Radicalism and the Death of Discourse

Gaussian political spectrum
Most Americans prefer to be in the middle of the political spectrum, but most of the noise comes from the far right and far left.

7 November 2018 – During the week of 22 October 2018 two events dominated the news: Cesar Sayoc mailed fourteen pipe bombs to prominent individuals critical of Donald Trump, and Robert Bowers shot up a synagogue because he didn’t like Jews. Both of these individuals identified themselves with far-right ideology, so the media has been full of rhetoric condemning far-right activists.

To be legally correct, I have to note that, while I’ve written the above paragraph as if those individuals’ culpability for those crimes is established fact, they (as of this writing) haven’t been convicted. It’s entirely possible that some deus ex machina will appear out of the blue and exonerate one or both of them.

Clearly, things have gotten out of hand with Red Team activists when they start “throwing” pipe bombs and bullets. But, I’m here to say “naughty, naughty” to both sides.

Both sides are culpable.

I don’t want you to interpret that last sentence as agreement with Donald Trump’s idiotic statement after last year’s Charlottesville incident that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

There aren’t “very fine people” on both sides. Extremists are “bad” people no matter what side they’re on.

For example, not long ago social media sites (specifically Linkedin and, especially, Facebook) were lit up with vitriol about the Justice Kavanaugh hearings by pundits from both the Red Team and the Blue Team. It got so hot that I was embarrassed!

Some have pointed out that, statistically, most of the actual violence has been perpetrated by the Red Team.

Does that mean the Red Team is more culpable than the Blue Team?

No. It means they’re using different weapons.

The Blue Team, which I believe consists mainly of extremists from the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has traditionally chosen written and spoken words as their main weapon. Recall some of the political correctness verbiage used to attack free expression in the late 20th Century, and demonstrations against conservative speakers on college campuses in our own.

The Red Team, which today consists of the Trumpian remnants of the Republican Party, has traditionally chosen to throw hard things, like rocks, bullets and pipe bombs.

Both sides also attempt to disarm the other side. The Blue Team wisely attempts to disarm the Red Team by taking away their guns. The Red Team, which eschews anything that smacks of wisdom, tries to disarm the Blue Team by (figuratively, so far) burning their books.

Recognize that calling the Free Press “the enemy of the people” is morally equivalent to throwing books on a bonfire. They’re both attempts to promote ignorance.

What’s actually happening is that the fringes of society are making all of the noise, and the mass of moderate-thinking citizens can’t get a word in edgewise.

George Schultz pointed out: “He who walks in the middle of the roads gets hit from both sides.”

I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that fanatics get to run things because they care enough to put in the effort. Moderates don’t because they don’t.

Both of these pundits point out the sad fact that Nature favors extremes. The most successful companies are those with the highest growth rates. Most drivers exceed the speed limit. The squeaky wheel gets the most grease. And, those who express the most extreme views get the most media attention.

Our Constitution specifies in no uncertain terms that the nation is founded on (small “d”) democratic principles. Democratic principles insist that policy matters be debated and resolved by consensus of the voting population. That can only be done when people meet together in the middle.

Extremists on both the Red Team and Blue Team don’t want that. They treat politics as a sporting event.

In a baseball game, for example, nobody roots for a tie. They root for a win by one team or the other.

Government is not a sporting event.

When one team or the other wins, all Americans lose.

The enemy we are facing now, which is the same enemy democracies face around the world, is not the right or left. It is extremism in general. Always has been. Always will be.

Authoritarians always go for one extreme or the other. Hitler went for the right. Stalin went for the left.

The reason authoritarians pick an extreme is that’s where there are people who are passionate enough about their ideas to shoot anyone who doesn’t agree with them. That, authoritarians realize, is the only way they can become “Dictator for Life.” Since that is their goal, they have to pick an extreme.

We love democracy because it’s the best way for “We the People” to ensure nobody gets to be “Dictator for Life.” When everyone meets in the middle (which is the only place everyone can meet), authoritarians get nowhere.

Ergo, authoritarians love extremes and everyone else needs the middle.

Vilifying “nationalism” as a Red Team vice misses the point. In the U.S. (or any similar democracy), nationalism requires more-or-less moderate political views. There’s lots of room in the middle for healthy (and ultimately entertaining) debate, but very little room at the extremes.

Try going for the middle.

To quote Victor “Animal” Palotti in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film Godzilla: “C’mon. It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun! It’ll be fun!”

