The Challenge of Truth in Reporting

Anna-Marie AshtonArticles, Book Reviews

A Book Review of Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus by Matt Taibbi, and Liberty and the News by Walter Lippmann.

“There is everywhere an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.”

Walter Lippmann, 1920

It is totally cliché to take a quote from what seems like a hundred years ago and show how prescient it is, and how it still applies to this very day. It is also cliché to defend the use of a cliché by arguing that clichés speak to underlying truths; for example, that history repeats itself. But here we are in 2017, a hundred years after the quote above was written, and there is still a growing sense of being baffled and misled by the press – a deep uncertainty about truth and “alternative facts”. And it would be very unwise to pooh-pooh it. History is repeating itself because assessing truth and adaptive significance requires wisdom, which has always been aspirational for our species.

Many of us have been observing the 2016 American presidential election, widely characterized as a dumpster fire, with consternation, cynicism or a feeling of being overwhelmed. Some of us have been inventing drinking games and writing insightful essays to help ourselves and others get through it (you know who you are, Matt Taibbi). Many are growing more philosophical, wondering what role the government and the media ought to play in helping the public see and navigate our collective challenges. Who is steering this ship and where are we heading? Isn’t the state of our public discourse, like, very dysfunctional? How could it function better?

Anyone contemplating these questions will appreciate books like Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus and Walter Lippmann’s Liberty and the News, as both authors look for patterns and root causes in this madness.

Complex world events elicit a range of responses and interpretations. Our challenges in making sense of the world around us are on vivid display when shit hits the fan, as we wonder and speculate about not only WTF just happened but why TF it happened. Disillusioned after World War One, Lippmann wrote Liberty and the News in 1919. In it, he observed – much to his alarm – that the “liberties of speech and opinion rest on no solid foundation”. During and after the war, he observed that conflicting accounts of events resulted in actions that caused harm, including the “atavistic passions unleashed by the conflict, the vindictive peace treaty imposed by the victors on the defeated, and the severe political repression that swept the United States.” In his book, he explores how humans make sense of events, the need to produce more accurate accounts, and why this matters.

Lippmann suggests that a reporter’s role is to strive for comprehensive, accurate and significant information of a high quality. He observes that without access to this type of information, we are not truly free to understand and respond to the world around us: we are crippled out of the gate. He argues that a “useful definition of liberty is obtainable only by seeking the principle of liberty in the main business of human life, that is to say, in the process by which men educate their response and learn to control their environment. In this view liberty is the name we give to measures by which we protect and increase the veracity of the information upon which we act”. These standards and processes for judging veracity and adaptive significance keep us from misapprehending or oversimplifying the situations we must respond to, and allow us more range and flexibility when designing our responses. To Lippmann, the essence of liberty is being equipped with accurate information to support wise and effective action. It should be noted that he doesn’t feel this is simple or easily achieved – it is a frontier – but it is absolutely critical to a functioning democracy.

Over the last 10 years, Matt Taibbi has observed increasingly angry disillusionment about the press (and the government), and a deep suspicion about what is being reported. This lack of trust has created a flood of interpretations about WTF is happening and what ought to be done about it – with no standards to determine the veracity and significance of the interpretations, a role once considered to be the purview of the major news networks and public discourse. We are now officially post-factual, Taibbi argues, content to subjectively conjure reality and live in our entitled and unverified bubbles. “Voters no longer debate one another using a commonly accepted set of facts. There is no common narrative except in the imagination of a daft political and media elite that had long ago lost touch with the general public. What we [have] instead [is] a nation of reality shoppers, all shutting the blinds on the loathsome old common landscape to tinker with their self-tailored and in some cases highly paranoid recipes for salvation and/or revolution.”

We are rebelling against intensely dysfunctional and out of control systems of governance and media that have lost track of what is important, that serve only a privileged few, and which are not invested in providing the public with the accurate and reliable intelligence necessary for democracy and liberty. Rather than pushing back on undisciplined accounts of events and seeking better quality information, forcing media and government to play their much-needed role in democracy, we, the public, are equipped only to make shit up – basically whatever we want – because we haven’t learned enough about standards for truth and significance to know what is real and important and what isn’t.

Our challenges with understanding the most significant aspects of reality aren’t new – this has always been a frontier for our species. Human Learning Ecology draws on patterns – through history and across disciplines – to help us discern what is significant to pay attention to. The most significant aspects of the world around us to pay attention to either support or actively resist the reduction of waste, suffering, ignorance and injustice. These dynamics have the most impact and consequence on the planet and the liberty of our fellow humans. How we perceive the world around us, and the actions we take as a result, have an impact on whether we can see and support progress or not. In our Human Venture Leadership programs, we often say that we don’t act on reality, we act on our perceptions of reality. We learn to perceive reality by drawing on many conflicting sources (often unconsciously), that equip us (often narrowly and incompletely), to think, care, act and learn (often selfishly). From that starting point, it is hard work to develop our capacities and create the sources of information that contribute to a better understanding of the world around us from which we can act in wiser ways.

Lippmann points out that “the health of a society depends on the quality of information it receives”. He states that “the quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist can flourish only when the audience is deprived of independent access to information.” When we don’t have a secure and reliable means to make sense of the world around us (which is usually never) we are vulnerable to narrow interests with self-serving ideologies. We inadvertently become quacks, charlatans, jingos, terrorists and insane clown presidents ourselves, increasing the problem exponentially.

