web. According to HealthPages.com, ‘I couldn’t help it.'”
People can help it. They can learn to be skeptical. Some universities actually teach skepticism.
Notre Dame offers a micro-course in “Truth and Skepticism” where students “grapple with the fundamental philosophical question of how we should decide what to believe.”
Journalism was once all about this. A key part of the job was sorting out who was telling some semblance of the truth – whether you agreed with it or not – and who was pedaling make-believe. Old-school journalists were proud of what were bluntly called their “bullshit detectors.”
And let’s be clear here that we’re talking about skepticism not cynicism – a curse placed on some of those same old-school journalists.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines cynicism as “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.”
Skepticism shucks the “jaded negativity” and tempers the general distrust into “a doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind.”
Late President Ronald Reagan succinctly summed skepticism when he stole the old Russian proverb “trust but verify” to describe U.S. policy toward nuclear disarmament agreements with the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
Skepticism, sadly, has been dying in the journalism business for years, and it now sometimes seems so far gone it’s hard to avoid wondering if AI journalism would make things any worse.
Case in point: “Over 10 agonizing days, this migrant worker walked and hitchhiked 1,250 miles home. India’s lockdown left him no choice.”
That is the headline on a CNN story published Sunday. It was pointed out by a cyclist who has pedaled the 1,000 miles of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail on a fatbike and knows how hard it is to cover such a distance.
“This story is embarrassing from CNN,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “The title says that they also hitchhiked, but the story says they walked most of the 1,250 mile journey in 10 days.”
Is this even humanly possible?
Well, let’s do what skeptics do and unpack the math. To go 1,250 miles in 10 days, you’d have to cover 125 miles per day. That’s the equivalent of almost five marathons per day for 10 straight days.
The story is very dramatic. This is how it starts:
“Rajesh Chouhan had covered 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in five days. His legs were swollen and his blisters had burst. A piece of Styrofoam trash he’d found on the roadside was soaking up the pus seeping from his feet.
“But he didn’t stop walking. He couldn’t.
“The 26-year-old migrant worker was in the heart of India and only halfway home.”
Is there any way to read these three paragraphs other than to suggest Chouhan walked these first 620 miles?
Never mind that Styrofoam doesn’t “soak up” anything. Styrofoam is the stuff from which plastic coffee cups are made. They are nonabsorbent by design.
But back to the monster trek. What if one assumes, Chouhan walked the first 620 and then hitchhiked the last 630, is that possible?
Six-hundred-twenty miles in five days is 124 miles per day. If Chouhan could keep going 24 hours per day without a bathroom stop or a pause for food or water or sleep, he would need to average 5.2 mph to cover those 124 miles per day.
The only time the story makes mention of Chouhan running is when he flees police for two miles. The average human walking speed is under 3.5 mph. Some people can get up to 4.5 mph before being forced to break into a jog.
A Danish studying looking at exercise and mortality described “light joggers” as people running at a speed of about 5 mph, according to a Live Science summary of the research. For the runners reading this, 5.3 mph would be a pace of 11 minutes and 19 seconds per mile – good enough to translate into a marathon time of 4 hours, 56 minutes and 36 seconds.
If Chouhan were a well-trained runner, it would not be that hard to believe he did 124 miles in one day. The 24-record set by Yiannis Kouros in 1997 covered almost 188.6 miles, according to Ultrarunning magazine.
And plenty of well-trained runners have topped 150 miles in a day. The CNN story describes Chouhan as “a mason on a construction site,” and makes no mention of his doing any training.
Given that, 124 miles per day would be a stretch, and even more so 620 miles in six days
Kouros, who is a unique animal who trained extensively, did it in 1987 when he went 658.6 miles in six days. The only one who has come close since, however, is Joe Fejes, who went 606.2 in 2015, according to Ultrarunner.
So maybe CNN missed the real story?
“Indian mason fleeing pandemic proves to be world’s second-fastest runner over 600 miles!”
Or maybe the headline should read “Indian mason fleeing pandemic proves world’s fastest runner over 1,000 miles.”