Six Tips to Protect Your Vote from Election Meddlers

Theresa Payton headshot
Theresa Payton, cybersecurity expert and CEO of Fortalice Solutions. photo courtesy Fortalice Solutions

6 November 2018 – Below is from a press release I received yesterday (Monday, 11/5) evening. It’s of sufficient import and urgent timing that I decided to post it to this blog verbatim.

There’s been a lot of talk about cybersecurity and whether or not the Trump administration is prepared for tomorrow’s midterm elections, but now that we’re down to the wire, former White House CIO and Fortalice Solutions CEO Theresa Payton says it’s time for voters to think about what they can do to make sure their voices are heard.

Theresa’s six cyber tips for voters ahead of midterms:

  • Don’t zone out while you’re voting. Pay close attention to how you cast your ballot and who you cast your ballot for.

  • Take your time during the review process, and double-check your vote before you finalize it;

  • It may sound cliche, but if you see something say something. If something seems strange, report it to your State Board of Elections immediately;

  • If you see suspicious social media personas pushing information that’s designed to influence (and maybe even misinform) voters, here’s where you can report it:

  • Check your voter registration status before you go to the polls. Voters in 37 states and the District of Columbia can register to vote online. Visit vote.org to find out how to check your registration status in your state;

  • Unless you are a resident of West Virginia or you’re serving overseas in the U.S. military, you cannot vote electronically on your phone. Protect yourself from text messages and email scams that indicate that you can. Knowledge is power.

Finally, trust the system. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s imperfect. But it’s the bedrock of our democracy. If you stay home or lose trust in the legitimacy of the process, our cyber enemies win.

Theresa is one of the nation’s leading experts in cyber security and IT strategy. She is the CEO of Fortalice Solutions, an industry-leading security consulting company. Under President George W. Bush, she served as the first female chief information officer at the White House, overseeing IT operations for POTUS and his staff. She was named #4 on IFSEC Global’s list of the world’s Top 50 cybersecurity influencers in security & fire 2017. See her profiled in the Washington Post for her role on the 2017 CBS reality show “Hunted” here.

News vs. Opinion

News reporting
Journalists report reopening of Lindt cafe in Sydney after ISIS siege, 20 March 2015. M. W. Hunt / Shutterstock.com

26 September 2018 – This is NOT a news story!

Last week I spent a lot of space yammering on about how to tell fake news from the real stuff. I made a big point about how real news organizations don’t allow editorializing in news stories. I included an example of a New York Times op-ed (opinion editorial) that was decidedly not a news story.

On the other hand, last night I growled at my TV screen when I heard a CNN commentator say that she’d been taught that journalists must have opinions and should voice them. I growled because her statement could be construed to mean something anathema to journalistic ethics. I’m afraid way too many TV journalists may be confused about this issue. Certainly too many news consumers are confused!

It’s easy to get confused. For example, I got myself in trouble some years ago in a discussion over dinner and drinks with Andy Wilson, Founding Editor at Vision Systems Design, over a related issue that is less important to political-news reporting, but is crucial for business-to-business (B2B) journalism: the role of advertising in editorial considerations.

Andy insisted upon strictly ignoring advertiser needs when making editorial decisions. I advocated a more nuanced approach. I said that ignoring advertiser needs and desires would lead to cutting oneself off from our most important source of technology-trends information.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into that subject because it has only peripheral significance for this blog posting. The overlap with news reporting is that both activities involve dealing with biased sources.

My disagreement with Andy arose from my veteran-project-manager’s sensitivity to all stakeholders in any activity. In the B2B case, editors have several ways of enforcing journalistic discipline without biting the hand that feeds us. I was especially sensitive to the issue because I specialized in case studies, which necessarily discuss technology embodied in commercial products. Basically, I insisted on limiting (to one) actual product mentions in each story, and suppressing any claims that the mentioned product was the only possible way to access the embodied technology. In essence, I policed the stories I wrote or edited to avoid the “buy our stuff” messages that advertisers love and that send chills down Andy’s (and my) spine.

In the news-media realm, journalists need to police their writing for “buy our ideas” messages in news stories. “Just the facts, ma’am” needs to be the goal for news. Expressing editorial opinions in news stories is dangerous. That’s when the lines between fake news and real news get blurry.

Those lines need to be sharp to help news consumers judge the … information … they’re being fed.

Perhaps “information” isn’t exactly the right word.

It might be best to start with the distinction between “information” and “data.”

The distinction is not always clear in a general setting. It is, however, stark in the world of science, which is where I originally came from.

What comes into our brains from the outside world is “data.” It’s facts and figures. Contrary to what many people imagine, “data” is devoid of meaning. Scientists often refer to it as “raw data” to emphasize this characteristic.

