The Virtue of Uncertainty ― Reading #5


 

Bob Schieffer

Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Overload of News  (2017)

 

Chapter 21: 2016 Reflections on the Year That Was  [excerpts]

 

[1] Walt Mossberg, the one-time Wall Street Journal columnist who left the newspaper to become one of the most successful journalistic entrepreneurs of  the digital age, put it this way: when you’re in the middle of something, it’s hard to make sense of it. Clearly, we’re in the midst of a vast technological revolution that has changed our entire culture, including how we get our news. The revolution is so complex and fast moving that no one can fully understand it.

 

[2] But we come away from our yearlong investigation with certain conclusions. In most think tank studies we would place these conclusions at the front of the book in an Executive Summary, which is sort of a Cliff Notes, condensed version of a report for busy government officials, specialists, academics, and other interested parties.

 

[3] We have chosen to put our conclusions last in the hope that serious readers will have come to their own conclusions by now and will find it interesting to compare them with ours, to agree or disagree, and perhaps offer thoughts of their own. In that spirit, here is what we found:

 

[4] CONCLUSION: Americans are so overwhelmed by information in the digital era they cannot process it. It seems reasonable to conclude that specialists and some elites are more informed, especially if one judges advances in math and scientific fields. But there is little to suggest we are more informed politically, which is especially difficult for those in the lower-income groups. Research indicates that situation may be getting worse with increased reliance on mobile devices—a development that could further divide an already deeply divided country.

[5] CONCLUSION: Fake news made up out of whole cloth for political or financial profit poses a growing and dangerous threat to democracies both here and in Europe, all of which depend on informed electorates and faith in traditional institutions.

[6] CONCLUSION: The increased reliance on mobile phones and other technology has made polling less reliable and will require not only better methodology but also a whole new way of looking at public opinion sampling.

[7] CONCLUSION: Legacy national news organizations produced remarkable journalism during Campaign 2016, but declining advertising revenue has plunged smaller local newspapers into a death spiral from which they may not recover, a situation that could produce corruption on the local level never seen in this country.

[8] CONCLUSION: The chickens came home to roost in Campaign 2016. Our electoral system is broken, more in need of repair than our roads and bridges. And I’ll have some thoughts after sixty years as a reporter. As we say on TV, those are the headlines, now the details.

 

TOO MUCH NEWS

[9] Graham Allison, the national security expert who heads Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, had the best answer when I asked him if the 24/7 digital news cycle was producing more information than we could process. “Of course it is,” he said. “Think of it this way: put five people in a room and give them ten pieces of information. Maybe one or two could remember most of the information, the others could probably remember half, or maybe some would remember even less. “Then give them twenty pieces of information; it’s unlikely any of them could remember more than five or so. Then give them twenty thousand pieces, or two hundred thousand. Who is going to remember even a small part of that? It’s just not humanly possible.”

 

[10] The always-quotable Walt Mossberg put the good news and the bad news of the news glut another way: “The point is, we have much more at our fingertips. But we have much worse curation. “What was a newspaper? What was a nightly news broadcast? What was a local newscast? They were curated bunches of news stories. Encyclopedia Britannica was a curated attempt to capture most of the basic knowledge you would need about the world. “Today we have way more journalists, way more information providers and way less curation.” The rise of fake news adds further confusion. We found little evidence that this will sort itself out in the near future and may well grow worse with increased reliance on mobile devices, especially among Americans in lower-income groups.

 

[11] By 2020, 80 percent of Americans will own a mobile device, and news organizations will target them to gain new subscribers. Research by Dr. Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M and other scholars conclude that the “news interested” will spend a significant amount of time using news apps. But most mobile users’ encounters with news are incidental and generally occur when they are using their phones for other reasons.

 

[12] Exclusive reliance on mobile devices has risen sharply among minority and lower-income groups, and while mobile access to news is better than none at all, Dr. Dunaway reports, news is more costly to access by phone, and many people simply can’t afford it. The thrust of a paper Dunaway prepared during a 2016 fellowship at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy concluded the following: News is a relatively small part of the content accessed through mobile devices. The “politically interested” are consuming more news than before and know more about politics than before. But news apps are often luxuries lower-income groups can’t afford. For those on a small budget, choices have to be made, and news is almost certain to take a back seat to more pressing or compelling uses. The danger Dunaway’s research exposes requires serious attention: when one group of Americans is becoming more politically informed as other large segments of the population are not, it can only widen the divide in an already deeply divided country.

