Whatever happened to facts?

When I started giving this talk more than 10 years ago to newsrooms, journalism associations and “future of news” conferences I called it “Whatever Happened to Facts?” I’m sorry to report that I never did answer the question satisfactorily, but then again, nobody else has, either.

For good or bad, I’m a stubborn sort, and haven’t stopped trying yet. While the solution I’m looking for has remained elusive,I have learned some things along the way. Since the urgency of the issue has only grown, and our problems have become more intense, I want to offer my well-tempered perspective.

I’m not offering comprehensive solutions; I don’t have any. I do hope to prod you a bit, wake a few people up to the clear and present dangers, and help reattach our intellectual anchors to the kind of consensus reality that is an indispensable foundation for any pluralistic, democratic society.

I first raised this question at a conference about “news innovation” at Temple University in Philadelphia about 10 years ago. Nobody was yet screaming “fake news” every ten minutes, but the danger signs were already evident. I started by quoting a headline from the Onion. It said, “One in 5 Americans Think Obama Is A Cactus.” While that specific accusation was satire, it has been well-illustrated by genuine examples from real life. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, more than half the Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi said in exit polls they believed Barack Obama is a Muslim. About the same time, in Texas, an elected commission reviewing school textbooks eliminated references to Thomas Jefferson from a listing of inspirational revolutionary figures and defeated a proposal to include a reference that said, “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in American by barring the government from promoting and disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”

As this fog of purposeful ignorance descended, some energetic journalists declared they would throw off old notions of neutrality and become “vigilantes for truth.” Several publishers, broadcasters and NGOs established “fact checkers,” one of which (Poli-Fact) won a Pulitzer Prize in its first year of operation,

All in all, they haven’t helped much.

For more than 30 years, I built a pretty fair career on the foundation of a few key beliefs: that verified information is more valuable than rumors, opinions or speculation; that a broad, inclusive debate will yield better results than a smoke-filled room behind closed doors; and, generally, that an open mind is more productive than a closed one.

This philosophy has been part of my career for a long time. In 1976 we published a manifesto for the Alaska Advocate: “We are against all lies, and their more vicious step-children, the half-truths. We are against shadow in the conduct of public business, secure in our belief that there is no public affair best handled in the dark. We are against that which is dull or stifling. We oppose any limit or barrier to the exercise of talent. We believe that in the honest, unimpeded exchange of ideas the best course is to be found. We believe we can play a part in that process.”

I am still proud to embrace those sentiments, but in the end the sentiments weren’t enough either.

We all recognize that some people will always lie — some when they’re afraid, or panicked; some because they’re bullies; some, perhaps, because they just don’t know better. Some, as the news reports every day now, lie because they have learned they can gain advantages that way.

Yet most of the time, most people don’t lie. Doubtless there are many reasons for this, but the most reliable (I believe) is that truthful, verifiable information is more valuable. Investors with the best knowledge make more money; generals with the most reliable, tested intelligence win more battles; legislators with the best vote count pass more legislation.

Some things are beyond the reach of facts, of course. I can’t tell you it’s a fact that Obamacare was good for the country, but I can tell you that facts played no part in Sarah Palin’s assertions that there would be “death panels” associated with it.

People have been arguing about “What is truth?” at least since Aristotle and there never has been a consensus. The Vatican could make Galileo kneel and mumble, but he didn't actually change his mind.

Newspaper journalists certainly did not find the key to this puzzle, but we did develop working tools that helped us manage. Jack Fuller called these “the truth discipline,” and while I never heard it called that in a newsroom, I realize I did learn to incorporate it into my bones.

We didn’t wander around with a lantern asking “What is truth?” Our more circumscribed question was, “Is this true enough to print?” To test that, we went through a simple but effective process: Had we talked to everybody involved? If there were documents, had we gathered and read them? Had we compared these events to others like them? What had otherwise been said or done about it recently? And so forth.

When it seemed appropriate, we’d also rely on citation of authority: somebody like university professors, or learned jurists, published authors, experienced elder statesmen.

