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.