“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Long ago, in a world where newspapers defined journalism, in what seems now a lifetime away, I labored at Alaska’s largest daily, and there it was rather common to field the phone calls of disgruntled readers.
Journalism at its best is an error-filled business. There were good reasons that journalist Alan Barth 79 years ago defined the trade as “the first rough draft of history,” and it is often a very rough draft.
Alaskans, some being picky and detail obsessed, daily found undotted I’s, uncrossed T’s, and a lot more wrong in their dead-tree daily, and some of what was wrong was written by me. Not everyone at the old Anchorage Daily News liked to take calls from disgruntled readers, but I sort of enjoyed it.
A journalist learns a lot more from those who disagree than from those who want to pat him on the back and tell him what a good job he is doing. But maybe this is just a reflection of the way I was brought up in a world where a good job was to be expected and not something worthy of praise.
Whatever the case, I learned a lot from newspaper readers over the years, and I also learned that a lot of them had trouble distinguishing opinion from fact.
As Mark Twain, arguably the greatest of all American writers, once observed: “We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is public opinion. It is held in reverence. Some think it the voice of God.”
Public opinion then as public opinion now was prone to root itself in partisan camps that reinforced feeling rather than thinking and buttressed the end result as the voice of God. Thus, I enjoyed many a discussion wherein the argument as to whether a fact was indeed a fact boiled down to “well, you’re one of those liberal journalists.”
And I was, and still am in that now seemingly forgotten sense of a belief in freedom of expression, an acceptance of a wide diversity of opinions, and a recognition of capitalism as the less unjust of all the unjust economic systems.
Or, as The Economist magazine put it four years ago in its “manifesto for renewing liberalism,” “not the leftish ‘progressivism’ of American university campuses or the rightish ‘ultraliberalism’ conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”
Thus my conversations with readers sometimes went round-and-round about what they believed (which is opinion, and we all have them) and what could be proven (which is something science and or the law can sometimes but not always do), and often ended with this observation:
“Obviously, we’re going to have to agree to disagree here, and the great thing about America is that you’re free to believe whatever you want to believe even if you’re wrong.”
The great thing
I have been thinking a lot lately about that “great thing.”
Every journalist in these times should be, but it seems some have lost sight of the idea that being allowed to believe whatever you want to believe is the cornerstone of any democracy. The founders of this country, many of them having fled across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of North America because they practiced religions considered purveyors of vile misinformation in Europe, understood this fully.
Some who should know better now seem to have forgotten.
When the Biden administration set up its now-paused and hopefully dead “Disinformation Governance Board,” the Washington Post tried to portray opposition to this sort of government intrusion on free thought and free speech as some sort of lefty-right issue.
“Amid growing anti-censorship fervor on the right, a bevy of Republicans have suggested that the initiative amounts to policing speech. Elon Musk declared it “messed up.” Many on the right likened it to the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s book ‘1984,’” reported the Post’s Aaron Blake.
His story made the “perhaps unfortunately named board,” as he described it, as innocent as anyone could make it out to be. And this from a reporter at the newspaper that became famous for printing the Pentagon Papers back in the days when a big, “bad” government was trying to censor the news or, in today’s terms, keep disinformation from leaking out.
Now we have a big, “good” government wanting to stamp out disinformation on an even broader scale.
Maybe we can blame some of this on the 1973 elimination of the draft, which ensured well-educated white boys and their girlfriends no longer needed to worry about being pulled into military service to fight wars in foreign countries if their mommies and daddies lacked the political pull to somehow find them sanctuary.
With the draft gone, obviously the only things an ever bigger government can do are the well-meaning things, right? And the Biden administration’s Disinformation Governance Board is the definition of well-meaning things.
So let me be clear about one thing before continuing. It’s doubtful anyone hates disinformation more than I do. I’ve long held a dislike for liars that borders on the pathological. It caused some conflicts with friends and colleagues over the years when the liars were friends of friends or “important” people or others, including journalists, who were for some reason to be excused for their lying.
The ability of the human-animal to rationalize the wrong into the right is amazing as we have most recently experienced with former President Donald Trump. It was simply astounding the number of intelligent people I heard say during his tenure that “you can’t judge him by what he says, you have to judge him by what he does.”
This was a little like saying, “he cheats at golf, but it’s OK because he always wins.”
One might have hoped we’d be done with this when Trump was voted out of office, but instead we got the frontman for Biden Inc. claiming he had nothing to with all those Bidens taking advantage of his name as part of the family business and some in the media (can you say New York Times?) covering for it because they so detested Trump’s lying ways.