There is nothing actionable in raw data. The observation that “the sky is blue” can’t even tell you if the sky was blue yesterday, or how likely it is to be blue tomorrow. It just says: “the sky is blue.” End of story.

Turning “data” into “information” involves combining it with other, related data, and making inferences about or deductions from patterns perceivable in the resulting superset. The process is called “interpretation,” and it’s the second step in turning data into knowledge. It’s what our brains are good for.

So, does this mean that news reporters are to be empty-headed recorders of raw facts?

Not by a long shot!

The CNN commentator’s point was that reporters are far from empty headed. While learning their trade, they develop ways to, for example, tell when some data source is lying to them.

In the hard sciences it’s called “instrumental error,” and experimental scientists (as I was) spend careers detecting and eliminating it.

Similarly, what a reporter does when faced with a lying source is the hard part of news reporting. Do you say, “This source is unreliable” and suppress what they told you? Do you report what they said along with a comment that they’re a lying so-and-so who shouldn’t be believed? Certainly, you try to find another source who tells you something you can rely on. But, what if the second source is lying, too?

???

That’s why we news consumers have to rely on professionals who actually care about the truth for our news.

On the other hand, nobody goes to news outlets for just raw data. We want something we can use. We want something actionable.

Most of us have neither the time nor the tools to interpret all the drivel we’re faced with. Even if we happen to be able to work it out for ourselves, we could always use some help, even if just to corroborate our own conclusions.

Who better to help us interpret the data (news) and glean actionable opinions from it than those journalists who’ve been spending their careers listening to the crap newsmakers want to feed us?

That’s where commentators come in. The difference between an editor and a reporter is that the editor has enough background and experience to interpret the raw data and turn it into actionable information.

That is: opinion you can use to make a decision. Like, maybe, who to vote for.

People with the chops to interpret news and make comments about it are called “commentators.”

When I was looking to hire what we used to call a “Technical Editor” for Test & Measurement World, I specifically looked for someone with a technical degree and experience developing the technology I wanted that person to cover. So, for example, when I was looking for someone to cover advances in testing of electronics for the telecommunications industry, I went looking for a telecommunications engineer. I figured that if I found one who could also tell a story, I could train them to be a journalist.

That brings us back to the CNN commentator who thought she should have opinions.

The relevant word here is “commentator.”

She’s not just a reporter. To be a commentator, she supposedly has access to the best available “data” and enough background to skillfully interpret it. So, what she was saying is true for a commentator rather than just a reporter.

Howsomever, ya can’t just give a conclusion without showing how the facts lead to it.

Let’s look at how I assemble a post for this blog as an example of what you should look for in a reliable op-ed piece.

Obviously, I look for a subject about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say. Specifically, I look for what I call the “take-home lesson” on which I base every piece of blather I write.

The “take-home lesson” is the basic point I want my reader to remember. Come Thursday next you won’t remember every word or even every point I make in this column. You’re (hopefully) going to remember some concept from it that you should be able to summarize in one or two sentences. It may be the “call to action” my eighth-grade English teacher, Miss Langley, told me to look for in every well-written editorial. Or, it could be just some idea, such as “Racism sucks,” that I want my reader to believe.

Whatever it is, it’s what I want the reader to “take home” from my writing. All the rest is just stuff I use to convince the reader to buy into the “take-home lesson.”

Usually, I start off by providing the reader with some context in which to fit what I have to say. It’s there so that the reader and I start off on the same page. This is important to help the reader fit what I have to say into the knowledge pattern of their own mind. (I hope that makes sense!)

After setting the context, I provide the facts that I have available from which to draw my conclusion. The conclusion will be, of course, the “take-home lesson.”

I can’t be sure that my readers will have the facts already, so I provide links to what I consider reliable outside sources. Sometimes I provide primary sources, but more often they’re secondary sources.

Primary sources for, say, a biographical sketch of Thomas Edison would be diary pages or financial records, which few readers would have immediate access to.

A secondary source might be a well-researched entry on, say, the Biography.com website, which the reader can easily get access to and which can, in turn, provide links to useful primary sources.

In any case, I try to provide sources for each piece of data on which I base my conclusion.

Then, I’ll outline the logical path that leads from the data pattern to my conclusion. While the reader should have no need to dispute the “data,” he or she should look very carefully to see whether my logic makes sense. Does it lead inevitably from the data to my conclusion?

Finally, I’ll clearly state the conclusion.

In general, every consumer of ideas should look for this same pattern in every information source they use.