Rewarded for betting on the election horserace and focusing on things that don’t threaten the neoliberal economic model, Taibbi says that thoughtful journalists are “trained not to care about which old ladies are freezing this week because some utility company somewhere is turning the heat off, or who’s having their furniture put on the street by a sheriff executing a foreclosure order, or who’s losing a leg to diabetes because they didn’t have the money for a check up two years ago”. In talking about Bernie Sanders, Taibbi says that he is “a clear outlier in a generation that has forgotten what it means to be a public servant. The Times remarks on his grumpy demeanor. But Bernie is grumpy because he’s thinking about vets that need surgeries, guest workers who’ve had their wages ripped off, kids without access to dentists or some other godforsaken problem that most of us normal people can care about for maybe a few minutes on a good day, but Bernie worries about more or less all the time…Bernie is focused on reality. It is the rest of us who are lost.”

If, as a society, we don’t care about the challenges of those who our democracy is not working for, we can be sure of a revolt from the margins – unless people are suppressed or can be fooled into believing that someone is looking out for them, as often happens. But because we are vulnerable to con men, we can’t tell a genuine Sanders from a fool’s gold-plated Trump.

We’ve made a mistake in adopting a fantasy that we can take the hush money offered from narrow interests that reinforce the status quo while “reconstructing” the broken systems that aren’t working for many people, expecting to still be free enough of bias to see the challenges accurately. This  applies to everyone, not just journalists and politicians. All we have proven so far in this experiment is that we can stay in the pocket of narrow interests and be convinced of our own virtue, by seeing ourselves as passengers on a ship that is too big to turn. As Taibbi says “One can talk about having the strength to get things done, given the political reality of the times. But one also can become too easily convinced of certain political realities, particularly when they are paying you hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour”. We lose our ability to assess accurately when we have vested interests. The ship might actually turn more than we think – if we could summon more will and build more capacity to steer it. As Lippmann says “resistance to the inertias of the profession, heresy to the institution, and the willingness to be fired rather than write what you do not believe, these wait only on personal courage.”

As inspirational as that is, Lippmann also identifies even more complex variables – beyond corruption and much-needed whistleblowing – needed to turn our ship. The “independent access to quality information” business is extremely complex when you consider that we all have cognitive bias to contend with and are ignorant to most of what is happening around us. Most of us are even ignorant that we are ignorant – which is super dangerous.

Lippmann makes a case that there are pragmatic limits of time and attention, and the world is so complex that even if we worked at it 24/7 we couldn’t fully comprehend what is going on around us. He argues that our interpretation is limited and we are relying on incomplete or flawed accounts that need to be assessed and pieced together – which is a tricky business. He alludes to the capacity and judgement required to discern the most significant aspects of what is happening around us and to signal those insights to others. It is important that reporters “serve no cause” and “possess a steady sense that the chief purpose of ‘news’ is to enable mankind to live successfully toward the future. [The reporter] will know that the world is a process, not by any means always onward and upward, but never quite the same. As the observer of those signs of change, his value to society depends upon the prophetic discrimination with which he selects those signs”. This kind of “prophetic discrimination” implies a selection and reporting of significant information, however, these capacities are rarely taught and often suppressed.

Taibbi explains how reporters become jaded by the dog and pony show and lose sight of the critical role they play in a functioning democracy. “What happens over time is that you lose hope, and you begin to view everything through the prism of the corruption to which you are so accustomed”. Through this lens it becomes possible to see a future where our standards for disciplined inquiry are completely lost. Taibbi references the 2006 movie Idiocracy several times (If you haven’t seen it, watch the Brawndo clip here). His warnings about further cultural degradation should be taken seriously.

Lippmann suggests that “sometime in the future, when men have thoroughly grasped the role of public opinion in society, scholars will not hesitate to write treatises on evidence for the use of news gathering services”. He feels that “the cynicism of the trade [journalism] needs to be abandoned, for the true patterns of the journalistic apprentice are not the slick persons that scoop the news, but the patient and fearless men of science who have labored to see what the world really is…good reporting requires the exercise of the highest of scientific virtues. They are the habits of ascribing no more credibility to a statement than it warrants, a nice sense of the probabilities, and a keen sense of the quantitative importance of particular facts. You can judge the general reliability of any observer most easily by the estimate he puts on the reliability of his own report. If you have no facts of your own with which to check him, the best rough measurement is to wait and see whether he is aware of any limitations in himself; whether he knows that he saw only part of the event which he describes; and whether he has any background of knowledge against which he can set what he thinks he has seen”.

However you place your bet about our future and where we are headed, it seems clear that standards for truth and significance are an important frontier for literally every human being with no exceptions. Taibbi starts his book with a quote from American journalist Molly Ivins: “I believe that ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth.” Lippmann’s version of this is “For the real enemy is ignorance, from which all of us, conservative, liberal, or revolutionary, suffer”. The implication is that we may or may not mean well, but we certainly don’t know how to do well in this arena – yet. We can either throw up our hands and check out, or accept this challenge and attempt to increase the accuracy and quality of the standards by which we interpret the world around us. Our decisions, collectively, will write the future.

For further exploration:

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan

Public Opinion by Walter Lippman

The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations By Dietrich Dorner. Full book recommended but read this summary too.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark by Carl Sagan

The Discovery Of The Germ: Twenty Years That Transformed The Way We Think About Disease by John Waller