It took Kouros 10 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes to cover that distance in 1998. No one has come close since. Even if Chouhan hitchhiked a ride for 250 miles, his 1,000-mile time would be faster.
This said, any reporter or editor with a sense of smell should have recognized this story doesn’t pass the simplest of sniff tests. Instead of sitting on the story, however, CNN editor Jenni Marsh, inflated it on Twitter by removing any reference to a possible assist from hitchhiking.
How could she not recognize how unbelievable the Tweet she was typing describing “the incredible, 1,250 mile walk home?”
It’s math again. Nobody can walk 1,250 miles in 10 days. Somebody might be able to run 1,250-miles in 10 days, but even that is stretching the limits of the possible. Such a run is only possible in the sense that it is not so far beyond what has been previously done to declare it absolutely, positively impossible.
But it would be best be described as unbelievable.
Many things in the Chouhan story could be described that way.
“As temperatures topped 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Chouhan walked about 5 miles (8 kilometers) an hour, taking a brief rest every two hours,” reporter Mohit Rao wrote. “He aimed to complete about 68 miles (110 kilometers) a day. ‘There was temptation to rest or to nap,’ he says. ‘But we were aware that it became more difficult to walk each time we sat down.'”
OK, first off, 68 miles per day doesn’t get Chouhan home in 10 days. It gets him about halfway home in 10 days. Sixty-eight miles per day is a more realistic distance to cover in 24 hours, but one would need to drink a considerable amount of water to avoid dehydration in the 104-degree heat.
The story makes no mention of where Chouhan or those with him were getting water. There clearly were no aid stations along the way to assist him. But there was at least one rest stop.
“By day three… they stopped on the side of National Highway 44, thinking they’d rest for an hour. They slept for eight, oblivious to the din of highway noises and blaring trucks,” the story says.
So there’s eight hours of walking time lost, which means Chouhan’s pace would need to be even faster than 5.3 mph to cover the 1,250 mile distance, but maybe 50 miles or so can be taken off for the hitchhiking.
“…Truckers were asking as much as 2,500 rupees ($33) per person to take them towards Uttar Pradesh,” the story says. ‘They told us that if the police caught them, they would have to pay big penalties. They didn’t want to take the risk without getting paid in return. We had no option but to walk,’ says Chouhan.
“But others were more charitable….A truck driver took pity on their blistered feet and offered them a lift. He was transporting rice across the border and they slept between the gunny sacks, as he drove them around the outskirts of Hyderabad.”
Hyderabad is the fourth largest city in India. Once Chouhan got around it, the story says, his group “had another stroke of luck — a villager took them to a school where NGOs were giving food and water to migrant workers.
“More than 300 migrants were eating when the police arrived.
“‘They started to abuse us,’ Chouhan says. ‘They said we were not following social distancing and we should sit 10 feet from each other. They attempted to disperse the crowd and told the organizers to stop giving out food.’
“But the migrants outnumbered the police. ‘We started to shout back. Some migrant workers even started to push the police, and the police retreated towards their jeep,’ he says. ‘We were angry. They (police) don’t help us at all — they don’t help people help us.'”
This could all be true. Maybe Chouhan was involved in an incident from which police “retreated.” It might make up for the “many” times he says he was “beaten” by police before he began his journey.
The difficult, Third-World living conditions described in the story are almost certainly true, because so many people in India live in such conditions. Many other details could also be true.
There may well be a Rajesh Chouhan in the Indian village of Srinagar Babaganj, and he may well have undertaken a difficult journey home from his job in Bengaluru in the south. And it is a given the COVID-19 pandemic has caused chaos in India as it has caused chaos around the globe.
More than 5,000 people have died there, and almost 94,000 are now ill with COVID-19, according to the latest numbers at Worldometer. The death rate of 4 per million pales compared to the death rate of 321 per million in the U.S., but COVID-19 is a tragedy everywhere. And there are no doubt unique aspects to the pandemic in India.
“There is no official data on deaths due to India’s lockdown, but a volunteer-driven database set up by a group of Indian academics has been tracking local media reports of fatalities as a consequence of the policy,” CNN reported.