Noble Whitefoot or Lying Blackfoot?

Fake News feed
How do you know when the news you’re reading is fake? Rawpixel/Shutterstock

19 September 2018 – Back in the mid-1970s, we RPI astrophysics graduate students had this great office at the very top of the Science Building at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.The construction was an exact duplicate of the top floor of an airport control tower, with the huge outward-sloping windows and the wrap-around balcony.

Every morning we’d gather ’round the desk of our compatriot Ron Held, builder of stellar-interior computer models extraordinaire, to hear him read “what fits” from the days issue of The New York Times. Ron had noticed that when taken out of context much of what is written in newspapers sounds hilarious. He had a deadpan way of reading this stuff out loud that only emphasized the effect. He’d modified the Times‘ slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print” into “All the news that fits.”

Whenever I hear unmitigated garbage coming out of supposed news outlets, I think of Ron’s “All the news that fits.”

These days, I’m on a kick about fake news and how to spot it. It isn’t easy because it’s become so pervasive that it becomes almost believable. This goes along with my lifelong philosophical study that I call: “How do we know what we think we know?”

Early on I developed what I call my “BS detector.” It’s a mental alarm bell that goes off whenever someone tries to convince me of something that’s unbelievable.

It’s not perfect. It’s been wrong on a whole lot of occasions.

For example, back in the early 1970s somebody told me about something called “superconductivity,” where certain materials, when cooled to near absolute zero, lost all electrical resistance. My first reaction, based on the proposition that if something sounds too good to be true, it’s not, was: “Yeah, and if you believe that I’ve got this bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn to sell you.”

After seeing a few experiments and practical demonstrations, my BS detector stopped going off and I was able to listen to explanations about Cooper Pairs, and electron-phonon interactions and became convinced. I eventually learned that nearly everything involving quantum theory sounds like BS until you get to understand it.

Another time I bought into the notion that Interferon would develop into a useful AIDS treatment. Being a monogamous heterosexual, I didn’t personally worry about AIDS, but I had many friends who did, so I cared. I cared enough to pay attention, and watch as the treatment just didn’t develop.

Most of the time, however, my BS detector works quite well, thank you, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to divine what sets it off, and what a person can do to separate the grains of truth from the BS pile.

Consider Your Source(s)

There’s and old saying: “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”

First off, never believe anybody whom you’ve caught lying to you in the past. For example, Donald Trump has been caught lying numerous times in the past. I know. I’ve seen video of him mouthing words that I’ve known at the time were incorrect. It’s happened so often that my BS detector goes off so loudly whenever he opens his mouth that the noise drowns out what he’s trying to say.

I had the same problem with Bill Clinton when he was President (he seems to have gotten better, now, but I’m still wary).

Nixon was pretty bad, too.

There’s a lot of noise these days about “reliable sources.” But, who’s a reliable source? You can’t take their word for it. It’s like the old riddle of the lying blackfoot indian and the truthful whitefoot.

Unfortunately, in the real world nobody always lies or always tells the truth, even Donald Trump. So, they can’t be unmasked by calling on the riddle’s answer. If you’re unfamiliar with the riddle, look it up.

The best thing to do is try to figure out what the source’s game is. Everyone in the communications business is selling something. It’s up to you to figure out what they’re selling and whether you want to buy it.

News is information collected on a global scale, and it’s done by news organizations. The New York Times is one such organization. Another is The Wall Street Journal, which is a subsidiary of Dow Jones & Company, a division of News Corp.

So, basically, what a legitimate news organization is selling is information. If you get a whiff that they’re selling anything else, like racism, or anarchy, or Donald Trump, they aren’t a real news organization.

The structure of a news organization is:

Publisher: An individual or group of individuals generally responsible for running the business. The publisher manages the Circulation, Advertising, Production, and Editorial departments. The Publisher’s job is to try to sell what the news organization has to sell (that is, information) at a profit.

Circulation: A group of individuals responsible for recruiting subscribers and promoting sales of individal copies of the news organization’s output.

Advertising: A group of individuals under the direct supervision of the Publisher who are responsible for selling advertising space to individuals and businesses who want to present their own messages to people who consume the news organization’s output.

Production: A group of individuals responsible for packaging the information gathered by the Editorial department into physical form and distributing it to consumers.

Editorial: A group of trained journalists under a Chief Editor responsible for gathering and qualifying information the news organization will distribute to consumers.