Trump also inspired the mainstream media to set off on its wild, “fact-checking” goose chase. If there has been a dumber exercise in journalism in my lifetime, I don’t know what it is.
Journalistic fact-checkers have become the Hare Krishnas of American airports from back in the bad old days. Their stridency sometimes makes you want to believe in anything that you can conclude to be their opposite.
Preaching to the public is working so well that the Boston Globe in April reported “eye-popping results” from a poll that found all of its ranting about global warming over the last several years resulted in “the share of Massachusetts residents who think climate change is a “very serious” issue has decreased by five percent since 2019.”
“As someone who is, to put it lightly, very freaked out about climate change, I found some of these results concerning,” reporter Dharna Noor added.
First off, maybe this drop in concern shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise given that Covid-19 came along between 2019 and now, and when you’re worried about surviving the year ahead thanks to a lot of media fear-mongering about a new infectious disease it’s hard to get as concerned about what a lot of media fear-mongers are warning you might happen 20 years down the road.
And, no, this is not climate change denial. The planet is warming, and it is clear it is going to make life more uncomfortable in the middle latitudes while maybe a little more comfortable in the northern latitudes, and adaptation at all latitudes will likely get more complicated if not more difficult.
That said, our ancestors who might be considered a pretty “primitive” lifeform compared to what we’ve evolved into in the 21st Century, managed to survive the Pleistocene glaciation. and then began to flourish as it started to come to an end about 18,000 years ago.
By then, scientists have concluded now, someone had managed to turn a wolf into the first dog, and thus the concept of domestication was born to set the stage for all that was to follow.
The hunter-gatherers who roamed the land would eventually lose out to the farmers who occupied the land. Farmers needing tools would pave the path toward the Industrial Revolution. And with agriculture and manufacturing ever-evolving the global population would start to explode despite the seemingly never-ending efforts of the tribes to kill each other.
We are a strange species prone to go to war too often and to lie regularly on the road to that end. Then again, one might argue that lying is simly in our nature.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse in 2021 had 632 volunteers track their daily lies and concluded most people only like one or two times per day. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2012 tracked people’s conversations and concluded “that 60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies.”
Part of the difference between these studies might be in how one defines a lie. U.S. Covid-czar Anthony Fauci lied about masks and then lied about lying about masks, and the USA Today “fact checkers” offer a lesson in when a lie is not a lie depending on how you define the word “lie.”
“In Asia during the SARS period, many people in the affected communities wore surgical masks when in public. But studies have shown that the ordinary surgical mask does little to prevent inhalation of small droplets bearing influenza virus. The pores in the mask become
blocked by moisture from breathing, and the air stream simply diverts around the mask.
“There are few data available to support the efficacy of N95 or surgical masks outside a healthcare setting. N95 masks need to be fit-tested to be efficacious and are uncomfortable to wear for more than an hour or two. More important, the supplies of such masks are too limited to even ensure that hospitals will have necessary reserves.”
Thus Fauci told the truth to someone who asked him about masks at the start of the pandemic, and then lied about that later after telling people to wear masks claiming he’d been influenced by new data of which there was little to none.
Mainly there were “models,” and the pandemic guide specifically warned about the risks of following them:
“No model, no matter how accurate its epidemiologic assumptions, can illuminate or predict the secondary and tertiary effects of particular disease mitigation measures. Nor,
for example, can it assess the potential effects of high absentee rates resulting from home or regional quarantine on the functioning integrity of essential services, such as hospital care or provision of food and electrical service to the community.
“If particular measures are applied for many weeks or months, the long-term or cumulative second- and third-order effects could be devastating socially and economically. In brief, models can play a contributory role in thinking through possible mitigation measures, but they cannot be more than an ancillary aid in deciding policy.”
The good lie
“Aside from whether it’s right to tell noble lies in the service of eliciting socially beneficial behavior, there is also the question of efficacy,” wrote Kerrington Paul and Vinay Prasad. “Experts on infectious diseases are not necessarily experts on social behavior. Even if we accept Fauci’s claim that he downplayed the importance of wearing masks because he didn’t want to unleash a run on masks, we might wonder how he knew that his noble lie would be more effective than simply being honest and explaining to people why it was important to assure an adequate supply of masks for medical workers (early in the pandemic).”
Sure it might have been better to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but a little fibbing here is a better way to look heroic, isn’t it? It’s understandable, too. Almost everyone reading this has fudged some story at some point in their life. I don’t think I’ve met a male who didn’t claim to have been a just slightly better athlete (or sometimes a lot more than just slightly) back in high school.