“By May 24, it had recorded 667 deaths, of which 244 were migrant workers who died while walking home: either through starvation, exhaustion or in rail and road accidents.”
This is one of the few details in the story easily verified. There is such a website, and the reported death toll is now up to 742.
But as to the rest of the story, it would appear that either the reporter and CNN got played by Chouhan, or the reporter is playing CNN and the world.
If it’s the former, shame on Chouhan. If it’s the latter, shame on CNN, which should have caught the absurdity of the claims contained in the story.
Skepticism; it’s why people are supposed to trust news organizations to sort out some of the world’s crap for them. You’d think the network that once billed itself as “the most trusted name in news” would get it.
Categories: Commentary, Media
If you read this great article, where is skepticism in the comments?
Skepticism is something commenters on Craig’s site could use more of. Day after day comments are canned “tubehead” replies of cynicism “jaded negativity”. There is no skeptical intelligence as pointed out in this article. Only comments brainwashed by the media that mimic the news feed of choice, copying words like a monkey and intonations like a parrot. It is embarrassing to see these commenters don’t even recognize this in themselves only others. It would be funny if it wasn’t tragic to see propaganda at work in these cynical comments that lead to nowhere. Shallow intellect with zero inquiry and zero skepticism on how brainwashed you yourselves sound with out recognizing this. Try inquiry to lead instead of following like a lapdog your tubehead media leaders. Exercise your thinking brains unless you are so brainwashed you no longer have this ability?. Is anyone a free thinker anymore to give intelligent thoughtful and skeptical not cynical replies? Why don’t you try it sometime? Maybe your brains can still break through all the propaganda fed from all sides to cease this incessant lame mimicking and bickering like old gossipers.
Great Job Craig! Clear and thought provoking.
How is one “brainwashed” by facts..All I ever hear from thinking minds such as yourself is “propaganda is fed from both sides”. Nooooo! Because, one side is patriotic American and the other is anti-American. One side is pro-Capitalist and the other is the failed (time and time over) Communist/Socialist/Marxist/Fascist side. One side protests peacefully while the other riots, burns, smashes windows, kills cops, etc.. Maybe the US Constitution, Bill of Rights, is propaganda…Well, I can live with that.. I guess I am brainwashed. Oh well..
Great comment, N. Hiller. Couldn’t agree more. It’s reassuring to know there are some actual readers and thinkers out there. Hopefully you live in AK. And vote.
Pete, pretty sure he is from Takeetna or Anchorage.
I don’t know about all that…
CNN. Nuff said!
Another fine article Craig. I’m one of the people who used to subscribe to both the Anchorage Times and the Anchorage Daily News. I was a news junkie I guess. Now I don’t subscribe to any newspaper online or print version. It’s just too much work to sift through all of the garbage to root out the very well researched and objective articles. At this point I don’t trust ANY main stream news organization with my precious time. That includes not watching TV news or any TV for that matter.
Also, as someone who has completed a few ultra-marathons your analysis of the absurdity of the story of the Indian mason is spot on. I can only guess the reporter(s) was/were more worried about clicks than accuracy.
It’s clicks. It’s ignorance. It’s a desire to save the world. It’s so many things….
And it’s depressing. It is way too much work to decipher the news these days. As a reporter friend put it, “half the time, you have to be a reporter to make sense of the reporting.”
It wasn’t that way back in the days of the Anchorage Times and the Daily News. Both papers did a pretty good job of reporting the who, what, when and where. The differences usually came over the how, and usually if a reader has the first 4W, they can reach their own conclusions as to the how.
Journalism has gone a similar path as the typewriter…
Citizens on the streets are a better source of information than card carrying reporters these days.
Most videos on social media platforms come from average folks witnessing the brutality and police state first hand.
There is essentially a media blackout in over a dozen cities right now across America as National Guard, federal agencies and police use deadly force to stop these riots.
Any journalist who attempts to stay near the frontlines during this Revolt is attacked & arrested by police???
Let’s try this on for skepticism:
“The riots have ripped the mask off the mainstream media politicized coronavirus hysteria. When it was politically convenient, the media shamed and attacked people who wanted to reopen their stores or even gather at the beach,” Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson told Fox News. “Now that rioters and looters are gathering in large numbers, the media no longer cares about social distancing, because the media sympathizes with them.”