Notice the italics on “and qualifying” in the entry on the Editorial Department. Every publication has their self-selected editorial focus. For a publication like The Wall Street journal, whose editorial focus is business news, every story has to fit that editorial focus. A story that, say, affects how readers select stocks to buy or sell is in their editorial focus. A story that doesn’t isn’t.

A story about why Donald Trump lies doesn’t belong in The Wall Street Journal. It belongs in Psychology Today.

That’s why editors and reporters have to be “trained journalists.” You can’t hire just anybody off the street, slap a fedora on their head and call them a “reporter.” That never even worked in the movies. Journalism is a profession and journalists require training. They’re also expected behave in a manner consistent with journalistic ethics.

One of those ethical principles is that you don’t “editorialize” in news stories. That means you gather facts and report those facts. You don’t distort facts to fit your personal opinions. You for sure don’t make up facts out of thin air just ’cause you’d like it to be so.

Taking the example of The Wall Street Journal again, a reporter handed some fact doesn’t know what the reader will do with that fact. Some will do some things and others will do something else. If a reporter makes something up, and readers make business decisions based on that fiction, bad results will happen. Business people don’t like that. They’d stop buying copies of the newspaper. Circulation would collapse. Advertisers would abandon it.

Soon, no more The Wall Street Journal.

It’s the Chief Editor’s job to make sure reporters seek out information useful to their readers, don’t editorialize, and check their facts to make sure nobody’s been lying to them. Thus, the Chief Editor is the main gatekeeper that consumers rely on to keep out fake news.

That, by the way, is the fatal flaw in social media as a news source: there’s no Chief Editor.

One final note: A lot of people today buy into the cynical belief that this vision of journalism is naive. As a veteran journalist I can tell you that it’s NOT. If you think real journalism doesn’t work this way, you’re living in a Trumpian alternate reality.

Bang your head on the nearest wall hoping to knock some sense into it!

So, for you, the news consumer, to guard against fake news, your first job is to figure out if your source’s Chief Editor is trustworthy.

Unfortunately, it’s very seldom that most people get to know a news source’s Chief Editor well enough to know whether to trust him or her.

Comparison Shopping for Ideas

That’s why you don’t take the word of just one source. You comparison shop for ideas the same way you do for groceries, or anything else. You go to different stores. You check their prices. You look at sell-by dates. You sniff the air for stale aromas. You do the same thing in the marketplace for ideas.

If you check three-to-five news outlets, and they present the same facts, you gotta figure they’re all reporting the facts that were given to them. If somebody’s out of whack compared to the others, it’s a bad sign.

Of course, you have to consider the sources they use as well. Remember that everyone providing information to a news organization has something to sell. You need to make sure they’re not providing BS to the news organization to hype sales of their particular product. That’s why a credible news organization will always tell you who their sources are for every fact.

For example, a recent story in the news (from several outlets) was that The New York Times published an opinion-editorial piece (NOT a news story, by the way) saying very unflattering things about how President Trump was managing the Executive Branch. A very big red flag went up because the op-ed was signed “Anonymous.”

That red flag was minimized by the paper’s Chief Editor, Dean Baquet, assuring us all that he, at least, knew who the author was, and that it was a very high official who knew what they were talking about. If we believe him, we figure we’re likely dealing with a credible source.

Our confidence in the op-ed’s credibility was also bolstered by the fact that the piece included a lot of information that was available from other sources that corroborated it. The only new piece of information, that there was a faction within the White House that was acting to thwart the President’s worst impulses, fitted seamlessly with the verifiable information. So, we tend to believe it.

As another example, during the 1990s I was watching the scientific literature for reports of climate-change research results. I’d already seen signs that there was a problem with this particular branch of science. It had become too political, and the politicians were selling policies based on questionable results. I noticed that studies generally were reporting inconclusive results, but each article ended with a concluding paragraph warning of the dangers of human-induced climate change that did not fit seamlessly with the research results reported in the article. So, I tended to disbelieve the final conclusions.

Does It Make Sense to You?

This is where we all stumble when ferreting out fake news. If you’re pre-programmed to accept some idea, it won’t set off your BS detector. It won’t disagree with the other sources you’ve chosen to trust. It will seem reasonable to you. It will make sense, whether it’s right or wrong.

That’s a situation we all have to face, and the only antidote is to do an experiment.

Experiments are great! They’re our way of asking Mommy Nature to set us on the right path. And, if we ask often enough, and carefully enough, she will.

That’s how I learned the reality of superconductivity against my inbred bias. That’s how I learned how naive my faith in interferon had been.

With those cautions, let’s look at how we know what we think we know.

It starts with our parents. We start out truly impressed by our parents’ physical and intellectual capabilities. After all, they can walk! They can talk! They can (in some cases) do arithmetic!