And the U.S. government has a rich tradition of telling “noble lies.” The Gulf of Tonkin attack was a whopper, and it led the country into the Vietnam War. But don’t take my word for it. Take it from the U.S. Naval Institute and Naval History Magazine in 2008:
“Questions about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents have persisted for more than 40 years. But once-classified documents and tapes released in the past several years, combined with previously uncovered facts, make clear that high government officials distorted facts and deceived the American public about events that led to full U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.”
This is the kind of misinformation about which every American should be most worried, and yet somehow the big concern of today is about people blathering on social media.
Sad to say, this is what people do.
Before social media, they did it bars. When the bar talk moved to the internet, a reporter by the name of Hal Spencer described it as “the chattering of 10,000 thousand squirrels” and suggested reporters ignore it.
Now, it’s the chattering of 10 billion squirrels and reporters quote the chattering, especially that originating on Twitter, as if it had some meaning. Much of it is a lot of nonsense, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
What truly separates democratic states from totalitarian ones is that the former allow the free exchange of all ideas, including the nonsensical ones. Then they put faith in the masses to sort the pure blather from the fragments of truth as regards societal issues and act accordingly.
Totalitarian states believe the dumb-ass masses can’t be trusted and shut down all the “misinformation,” which is easily defined in totalitarian states. It is any information the people in power don’t want people to hear.
Some people like totalitarian states, most especially the people benefitting from the power of their rule. The-not-always-so-United States of America has run up against these power-driven totalitarian urges in the past.
The “Red Scare” of the 1950s made the late Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin a celebrity and wrecked a lot of lives in an effort to stomp out what were portrayed as subversive Communist influences in this country as if post-World War II Americans were lining up to lower their standard of living to comply with any political ideology.
The latter fact was, of course, overlooked by a media that helped provide traction for Tail-gunner Joe’s hunt for the enemies of the state. This is not because the media is inherently bad. It was no worse in McCarthy’s day than it is now, and no better.
The media is more mercurial than anything.
Sometimes the people running it do the right thing, and sometimes the people running it do the wrong thing. In this respect, the free press is a lot like a firearm.
Sometimes it can save a life or a reputation; other times it can wreck one. The cost of freedom is that we all have to live with this imperfect system because there are no perfect systems that ensure freedom.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – “the Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” – and the Second Amendment – “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – have more in common than some people would like to think.
The media helped lead the country into Vietnam, where a lot of young American men died for no good reason, and the media helped lead the country out of Vietnam.
The men who wrote the Constitution (and yes, they were men; and maybe women could have done a better job) seem to have been far more aware of the tradeoffs to and fragility of democracy than many in the country today.
Democracy is a tough thing to sustain because it depends on both freedom of speech and some level of tolerance between the tribes, and people may well be genetically programmed toward intolerance. Intolerance – in the form of opposition to some “other” – is historically what has bound tribes together.
The U.S history of wars – with the glaring exception of the Civil War – long served to help bind Americans into one tribe. But it has been a long time now since the country was engaged in a visible war.
The disaster of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, which brought a temporary coalescence, happened more than two decades ago. The battles fought since then have been movie versions of war – the “shock and awe” of Kuwait and the Iraq invasion – or invisible wars contested in faraway places by a volunteer army removed from the public mainstream.
Lacking a common enemy, Americans have turned to fighting each other.
As evidenced by the polls on the credibility of the mainstream media splitting 180 degrees between Republicans and Democrats, the country is clearly more divided today than it was during the Vietnam era, and the intellectual class seems to have lost all faith in the common man.
Thus the desire for that Disinformation Governance Board to protect people from themselves because the Average Jane and Joe lacks the capacity to cut through all the babble to get at the “truth.”
Unfortunately, this is a turn onto the road of eventual death for democracy. That the U.S. has survived for more than 200 years does not negate the fact that freedoms Americans now expect could someday disappear.
Consider the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) and the rise of Russian democracy early in the 1990s.
“Just six years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and four years after the collapse of the USSR, there are now 19 democracies among the 27 countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (70 percent),” Freedom House reported in 1996. “There are 25 democracies among the 52 countries of the Asia/Pacific region (48 percent)….That 61 percent of all countries and nearly 55 percent of the world’s population live under governments and legislatures elected in generally free and fair political processes represents a landmark shift. Today it is the expectation of the clear majority of citizens that their governments be accountable to them through regular elections.”
That didn’t last long.
Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, “scholars argue over the degree of dictatorship that has taken hold, but no one classifies Russia as a democracy today,” Michael McFaul observed in The Journal of Democracy last fall, before Russia invaded Ukraine.