These protests around the world of which a vast majority are peaceful, are as much a product of the unconstitutional “lockdown” as they are caused by George Floyd’s murder by Police.
The world has rejected the “China Model” of authoritarian repression and I hope the elite in the White House clearly hear their statement or I believe this will continue.
Well, Steve it seems the Chinese a d Iranians are embracing the “Floyd” model of fascism. Have to disagree with you on the whole “peaceful” part. Trump needs to call in the gunships or at least give them the Tiennaman Square treatment. These are violent leftist mobs who support Communisn, Democrats, Socialism, and Marxism. They are out to destroy America and deserve no restraint or safe passage.
Bryan I vehemently disagree with using extreme violence to counteract the rioting . I cant state it in strong enough terms . The rioters are damn fools . Dishonoring the original cause and abusing their liberties. Their method is not how tge republic works and they are just pawns . They are very little better than the killer police officers. Now if trump makes tge mistake of fighting tge riots with extreme violence he’s stepped into the worst trap that their is and it will make the false Russia investigation look like childs play. All trumps enimies are frothing at tge mouth hoping trump steps in with excessive force. It will be the last straw for trumps presidency and for American democracy in general. Nearly no one will back Trump if he steps into this fabricated trap and embraced Chinese tinimam square or gunship style methods. If you want to promote the destruction of his presidency, keep on talking as you are. Dont you see its a trap ! Pre planned just waiting for an excuse. Pelosi and shift cant wait. Their is zero excuse for the government to use excessive military style force on rioters . Trump will loose the public support if he makes this mistake. His presidency tarnished for eternity.
DPR, well played sir. I concede. Gone are the days of men like Trump who properally dealt with terrorism, looting, rioting, and burning with an iron fist and whom were embraced by civilized man. Now, it is gamesmanship, political correctness, and fluff regardless whether right or wrong.
Say there is a rogue, habituated bear eating all your chickens and breaking into your house while destroying everything. All the while you have liberal, PETA neighbors. Would leave the house and check into a motel out of fear of offending your neighbors or would you deal decisively with the problem. Which, in both cases is to kill the ferrel beasts.
But, I digress. Trump sadly needs to let them have fun, burn the place down and throw federal terrorism charges at them. Now just remember, this soft glove approach will mean the difference between us being ruled by China in the future or not.
If Donald Trump or Bill Barr really wanted to stop the protests/riots, they could have announced federal murder charges on the 4 men who took part in the murder of George Floyd…as it stands 3 officers have not been charged and Derek Chauvin very well may be acquitted. The public knows this and this is why they are out on the streets across the globe.
I just watched a video of peaceful protesters getting kettled onto a hill then assaulted with a barrage of tear gas from state police…these are not rioters targeted tonight in America, but anyone who dares to step outside during a government imposed curfew.
First we had lockdowns, then social distancing, now we have 6pm curfews and thousands of military soldiers with automatic weapons patroling the streets of America.
This is Fascism plan and simple!
Steve, I agree with you on the whole Covid thing, but the soldiers are there to counter organized, militant anarchy. Dealing with this scourge is not fascism. These aren’t protestors. They are a product of Obama’s school of Community Organizing+Agitating. This is 100% funded by leftist groups and Soros. These are dangerous people and should be dealt with accordingly.
Well, what is clear is the “Lame-Stream media” are nothing more than propaganda arms of the Democrat Party. Just another Pravda or Chinese State Run “media”. The real problem is half of America are too stupid and believe everything they read or hear. The dumbing down of America has been a constant beat over the last 20-30yrs.
All by design of our Communist/Marxist education system and yet, here we are “surprised”. Take this whole rioting nonsense. 3x more whites in this country are killed by cops than blacks. Oops! Can’t say that. Whelp, peace out, off to go riot for my white thug brother’s killed by cops. After all, we are tired of all this systematic racism – RIGHT???
Here lies the problem “. ‘We were angry. They (police) don’t help us at all — they don’t help people help us.’”