I continue to believe that an honest scientist who’s been studying something for 30 years is more to be trusted than a previously unknown activist with a website. In general it seems like most people would agree with that, but in specific we find many people don’t.

The country is mired in this conundrum and the body politic risks becoming entirely paralyzed.

This all makes it harder to be a journalist the way I tried for all those years, but that pales in comparison to the obstacles it creates for being a citizen. Put plainly, we can’t have a democracy without civic conversation, and we can’t have civic conversations without a shared vocabulary, and while the vocabulary traditionally supplied by the press was imperfect, it was at least intelligible.

The state of civic conversation today—as reflected in politics, journalism, diplomacy—is a classic example of what physicists call a phase transition, the transformation of a system from one state to another, as when a liquid boils and becomes a gas instead. In physics that’s defined by turbulence, uncertainty and chaos, a place where “complexity is maximal.”

That sounds a lot like the latest headlines to me.

I once told the CEO of McClatchy I was sure journalism would survive because it is essential to democracy. “But why do you assume democracy will survive?” he asked in reply.

I laughed then.

I am not laughing now, but we are not without tools in coming to grips with this.

Amongst his Meditations Marcus Aurelius observed that “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

David McRaney says in his book “You Are Now Less Dumb” that “The last one hundred years of research suggest that you, and everyone else, still believe in a form of naïve realism. You still believe that although your inputs may not be perfect, once you get to thinking and feeling, those thoughts and feelings are reliable and predictable. We now know that there is no way you can ever know an “objective” reality, and we know that you can never know how much of subjective reality is a fabrication, because you never experience anything other than the output of your mind. Everything that’s ever happened to you has happened inside your skull.”

Umberto Eco, likewise, tells us, “I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”

I think these guys are probably right, but I also know that, even so, we don’t have to stumble blindly around from error to error. We have tools, and we can fight back against the darkness that pure subjectivity would certainly bring.

Our best touchstone is an old system that’s been around for a few hundred years already and has racked up some pretty impressive results: the scientific method. Scientists don’t expect to find everlasting Truth, but they do know how to make sure they’re working with the best understanding that’s been uncovered and that the results can survive a system that tests conclusions ruthlessly before accepting them.

The adaptation of their process to news was described by the late New York Times journalist David Carr as an emerging news ecosystem “in which we move toward correctness and truth eventually emerges.”

Maybe that sounds wimpy, or tentative. Well, while it won’t satisfy rigid ideologues or religious fundamentalists, the scientific method has proven itself good enough to cure polio, explore the moon and let you video chat with your granddaughter 10,000 miles away on a machine you carry in your pocket.

How will we apply the discipline of scientific inquiry to news and political discourse? I’m not certain, but I do have a few ideas.

To sort propaganda from honest inquiry, we can employ reputation marketplaces like the one that helps sort out scammers from reliable merchants on eBay.

When he established his online auction site, Pierre Omidyar had a problem. He could connect a record collector in Alaska with suppliers in New Jersey, but how could he convince me to send money to a guy I’d never heard of? His answer was the system of mutual ratings by which buyers and sellers vouched for one another and built up credibility by honest performance. The process is vastly more sophisticated today but at its heart “honest performance” is still what we want to rate and promote in journalism, too. (Omidyar, interestingly, is running a journalistic enterprise in Honolulu today. I did some work for him early on, and the editor there is long-time Alaska journalist Patti Eppler. We get around.)

Ebay, Google, Facebook and many others also now employ algorithmic authority to sort fact from fiction. We generally trust Google’s secret rating system to sort our search results, placing the best ones (by some criteria) on top. It’s far from perfect but in practical terms it works, kind of like the old “truth discipline” journalists once used. We can incorporate the algorithmic lessons learned by Google and countless others into our search for journalistic authority, as well.