“In the third and fourth waves of democratization, Russia’s democratic collapse must rank as one of the most consequential setbacks. What happened?”
Well one thing that happened was that Vladamir Putin was elected, and following in the footsteps of all successful dictators he immediately moved to seize control of information or, in his view, eliminate misinformation.
Putin, McFaul wrote, “first seized control over national television networks, understanding that these assets played an essential role in delivering electoral success in the 1999 parliamentary elections and his presidential election in 2000. Ironically, Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch who vigorously supported Yeltsin’s choice of Putin, fled after Putin’s election and surrendered control of the country’s largest television network, ORT, to the Kremlin.
“Businessman Vladimir Gusinsky also emigrated, eventually losing his television company NTV and other assets. Putin moved to further weaken oligarchic power with the arrest in 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest person at the time, who was funding political parties and individuals disloyal to the Kremlin. By the time Putin was reelected in March 2004, his power was significantly more concentrated than it had been four years prior.”
And today, by all reports, “disinformation” is largely dead in Russia. There is but good, solid, reliable, government information.
On Tuesday, the government news agency TASS was reporting that “the United States is actively attracting militants of the international terrorist organization Islamic State (outlawed in Russia) in the capacity of mercenaries, the chief of the foreign intelligence service SVR’s press bureau, Sergey Ivanov, said.
“Ivanov recalled that in April 2022 US secret services played a role in the release of about 60 Islamic State militants aged 20-25 from Syrian Kurds-controlled jails. The militants were then moved to the area of the US military base Al-Tanf, in Syria, near the border with Jordan and Iraq, for combat training and eventual relocation to Ukraine. According to the SVR’s sources, the aforesaid military bases and its environs have long become a terrorist hub, where up to 500 Islamic State militants and other jihadists loyal to Washington undergo retraining simultaneously.”
This sort of report, if nothing else, illustrates one thing, a lack of misinformation can be even worse than misinformation unless you are the person in charge. In that case, it looks like it works pretty well.
The latest polling in Russia (finds) “that 81 percent of respondents approved of Russia’s ‘special military operation,’ while President Putin’s approval rating had increased to 83 percent,” The Interpreter, an Australian-based website, is reporting.
The website notes the accuracy of polling in totalitarian countries is often difficult to assess but adds that the results are “not implausible.
“For a start, they reflect the Kremlin’s near-total dominance of the public information space in Russia. Independent media has either closed down or been crushed, so for many Russians there is only one source of news: state-run or controlled media, especially television, on which most older Russians, and those living outside Moscow and St Petersburg, rely for information.”
President Joe Biden, with an approval rating now at 39 percent, has to be envious. If I was him, I’d probably also want to control everything I thought disinformation, too. But that’s a tough task in this country.
Even if you co-op the country’s mainstream media, and the Biden administration has done a pretty good job there, there’s that problem of social media and some opposition media that just won’t shut up.
NPR’s Morning Edition Friday blamed the latter for the temporary closure of the Disinformation Board, headlining that “after a discrediting campaign, DHS pauses a board created to combat disinformation,” as if combating disinformation was an inherenlty good thing for governments to do.
The show included an exchange between NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond and Nina Jankowicz, the board’s former leader, that can only be described as fawning. Bond to Jankowicz:
“I mean, I’m so sorry this has happened to you. As an expert in disinformation, given the work this board was supposed to accomplish, you know, how has this experience changed the way you see the challenge of disinformation and, you know, the challenge of how governments can and should respond to it?”
The presumption there is that it is government’s job to wipe out disinformation in a democracy. It’s not. It’s not thegovernment’s job at all.
It’s the job of individuals Americans to sort through all the informatin – diss, miss and accurate – decide what it is he or she wants to believe, and act accordingly. And the answer to disinformation isn’t to wipe it out, but to provide better and more trusted information.
One would think the country’s media leaders would understand this. But instead they’ve been leading the banging of the misinformation war drum.
Maybe it is time they dump their incessant and misguided fact-checking, stop their proselytizing, and focus on providing people as much solid information as they can from all points of view so that people can form their own opinions.
Granted, media leaders might not always like the conclusions people reach. If, for instance, you’re a commercial fishermen in Alaska Bristol Bay with a self-interest in making money, global warming is looking awfully good at the moment. But this is the way democracy works.
People get to be exposed to all kinds of information, and they get to pick and choose what they want to believe. To reach for some God-like role for the government wherein it decides in any way what is or isn’t fit for Americans to hear is to abandon one fundamental belief in American democracy.
And what’s truly crazy is that some of the country’s intelligencia, and too much of the American media, appear to want to go there.