Parents have a natural drive to stuff everything they know into our little heads, and we have a natural drive to suck it all in. It’s only later that we notice that not everyone agrees with our parents, and they aren’t necessarily the smartest beings on the planet. That’s when comparison shopping for ideas begins. Eventually, we develop our own ideas that fit our personalities.

Along the way, Mommy Nature has provided a guiding hand to either confirm or discredit our developing ideas. If we’re not pathological, we end up with a more or less reliable feel for what makes sense.

For example, almost everybody has a deep-seated conviction that torturing pets is wrong. We’ve all done bad things to pets, usually unintentionally, and found it made us feel sad. We don’t want to do it again.

So, if somebody advocates perpetrating cruelty to animals, most of us recoil. We’d have to be given a darn good reason to do it. Like, being told “If you don’t shoot that squirrel, there’ll be no dinner tonight.”

That would do it.

Our brains are full up with all kinds of ideas like that. When somebody presents us with a novel idea, or a report of something they suggest is a fact, our first line of defense is whether it makes sense to us.

If it’s unbelievable, it’s probably not true.

It could still be true, since a lot of unbelievable stuff actually happens, but it’s probably not. We can note it pending confirmation by other sources or some kind of experimental result (like looking to see the actual bloody mess).

But, we don’t buy it out of hand.

Nobody Gets It Completely Right

As Dr. Who (Tom Baker) once said: “To err is computer. To forgive is fine.”

The real naive attitude about news, which I used to hear a lot fifty or sixty years ago is, “If it’s in print, it’s gotta be true.”

Reporters, editors and publishers are human. They make mistakes. And, catching those mistakes follows the 95:5 rule.That is, you’ll expend 95% of your effort to catch the last 5% of the errors. It’s also called “The Law of Diminishing Returns,” and it’s how we know to quit obsessing.

The way this works for the news business is that news output involves a lot of information. I’m not going to waste space here estimating the amount of information (in bits) in an average newspaper, but let’s just say it’s 1.3 s**tloads!

It’s a lot. Getting it all right, then getting it all corroborated, then getting it all fact checked (a different, and tougher, job than just corroboration), then putting it into words that convey that information to readers, is an enormous task, especially when a deadline is involved. It’s why the classic image of a journalist is some frazzled guy wearing a fedora pushed back on his head, suitcoat off, sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, maniacally tapping at a typewriter keyboard.

So, don’t expect everything you read to be right (or even spelled right).

The easiest things to get right are basic facts, the Who, What, Where, and When.

How many deaths due to Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico? Estimates have run from 16 to nearly 3,000 depending on who’s doing the estimating, what axes they have to grind, and how they made the estimate. Nobody was ever able to collect the bodies in one place to count them. It’s unlikely that they ever found all the bodies to collect for the count!

Those are the first four Ws of news reporting. The fifth one, Why, is by far the hardest ’cause you gotta get inside someone’s head.

So, the last part of judging whether news is fake is recognizing that nobody gets it entirely right. Just because you see it in print doesn’t make it fact. And, just because somebody got it wrong, doesn’t make them a liar.

They could get one thing wrong, and most everything else right. In fact, they could get 5 things wrong, and 95 things right!

What you look for is folks who make the effort to try to get things right. If somebody is really trying, they’ll make some mistakes, but they’ll own up to them. They’ll say something like: “Yesterday we told you that there were 16 deaths, but today we have better information and the death toll is up to 2,975.”

Anybody who won’t admit they’re ever wrong is a liar, and whatever they say is most likely fake news.

Social Media and The Front Page

Walter Burns
Promotional photograph of Osgood Perkins as Walter Burns in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page

12 September 2018 – The Front Page was an hilarious one-set stage play supposedly taking place over a single night in the dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building overlooking the gallows behind the Cook County Jail. I’m not going to synopsize the plot because the Wikipedia entry cited above does such an excellent job it’s better for you to follow the link and read it yourself.

First performed in 1928, the play has been revived several times and suffered countless adaptations to other media. It’s notable for the fact that the main character, Hildy Johnson, originally written as a male part, is even more interesting as a female. That says something important, but I don’t know what.

By the way, I insist that the very best adaptation is Howard Hawks’ 1940 tour de force film entitled His Girl Friday starring Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, and Cary Grant as the other main character Walter Burns. Burns is Johnson’s boss and ex-husband who uses various subterfuges to prevent Hildy from quitting her job and marrying an insurance salesman.