 

[13] Dunaway notes that technological breakthroughs seldom happen without disruption, and the shift to mobile will be no exception. Such a situation is not without historical precedent. Writing in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum reminded us that the printing press that Martin Luther praised as “God’s highest extremist act of grace” led to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and a century of bloody religious wars . . . but eventually equilibrium was reached. We’re not quite there yet.

 

FAKE NEWS

[14] Fake news in modern America first emerged in the confusion of 9/11. Later it became the tool of jokesters, political spinners, and conspiracy buffs. But as we came to understand during Campaign 2016, it has evolved into a dangerous new tactic used by those on the political fringes and foreign agents bent on sowing confusion among western democracies for political and financial gain.

 

[15] Russian Leader Vladimir Putin has long seen the efficacy of fake news. In a recent essay, Joseph Nye, former chair of the U.S. Intelligence Council and now a Harvard professor, reports that before his reelection in 2012, Putin told a Moscow newspaper that “soft power is a complex of tools and methods to achieve foreign policy goals without the use of force, through information and other means of influence.”

 

[16] Nye says nongovernmental forces “have long understood that multinational corporations are vulnerable to having their brand equity diminished through naming and shaming campaigns.” He says available evidence suggests that when the Russians began their intervention in the American presidential campaign in 2015, their objective was to sully and discredit the U.S. democratic process. “The election of Donald Trump who had praised Putin was a bonus,” he said. In Europe, the volume of incorrect and blatantly false information became so overwhelming that Damian Collins, who headed the British Parliament’s investigation into fake news, said flatly, “The spread of this type of material could eventually undermine our democratic institutions.”

 

[17] In late February, the New York Times reported that a fact-checking team in Brussels created by the European Union had debunked 2,500 fake stories in sixteen months. Even so, the newspaper reported the number of false stories being churned out daily far outnumbers the 2,500 that have been discredited. In Germany, the Times reported politicians and political organizations are facing a strong increase in phony stories, similar to the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. The Times reported that German Intelligence Agents concluded the attacks are being made by the group called Fancy Bear, which U.S. Intelligence agencies blamed for the U.S. hacks.

 

[18] According to the Times report, German Intelligence agencies agree with U.S. Intelligence officials who believe Fancy Bear has connections to Russian Intelligence services. One does not have to be an Intelligence official to understand that Vladimir Putin’s wish list is clear. He wants to reestablish the Russian Empire, and his strategy is obvious: create turmoil and confusion in Russia’s neighboring states that will eventually lead to the breakup of NATO and the eventual severing of ties between the United States and Europe. Part of that plan, obviously, is to break down, raise doubts, and undermine Western institutions, not the least of which is a free and unfettered press. In the digital age when news travels so quickly, news outlets become easy but important targets. In short, it is easier and faster to make up stories than it is to correct them, and as we learned during the campaign, once a story— true or false— becomes public it is all but impossible to remove it from the national dialogue.

 

[19] As Lucy Boyd pointed out, large numbers of Americans continue to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “The persistence of the birther movement,” she reported, “is congruent with research that finds a ‘backfire effect’—when evidence is provided to prove political information wrong, it only serves to strengthen the ideological person’s belief in the falsehood.” When mainstream news outlets corrected false information during the campaign, purveyors of the false reports would simply reply “no, the fake news is not coming from us but the fact checkers.”

 

[20] When the news became unpleasant to the new president, he employed a variation of the same tactic. On February 17, 2017, he tweeted, “The fake news media (failing@NYTimes,@NBCNews,@ABC,@CBS) is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people.” The recognition by Facebook that it had to assume some responsibility for what is transmitted to its 1.5 billion viewers and its decision to organize an independent fact-checking organization was welcome news. But it will hardly end the torrent of fake news that continues across the world.

 

[21] At the risk of stating the obvious, of all the changes brought on by the technological revolution, fake news is clearly the most dangerous and will be the hardest to eradicate. Democracies depend on an informed electorate with access to independently gathered, accurate information that they can compare to the government’s version of events. It is as vital as the right to vote. Any effort by government or outside agents to impede or undermine the free flow of information is a serious and real threat to democracy and should never be taken lightly. What is the best way to combat “fake news?” Harvard’s professor Nye says 2017 provided valuable insight. “The best response to a ‘firehose of falsehoods’ is not to try to answer each lie but to forewarn and inoculate against the process,” he said. “As Macron’s victory (in the French elections) has shown, the European elections of 2017 may benefit from such forewarnings.”

