Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Searching for Truth

Everyone Who Was Completely Wrong About Election Day Ready to Explain What Happens Next
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper website The Babylon Bee, November 5
Commentators sometimes like wax nostalgic about the good old days when everyone in America got their daily news from a handful of television network news operations which were generally trusted to supply accurate and unbiased information. Why can’t it be like that now? Why have so many news outfits picked a particular political world view and decided to cater to that view’s particular audience—instead of treating the whole country as its audience?

If you think about it, that question more or less answers itself, doesn’t it? Don’t all news consumers with favorite information sources think that theirs is the fair and objective one? It’s the other ones that are biased, right?

This situation was made possible by 1) the size and diversity of the United States and 2) the proliferation of news sources thanks to breakthroughs in technology. The latter cause is key. There was a time not that many years ago when “narrowcasting” to relatively small and geographically scattered audiences was economically impractical. Now, thanks to satellites and the internet, it’s a cinch. Arguably, a politically splintered society is good for corporate business. More than ever before, politics has become a team sport, and we all know how profitable professional sports teams are. Cable news networks even have an advantage that sports broadcasters don’t. In televised politics, when you pick your own channel, your team is always winning—at least the argument if not the election.

Still, people have a basic desire to think the information they’re getting is accurate. This would explain why, after the election of Donald Trump four years ago, The New York Times had an advertising campaign proclaiming simply and emphatically “The Truth,” and The Washington Post introduced the chilling slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” In the media generally there was much bandying of words like “truth” and “facts,” largely in response to questionable assertions by the new president but also as not-so-subtle digs at rival news organizations. Despite all this focus on truth, though, the country is nowhere near a consensus on what is “true” when it comes any major issue.

Here is what seems true to me. If Republicans generally think they are getting the truth—or at least more of it—from Fox News and if Democrats feel similarly about CNN, MSNBC and/or PBS, they can’t both be right. Whatever news you listen to will occasionally omit stories that get played on the other side. Stories reported by both will get different spins and emphases. The only way to make sure you don’t miss something or don’t get misled is to try listening to everything.

That’s time-consuming, though. If you’re busy but still want to be informed, wouldn’t it be nice if, to get back to the lament with which I began, there were one or more news sources that simply reported the major news of the day with some kind of balance and fairness you could trust? Such a news provider might annoy Democrats sometimes, but it would also annoy Republicans sometimes. Is there a market for such a thing?

There are actually people out there who see that gap and are trying to fill it. One that I came across a while back is called Ground News, and it takes an interesting approach. Available through its website or its app, it delivers a stream of news items but also includes information on what other media are carrying the same item. Furthermore it breaks down the other media sources according to where they fall on the political spectrum and gives you a liberal/conservative percentage breakdown on each article’s overall media distribution. If nothing else, it tells you whether the stories you find interesting are mainly being seen by most people or by mainly conservatives or by liberals. They even offer a browser extension that pops up if you’re reading another news site, e.g. The New York Times, and gives you the same media breakdown about the article you are reading there.

The goal is not to eliminate bias but to clearly identify it and label it so that you know where your news falls on the political spectrum. News sources are rated on a scale from the far left (e.g. Palmer Report) to the far right (e.g. The Gateway Pundit). Sources it considers in the center include the Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC and France24. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree on these classifications, but at least it’s some kind of yardstick. The Ground News website is freely accessible, but if you want to support them or get more features, there are a couple of subscription levels. You can also get their weekly “Blindspot Report” email which highlights legitimate news stories missed by sources on both the left and right.

Ground News is based in Canada, which is also the location of another source of serious balanced discussion, the charitable-foundation-run Munk Debates. Originally staged as live events in Toronto, the debates—as well as dialogs and interviews—are now accessible as streams and through a podcast. They highlight topical issues argued by prominent speakers on opposite sides in a congenial environment. Recent topics have included “Be it resolved: Go Green! Go Nuclear!” with University of Michigan professor Todd Allen and former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jackzko and “Be it resolved: The GameStop frenzy is good for investors and good for financial markets” with market traders Tom Sosnoff and Danny Moses. It is a nice change of pace from the usual stacked-deck panel discussions that proliferate cable news.

Another source I came across recently is the five-days-a-week email newsletter Tangle by journalist Isaac Saul whose main job is with the positive-news-focused digital media company A Plus. A 10-to-15-minute read, Tangle concentrates on the major DC political issue of the day—as well as a few briefer items—giving a meticulous examination of the positions on both partisan sides, as well as Saul’s own (generally middle-of-the-road) take. It is pretty balanced, although your own mileage could vary. Tangle is subscription-supported on the Substack platform—an increasingly interesting source of informed commentary for people willing to pay for it—but it can generally be read four days a week for free.

The funny thing about consuming reasonable, balanced and fair news sources, though, is that there always seems to be something missing. Human nature, especially when we are younger, craves the passion of being committed and involved on the right side of a grand ideological struggle. People used to satisfy that craving with religion. Nowadays they fill it with politics. In the current heightened environment, objective reporting can feel strangely bland.

Also, if you’re paranoid—and shouldn’t we all be?—there is the concern that these self-branded objective sources may be trojan horses that are trying to subtly and with sophistication nudge those in the political middle toward one side or the other under the guise of supposed neutrality. After all, can any individual or organization be truly neutral? Short answer: no.

In the end, that is the risk you run in trying to be informed. You might end up having your mind changed.

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