That’s not what I want to talk about today, though. What’s important for this blog posting is part of the play’s backstory. It’s important because it can help provide context for the entire social media industry, which is becoming so important for American society right now.

In that backstory, a critical supporting character is one Earl Williams, who’s a mousey little man convicted of murdering a policeman and sentenced to be executed the following morning right outside the press-room window. During the course of the play, it comes to light that Williams, confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue speaking in a public park, accidentally shot the policeman and was subsequently railroaded in court by a corrupt sheriff who wanted to use his execution to help get out the black(!?) vote for his re-election campaign.

What publicly executing a confused communist sympathizer has to do with motivating black voters I still fail to understand, but it makes as much sense as anything else the sheriff says or does.

This plot has so many twists and turns paralleling issues still resonating today that it’s rediculous. That’s a large part of the play’s fun!

Anyway, what I want you to focus on right now is the subtle point that Williams was confused by listening to a soapbox demagogue.

Soapbox demagogues were a fixture in pre-Internet political discourse. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment explicitly gives private citizens the right to peaceably assemble in public places. For example, during the late 1960s a typical summer Sunday afternoon anywhere in any public park in North America or Europe would see a gathering of anywhere from 10 to 10,000 hippies for an impromptu “Love In,” or “Be In,” or “Happening.” With no structure or set agenda folks would gather to do whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. My surrealist novelette Lilith describes a gathering of angels, said to be “the hippies of the supernatural world,” that was patterned after a typical Hippie Love In.

Similarly, a soapbox demagogue had the right to commandeer a picnic table, bandstand, or discarded soapbox to place himself (at the time they were overwhelmingly male) above the crowd of passersby that he hoped would listen to his discourse on whatever he wanted to talk about.

In the case of Earl Williams’ demagogue, the speech was about “production for use.” The feeble-minded Williams applied that idea to the policeman’s service weapon, with predictable results.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century.

I haven’t been hanging around local parks on Sunday afternoons for a long time, so I don’t know if soapbox demagogues are still out there. I doubt that they are because it’s easier and cheaper to log onto a social-media platform, such as Facebook, to shoot your mouth off before a much larger international audience.

I have browsed social media, however, and see the same sort of drivel that used to spew out of the mouths of soapbox demagogues back in the day.

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s really nothing novel about social media. Being a platform for anyone to say anything to anyone is the same as last-century soapboxes being available for anyone who thinks they have something to say. It’s a prominent right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. In fact, it’s important enough to be guaranteed in the very first of th Bill’s amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

What is not included, however, is a proscription against anyone ignoring the HECK out of soapbox demagogues! They have the right to talk, but we have the right to not listen.

Back in the day, almost everybody passed by soapbox demagogues without a second glance. We all knew they climbed their soapboxes because it was the only venue they had to voice their opinions.

Preachers had pulpits in front of congregations, so you knew they had something to say that people wanted to hear. News reporters had newspapers people bought because they contained news stories that people wanted to read. Scholars had academic journals that other scholars subscribed to because they printed results of important research. Fiction writers had published novels folks read because they found them entertaining.

The list goes on.

Soapbox demagogues, however, had to stand on an impromptu platform because they didn’t have anything to say worth hearing. The only ones who stopped to listen were those, like the unemployed Earl Williams, who had nothing better to do.

The idea of pretending that social media is any more of a legitimate venue for ideas is just goofy.

Social media are not legitimate media for the exchange of ideas simply because anybody is able to say anything on them, just like a soapbox in a park. Like a soapbox in a park, most of what is said on social media isn’t worth hearing. It’s there because the barrier to entry is essentially nil. That’s why so many purveyors of extremist and divisive rhetoric gravitate to social media platforms. Legitimate media won’t carry them.

Legitimate media organizations have barriers to the entry of lousy ideas. For example, I subscribe to The Economist because of their former Editor in Chief, John Micklethwait, who impressed me as an excellent arbiter of ideas (despite having a weird last name). I was very pleased when he transferred over to Bloomberg News, which I consider the only televised outlet for globally significant news. The Wall Street Journals business focus forces Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray into a “just the facts, ma’am” stance because every newsworthy event creates both winners and losers in the business community, so content bias is a non-starter.

The common thread among these legitimate-media sources is existance of an organizational structure focused on maintaining content quality. There are knowlegeable gatekeepers (called “editors“) charged with keeping out bad ideas.

So, when Donald Trump, for example, shows a preference for social media (in his case, Twitter) and an abhorrence of traditional news outlets, he’s telling us his ideas aren’t worth listening to. Legitimate media outlets disparage his views, so he’s forced to use the twenty-first century equivalent of a public-park soapbox: social media.