 

POLLING

[22] For all the advances in technology, sampling public opinion is harder, not easier, than it once was. The dean of the polling industry, Peter Hart, was right to say that national polls got the popular vote right but all polls are not equal, and some state polls employed methodology that should have been questioned. Pollsters, including those in the campaigns, stopped polling too soon. Later polling at the state level would have reflected voters moving to Trump in the Rust Belt regions. Mobile phones and telemarketing have led to the serious problem of “respondent willingness.” Less than 10 percent of those called are now willing to be questioned. That coupled with the fact that many voters no longer have landlines makes even the most carefully controlled poll suspect.

 

[23] Even so, the most interesting thing Hart told us was that we have started thinking in statistics or dynamics and analytics, and that just doesn’t work because analytics tell you one thing, but they don’t tell you what’s in people’s hearts— that from a man who has spent his life interpreting the numbers gathered by his pollsters. Hart believes that is why pollsters missed just how much integrity counted to voters in the election and why the Clinton campaign in his opinion never really heard the voters.

 

[24] What surprised me about Hart’s reduced confidence in data was how closely it mirrored what Harvard historian Jill Lepore had told me shortly after the election. She said flatly we are putting too much faith in data as if it were some higher form of truth. “I think there is actually something lost that we haven’t really begun to notice and think about,” she said. “With the closing down of those newsrooms in the small towns . . . we replaced a lot of beat reporting and man-on-the-street interviewing with polling instead of going to the bar and to the tavern and to the PTA meeting and talking to a bunch of ordinary people. It’s cheaper to reproduce the results of a poll, and it provides the guise of greater accuracy.”

 

[25] In Lepore’s opinion, a piece of what’s lost is not just the accuracy of the stories themselves but the civic work of those interviews. The conversations that those reporters had with people face to face at community functions does a lot of the work of gluing together a civic community. We concluded:

 

1. Pollsters must continue to search for better technology and be willing to state publically that all polls are not equal. Broadcasters must emphasize margins of error in broadcasting poll results. Efforts to show changes in the horse race by citing one or two point changes in a race are within margins of error and may mean no change at all.

2. Newspapers should put new emphasis on face-to-face voter interviews and less emphasis on data-based conclusions.

3. Pollsters should conduct more focus groups to augment polling.

 

THE LEGACY NEWS ORGANIZATIONS: CHALLENGE AND CHANGE

[26] Despite intense criticism from both campaigns, the networks and cable continued to be where most people got their political news, and ratings increased, especially for the cable companies. One month into the new administration, CNN was reporting a 50 percent increase in viewers. The news at the top of the newspaper world was great, but the news from the lower decks was dismal. The big two— the Washington Post and the New York Times— had a remarkable year. Between them they had most of the journalistic scoops of any significance.

 

[27] More important in the long run perhaps, both were undergoing a massive overhaul, converting themselves from newspapers to technologically sophisticated news organizations dispensing news from a variety of innovative platforms. The changes and a year heavy with news resulted in huge increases in digital subscribers and sales revenues. That was in stark contrast to smaller papers, which continued to lose both revenue and subscribers. We found little to suggest that can change anytime soon. It may be that some local newspapers will survive by doing what the Post and Times have done— shifting emphasis to the digital news product and introducing features to the local markets that the Post and Times have used successfully on the national scene.

 

[28] Or as CBS News Chief David Rhodes has suggested, a digital news channel similar to CBSN may also be effective at the local level. Every news executive that we talked with over the past year told us that taking advantage of the new technology is crucial. But equal priority must be the quality of the product. Going digital in order to reduce payroll is not the answer if the product is no better than what was printed on paper. Rhodes says success for any news organization depends on knowing something that readers and viewers need to know and figuring out how to deliver it to them.

