Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Fake News or Fake Objectivity?

Trump takes (and gives) a lot of heat for tweeting and talking about “fake news.” While I think he has a point (example provided below) I think it’s more accurate to call what the news media does is practice “fake objectivity.”

I have seen first hand how this fake objectivity shapes opinion. Here is an example. I play tennis with a guy who prides himself on reading the Washington Post, Boston Globe and The New York Times. With him being politically liberal and knowing that I’m a libertarian he will often ask me what my position is on global warming, healthcare or other subjects. My positions on these and other subjects differ from his, of course. I will support my beliefs by citing facts I’ve picked up from various sources such as the The Cato Institute, Reason, Niskanen Center, and so on. Or I’ll refer to blogs such as Watts Up With That or Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. on global warming. (To balance my information I also still refer to traditional news sources such as The Boston Globe, The New York Times, CNN, etc. as well as occasionally watch Bill Maher to get more extreme left wing views.)

Recently when my friend extolled the healthcare of England and Canada I told him about the number of people who do not receive treatment in the overburdened British healthcare system or how Canadians and the British suffer from lower cancer survival rates compared to the U.S. because they have to wait longer to receive diagnosis and/or treatment. Every time I refer to a fact like this my friend is both astonished and skeptical. Why? He is astonished because he has never heard about this from his news sources. He is skeptical because he believes the mainstream news sources are telling the full truth (and nothing but the truth) so the sources I’m referring to have to be untrustworthy!

Getting back to an example of fake news, Scott Adams has talked a lot on his vlog about how CNN continued to push the hoax that Trump was referring to white nationalists when he said there are “fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville issue. Adams has produced the full quote from Trump’s statement in which Trump clearly condemns white nationalists and neo-Nazis while saying there are fine people on both sides of the Confederate statue controversy. So there is some truth behind Trump’s constant tweeting about fake news.

But I think the news media exerts a deeper, more pervasive and more persuasive influence on how we form opinions by choosing which facts they report and which they ignore or omit. I’m not saying this is a conscious conspiracy to squelch contrary opinions. I think it’s combination of a number of influences: the shift from trying to report the news objectively (or at least the façade of objectivity) to outright advocating select positions while jettisoning attempts to be objective, the competitive drive to be first to report stories without taking the time to check your sources, distrusting or discounting opinions that don’t conform to the current “conventional wisdom,” and confirmation bias.

As I’ve said many times in this blog objectivity is very difficult, if not ultimately unattainable. We should still test our beliefs by exposing ourselves to different opinions and sources. In the process we still might never achieve full objectivity but can at least be reasonable.

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