On social media, he can say anything to anybody because there’s nobody to tell him, “That’s a stupid thing to say. Don’t say it!”

Why Not Twitter?

Tweety birds
Character limitations mean Twitter messages have room to carry essentially no information. Shutterstock Image

20 June 2018 – I recently received a question: “Do you use Twitter?” The sender was responding positively to a post on this blog. My response was a terse: “I do not use Twitter.”

That question deserved a more extensive response. Well, maybe not “deserved,” since this post has already exceeded the maximum 280 characters allowed in a Twitter message. In fact, not counting the headline, dateline or image caption, it’s already 431 characters long!

That gives you an idea how much information you can cram into 280 characters. Essentially none. That’s why Twitter messages make their composers sound like airheads.

The average word in the English language is six characters long, not counting the spaces. So, to say one word, you need (on average) seven characters. If you’re limited to 280 characters, that means you’re limited to 280/7 = 40 words. A typical posting on this blog is roughly 1,300 words (this posting, by the way, is much shorter). A typical page in a paperback novel contains about 300 words. The first time I agreed to write a book for print, the publisher warned me that the manuscript needed to be at least 80,000 words to be publishable.

When I first started writing for business-to-business magazines, a typical article was around 2,500 words. We figured that was about right if you wanted to teach anybody anything useful. Not long afterward, when I’d (surprisingly quickly) climbed the journalist ranks to Chief Editor, I expressed the goal for any article written in our magazine (the now defunct Test & Measurement World) in the following way:

“Imagine an engineer facing a problem in the morning and not knowing what to do. If, during lunch, that engineer reads an article in our magazine and goes back to work knowing how to solve the problem, then we’ve done our job.”

That takes about 2,500 words. Since then, pressure from advertisers pushed us to writing shorter articles in the 1,250 word range. Of course, all advertisers really want any article to say is, “BUY OUR STUFF!”

That is NOT what business-to-business readers want articles to say. They want articles that tell them how to solve their problems. You can see who publishers listened to.

Blog postings are, essentially, stand-alone editorials.

From about day one as Chief Editor, I had to write editorials. I’d learned about editorial writing way back in Mrs. Langley’s eighth grade English class. I doubt Mrs. Langley ever knew how much I learned in her class, but it was a lot. Including how to write an editorial.

A successful editorial starts out introducing some problem, then explains little things like why it’s important and what it means to people like the reader, then tells the reader what to do about it. That last bit is what’s called the “Call to Action,” and it’s the most important part, and what everything else is there to motivate.

If your “problem” is easy to explain, you can often get away with an editorial 500 words long. Problems that are more complex or harder to explain take more words. Editorials can often reach 1,500 words.

If it can’t be done in 1,500 words, find a different problem to write your editorial about.

Now, magazine designers generally provide room for 500-1,000 word editorials, and editors generally work hard to stay within that constraint. Novice editors quickly learn that it takes a lot more work to write short than to write long.

Generally, writers start by dumping vast quantities of words into their manuscripts just to get the ideas out there, recorded in all their long-winded glory. Then, they go over that first draft, carefully searching for the most concise way to say what they want to say that still makes sense. Then, they go back and throw out all the ideas that really didn’t add anything to their editorial in the first place. By then, they’ve slashed the word count to close to what it needs to be.

After about five passes through the manuscript, the writer runs out of ways to improve the text, and hands it off to a production editor, who worries about things like grammar and spelling, as well as cramming it into the magazine space available. Then the managing editor does basically the same thing. Then the Chief Editor gets involved, saying “Omygawd, what is this writer trying to tell me?”

Finally, after about at least two rounds through this cycle, the article ends up doing its job (telling the readers something worth knowing) in the space available, or it gets “killed.”

“Killed” varies from just a mild “We’ll maybe run it sometime in the future,” to the ultimate “Stake Through The Heart,” which means it’ll never be seen in print.

That’s the process any piece of professional writing goes through. It takes days or weeks to complete, and it guarantees compact, dense, information-packed reading material. And, the shorter the piece, the more work it takes to pack the information in.

Think of cramming ten pounds of bovine fecal material into a five pound bag!

Is that how much work goes into the average Twitter feed?

I don’t think so! The twitter feeds I’ve seen sound like something written on a bathroom wall. They look like they were dashed off as fast as two fingers can type them, and they make their authors sound like illiterates.

THAT’s why I don’t use Twitter.

This blog posting, by the way, is a total of 5,415 characters long.