 

[29] Maureen Dowd told us, “With all this fragmentation and platform anxiety, we have to keep our eye on the narrative arc because the story is still the story whether it’s by carrier pigeon or Snapchat.” Journalists have spent too much time worried about whether newspapers should continue to print their news on paper when we should have been worried about the story, not the surface on which it was printed. There seems little question that the decline of newspapers has had an impact on politics. In large rural areas it has not been a question of what kind of local news people were getting but whether they were getting any news at all. The dearth of political news in so many areas poses an obvious danger: if some entity doesn’t rise up to do what we once depended on local newspapers to do, we’ll have corruption in cities and towns across America on a scale we have never known.

 

[30] Texas Tribune publisher Evan Smith told us that he believes the closing of newspapers across Texas is one reason the state of twenty-four million people has one of the nation’s lowest voter turnouts. Since 2010, Texas has ranked from fifty-first to forty-sixth in turnout. With fewer newspapers, fewer reporters are covering politics. He says paltry coverage leads to paltry interest in politics, and Smith sees a direct line from that to low voter turnout. Smith says the press shares some of the blame for that. He says the responsibility of the press is to “tee up for busy people what they need to pay attention to. “The media’s job,” he told us, “is to say, ‘Stop! This is important.’” Early in the Trump administration, CBS News anchor Scott Pelley put new emphasis on another media responsibility: to point out when government officials, including the new president, were giving out information that didn’t jibe with the facts. In an almost nightly feature, Pelley would quote the president on some subject, then compare it with facts.

 

[31] Andrew Tyndall, who runs a service that monitors media content, told the Associated Press that he doesn’t consider the technique commentary because Pelley follows his assertions with stories that prove his point. Tyndall rightly called that reporting. As for the printed word, my bias for traditional newspapers is clear. I take second to no one in my love of starting my day leafing through a newspaper. But if the ancients were able to survive the switch from scrolls to books, and early readers of hand-lettered books were able to adjust to the product of the printing press, then I, too, will someday adjust to reading the paper on an iPad. It may take me a while, but I’ll get there.

 

THE AWFUL STATE OF AMERICAN POLITICS

[32] Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, told me a story once about going to an advertising conference where the discussion turned to the pluses and minuses of negative advertising, which the admen agreed was very effective. So why then, one side argued, didn’t Burger King go negative against McDonald’s if they wanted to topple the industry leader? Why didn’t they allege that McDonald’s burgers contained rat droppings or deadly bacteria? Because, the counterargument went, Burger King was trying to increase market share, not destroy the industry itself by convincing consumers that hamburgers could kill you.

 

[33] Perhaps that is what has happened to our politics. As candidates have destroyed each other with decades of endless negative ads, have they managed to destroy the system itself? Not yet, but they have severely damaged it. We have allowed the path to public office to become such an unpleasant and revolting exercise that too many times our best and brightest want no part of it. Add that to a system that was already overwhelmed by increasing demands to raise money— even membership on key congressional committees now rests in part on how much campaign money members can raise— and we find a different talent pool of those seeking public office. Not necessarily bad people, but different people.

 

[34] It is conjecture, of course, and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won their nominations fairly and squarely under the rules in place, but when the two major parties nominate candidates that a majority of Americans neither like nor trust, something has gone wrong. It did not come without warning. The chickens finally came home to roost. The conditions that produced Campaign 2016 were long in the making, and correcting them will not be easy. The first priority should be to launch a new bipartisan effort to rein in campaign spending, which is making campaign consultants wealthy but producing ridiculous campaigns that offer no real solutions to the nation’s problems and leave government in endless gridlock. Campaign laws are virtually nonexistent.

 

[35] By 1975, thirty-two people from the Nixon era had gone to jail or paid heavy fines for campaign finance law violations. All of the things for which they were convicted are now legal. A bipartisan effort should be made to end gerrymandering of congressional districts, which have become incumbent protection districts. Nonpartisan primaries in which candidates of all parties run in the same contest and the top two meet in a run off should also be considered, the reason being that such a contest would force all candidates to move toward more centrist positions. The greatest and most effective reform, however, will be to convince young people that holding elective office is an honorable and needed pursuit. What America needs more than political reform is political courage—candidates and politicians who are not afraid to risk losing the office they hold to accomplish the greater good.

 

[36] The Founders were not concerned about political survival; they worried about being hanged when they signed the Declaration of Independence. Yet they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause in which they believed so strongly. The challenge we face pales when compared to the challenge they faced, but only the kind of courage they showed us can lift us from the rut into which our politics has fallen.