There’s another opaque but often helpful technique called provisional authority. Wikipedia has demonstrated that a constant changeable, frequently revised catalog can be a better source than the venerable bound volumes of Britannica we formerly relied upon. We’ve learned not to expect an immutable answer; what Wikipedia says may change before tomorrow. But at any given moment it represents something like an evolving consensus of the facts, as well balanced and presented as feasible. (News reporting has always been like that, though we didn’t often admit it.) We can learn from and use Wikipedia’s experience as we improve.

The authority of transparency. For a long time established journalism pretended to Olympian objectivity and detachment that most people realized was impossible. Prof. Jay Rosen, a noted press critic, recommends instead a discussion of “where are you coming from?” that acknowledges journalists have a point of view but pledges to apply tough tests to information before passing it along. There’s a lot about Fox News that pisses me off, but nothing more than the laughable claim to be “fair and balanced.”

Show your work” is another technique that could enhance journalistic credibility. When your fourth grade teacher assigned math homework, it probably wasn’t enough to turn in the right answers. Chances are you were told to “show your work” to prove you knew what you were doing. Journalists have always done some of this and some are starting to do more. But including a few links and posting some documents online isn’t enough. It would be relatively easy and valuable, I believe, to turn this dial up to 11 — to include transcripts of entire interviews, post videos of locations, attend community meetings to explain context and the like.

But I’m not kidding myself or trying to soothe you. I know none of these ideas will fix the problems we define collectively as “fake news.” Even if they were all implemented perfectly and practiced exhaustively, these are not a comprehensive solution. Even if by some miracle they did, we’d still be left wondering how news organizations are going to pay for the expert and dedicated staff necessary to navigate our increasingly complex and fractious world.

So what happens? I don’t know the answers, but I know who does: the new generation of journalists now striving diligently to discover and report essential news in ways I haven’t even imagined.

Why do I believe this? Because we’ve done it before.

There’s a story about a guy who fell in a deep hole one night and needed help to get out. He beseeched a passing preacher, who promised to pray for him and walked on. He called to a passing banker, who tossed him a crumpled bill and wished him luck. Eventually he yelled at a passing drunk, and the guy immediately hopped in the hole with him.

“What did you do that for? Now we’re both down here.”

“Yeah,” said the drunk. “But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

You know what? I’ve been here before — lots of us have — and I know there’s a way out.

When I was a young reporter, I knew journalism was failing the country. Somewhere between the Vietnam War and Watergate we realized the way journalism was being practiced no longer informed us adequately. Reporters and editors in the mainstream press of that day were acting more like captive caretakers of the government than like watchdogs for the people. The New York Times knew about John Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion before it was klaunched, but said nothing. One of the finest journalists I’ve ever known once heard Richard Nixon scream “You stupid cunt” at his wife Pat, but the story didn’t get reported.

Likewise, mny reporters in Vietnam came too know that military leaders and diplomats and elected officials were lying about what was happening there, that tens of thousands of American boys and uncounted Vietnamese were dying in a hopeless, worthless charade.

Still later, after Nixon and Kissinger had lied about and sabotaged the Paris Peace process, Nixon’s excess descended into the crimes and deceptions of Watergate, and for a long while, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee later remarked, “No reporter who could call Kissinger by his first name was worth a damn on the Watergate story.”

Eventually, journalists began to realize the price these failures extracted and set about practicing journalism that didn’t value access over truth and wasn’t constrained by decorum. Our aim was to be advocates for our readers and, when necessary, adversaries of the powerful.

The results were sometimes slow to emerge, sometimes fitfully applied, sometimes too far afield, but if we had recognized how much the odds were stacked against us, we might not have even tried at all.

That’s the message I’m now passing along to young journalists when I have a chance. To me, their reinvention seems even more challenging than ours, but I see them pressing ahead on many fronts in the face of economic upheavals and technological revolutions. I can’t predict the outcome, of course, but I wouldn’t bet against them.

Remarks for the Unitarian Universalist FellowshipAnchorage, Alaska17 June 2018

© 2013 Howard Weaver