Why I no longer read “news”

I realize that there is a rather tired trope of “fake news”, and maybe if you’ve read other of my posts here, you’ll see a trend where I’ve tried to detox from the monolithized “mainstream” media and use tools like RSS to refine what I see. Today one of them slipped through, so I can show you precisely what my grievance is with a solid example.

One of the paramount reasons we call a story “news” is because we trust that there is a reasonable relation between the article we read and the sources it cites. A good journalist will follow through in ways such as reaching out to the people involved in the article, or ask clarifying questions for the reader to consider. Newspapers also have a section where a writer can indulge in their own opinions on a topic, hence called the “Editorial” or “Opinion” section.

So take a look at this “article”, from The Guardian, an outlet typically held in high esteem:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2018/jan/23/a-sign-that-youre-not-keeping-up-the-trouble-with-hotmail-in-2018

The author opens with a single source cited (we’ll get to that in a moment), proceeds to draw a conclusion based on the source that car insurers are charging higher premiums for people with Hotmail email addresses than other address types, and proceeds to indulge us with a personal recollection of how things “used to be.” She has a couple paragraphs of nostalgia, followed by a concluding remark that if Hotmail is the “worst” email to have, a personal vanity domain is the best, backed up by a single anecdotal experience she had. In my opinion (ironically), any editor worth their salt would have tossed this in the bin, or at least routed it to the Opinion section, where it belongs, rather than being paraded under “Technology>Email>Shortcuts.”

The verdict gets more damning when you bother to read the source. First, one look at the source website screams tabloid to me. Second, the source article is based on an “experiment” run by the author, hardly scientific. Third, the correlation between the points in the source and the points in the parent article is nonexistent. Let’s look at some examples.

The Guardian article headlines with a quote, “A sign that you’re not keeping up.” Clearly the implication is that the conclusions for this article were justified by something car insurance companies have said. Except that the quote is nowhere to be found in the source. Second, the article headlines with the phrase “car insurers.” Plural. But the source shows a simple experiment with a single insurance company, in the UK. Third, the source contains a brief quote from the insurance company in question, which never made it into the parent article. Therefore, the entirety of The Guardian article is baseless lard, opinions of the author being passed along as fact.

The reason I’m analysing this so deeply is the reason I discovered this excuse for news. There is currently a thread on Hacker News, bearing a headline that actually grabs the first sentence of the article in question, and there is a 200+ comment discussion assuming that the article is fact, and people coming up with theories as to why such widespread discrimination against Hotmail users is happening. For example, the very top comment declares it must be some kind of AI modeling.

So what we have here is the following chain: a barely functional tabloid article about a nebulous-at-best non-scientific experiment on a single car insurance company in the UK, which then turned into an opinion-piece-masqueraded-as-fact declaring an epidemic happening with multiple insurance companies not limited to any location, which then turned into a discussion about why such systemic discrimination is happening, and tapping into clear fears people have about how these insurance companies are clearly doing lots of data mining.

I wish this could be a post about why The Guardian has fallen, but I’ve seen similar pieces from the New York Times and other places. This kind of garbage is precisely why I’ve had to start honing my RSS feed to pay attention to particular journalists who have earned my trust, and disavow the fourth estate as whole.

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Fire, Fury, and Fiction in the Trump White House

In the wake of all the uproar over the new book about the Trump administration, Fire and Fury, I decided I should pick up a copy for myself and see what the fuss was about. Thankfully, before I had to spend a dime, Wikileaks published the PDF, and so I was able to fetch it pretty quickly.

The first thing that stood out to me about the book came up even before the first chapter. The prologue details a conversation between the late Roger Ailes (of Fox News) and Steve Bannon on 4 Jan 2017, before the dust of the election had settled. Rather than a general description of what was discussed, which would make sense if Bannon had been interviewed, a line by line recitation of quotes creates the impression that you’re actually sitting at the table listening to their conversation.

The most recent biographies I have read, other than this book, are by Robert Caro. One of Caro’s books,¬†The Power Broker, entails a scene where Robert Moses is in the midst of a lawsuit, and his parents learn this upon seeing the daily newspaper. His mother’s response to the lawsuit is quoted verbatim. When Caro’s editor asked him how he got that quote, given that the exchange must have happened decades before, Caro revealed his method. He had figured out to which newspaper the Moses family subscribed, contacted the outlet, and, using their delivery schedule history, successfully tracked down the person who had delivered the newspaper to the Moses family. It turned out the delivery boy was still alive, and Caro was able to interview him and get the quote, which the boy had heard and remembered to that day.

Every such quote in Caro’s corpus is sourced like that, directly linked either to a specific document, or an interview with a first hand source. This is the standard to which I now hold all biographers. Now, one can argue that biographers sometimes will gather a collection of facts, plant them as seeds, and use their own perspective to water the facts a bit so they grow into a narrative. There’s a debate to be had, especially today, about how much of a biography or a journalistic report is based in fact, and how much of it was nursed by the editor’s metaphorical water.

The next thing that comes to mind about Fire and Fury¬†occurred as I was reading the first chapter, and was sufficiently concerning that I have stopped reading the book. The first two chapters detail the attitudes and reactions to the Trump Campaign staff when they discovered they had won, and how they handled the transition. According to Wolff, everyone on the campaign staff, Trump included, assumed they would lose. The sole person who believed he would win was Bannon, whom Wolff makes some effort to cast as a loon. It goes into details about Kellyanne Conway hitting up her contacts and planning her next big move after the election, and Melania bursting into tears when she realizes the media focus would not be going away. The book also details really stupid things that people were doing, such as Paul Manafort’s liasonship with Russia, because they just assumed Trump would lose and it would be no big deal.

So my question is thus: in order to equip a biographer like Wolff with such detailed quotes and recollections, people had to be taking fairly careful notes and recording all their conversations. But Wolff describes the campaign and the transition team as disorganized and chaotic. And further, why would people be taking notes and recording things for an election they expected to lose? There are two reasons I can see to keep meticulous records: if you expect to cash out with a book deal, or if you think you’re going to come under heavy legal scrutiny. The first reason *could* explain it for some people, but not all of them. The second makes no sense for anyone except Bannon, since if you lose an election, nobody cares how legal your methods were. Further, assuming people *did* have these records and recordings– a fact Wolff’s own writing seems to contradict– why the hell would they turn them over to a biographer?

At this point, I’ve decided the book is a tabloid gossip piece which is very, very liberal with the truth. On one hand, Trump could settle that matter by filing a libel lawsuit against Wolff, but it seems that the optics alone on that would be pretty bad and distracting. On the other hand, perhaps people could look past their own personal biases (and for the record, I absolutely hate Trump), publicly point out these issues, and demand Wolff produce a detailed list of his sources for the book, including how he obtained every single quote. Incidentally, if he wants a guide on how to do this, he could look at any book by Robert Caro, which contains such comprehensive notes.