 

SOME LESSONS FROM A LONG LIFE IN JOURNALISM

[37] I was flattered when Chris Wallace called and asked my advice after he was chosen to moderate the last presidential debate, and my advice was what I have given to others: remember it’s not about you, it’s about them. That was one of the most important things I learned during sixty years in journalism. Here are several more.

 

[38] From the beginning, I’ve been asked about press bias. My answer is yes, there are some biased reporters, but the great majority of the good reporters I have known have been hardworking folks whose main interest was getting the story before another reporter got it. I would guess most of them identified more with the governed than the governors, but I found few who had agendas beyond getting the story right and beating the competition. That is sometimes difficult for those outside the profession to understand. When Andrew Lack, the veteran journalist who heads NBC News, told me that with all that’s going on, “if I were twenty-five years old and at NBC I’d be saying ‘I can’t get luckier than this’ but that’s for the work. The challenges the country faces, that’s a separate matter.”

 

[39] I understood because I am a reporter. That’s what reporters do every day. We are professionals trained to separate our personal lives and feelings from the stories we cover. But I also understand why those outside the profession sometimes find that difficult to believe. Bias is often in the eye and ear of the beholder. Some suspect bias because they are biased and can’t understand how others are not. Do I have personal views? Of course I do.

 

[40] For the record, I am a registered Independent and have voted over the years for Republicans, Democrats, and once in desperation for Walter Cronkite. When I offer analysis or commentary, it is always clearly labeled as such, and I have never endorsed a political candidate. I emphasize that I can speak only for those of us in the mainstream of American journalism who follow the traditional journalistic guidelines—don’t print or broadcast it unless you have checked it out and are convinced it is true. I do not speak for the plethora of propagandists, political spinners, and conspiracy advocates or others of varying degrees of credibility who now crowd the web arguing that objectivity is only that which agrees with their point of view.

 

[41] Over the years at Face the Nation, I was often excoriated by both sides: conservatives accusing me of being a hopeless liberal and liberals accusing me of taking a right-wing view, and some just didn’t like my looks, I suppose, but that is just part of the job. I learned from some of the criticism, and some brought a laugh. Some viewers accused me of taking a partisan approach for simply bringing up to politicians an unpleasant allegation that had been lodged against them. They might have been surprised to know the politicians did not always agree. To the contrary, when politicians feel they have been unfairly accused they don’t want an interviewer to ignore the issue, they want to be asked about it so they can set the record straight.

 

[42] Years ago when my brother served in the Texas State Legislature, I would sometimes be furious when I thought he was being unfairly treated, but when he was praised, I thought he was getting fair and honest coverage. I look back on those days and realize I had been a victim of my own bias (some of the time), and while I have generally gotten good press myself, probably better than deserved, I admit that I have enjoyed good reviews more than the bad ones. Criticism of the press can be unsettling to journalists; no one enjoys criticism, but we must remind ourselves it has always been a part of free speech, and as David Rhodes of CBS News reminded us, while we must learn from it, it is not always valid. “Every campaign has ‘it’s all the fault of the media phase,’ ” he said. “It just arrived earlier than usual in 2016.

 

[43] First, it was that television elected Trump by giving him so much exposure, then it was we missed the story because we failed to take him seriously, and finally Trump won because he used social media to go around us. Well, pick your own adventure here, it can’t be all three.” In truth, none of us can be totally objective. It is much easier to be fair, which means that any time we have a story, especially a story that challenges someone’s character, we have an obligation to get his or her side of it. Fairness is the realistic goal to which all of us in journalism must strive. When we make mistakes, which are inevitable, it is more important than ever that we correct them as quickly as possible.

 

[44] Accuracy is as important as fairness. As Jake Tapper told me during our podcast, bad journalism hurts good journalism, and nothing hurts our credibility more than getting it wrong. The politician’s mission is to deliver a message. Our job is to determine if it is true and what its implications will be for the electorate. We should not assume that everyone in public life is corrupt or there for evil reasons, and we should never leave the impression that we are the exclusive fount of all wisdom. We are not the opposition party. We are reporters. Our role is simply to ask questions and to keep asking until we get an answer. That will not always make us popular, but it is clearly what the Founders intended. I am proud to be a reporter.