Monday, October 29, 2012

Birds of a feather

I've been reading Nate Silver's book, "The Signal and the Noise," lately. You might know Silver's work lately from his New York Times blog that came over from, although there's still a link that way and I think you can avoid the paywall that's usually up. But I've been a fan since his days when he worked for Baseball Prospectus, the geniuses that come up with some of the most innovative writing in the business as they match statistical research with innovative projections and good writing.

Silver made his political reputation in 2008 when he called 49 of 50 states right as well as all the Senate races. His new book is on the science of predicting and forecasting, as he goes through a variety of areas. For example, weather forecasting has gotten much better in recent years. Weather experts a few decades ago used to need a day before determining a city such as New Orleans would get pounded. Now they have the same chance of predictive success three days out. How many lives has that saved in recent years?

In the early part of the book, Silver makes a great point about the state of information in this country, and that leads to an even better point about where journalism in this country right now. In fact, this whole idea could turn into another book for someone.

The starting point centers on how the amount of information available to the average citizen these days has simply exploded. That's mostly due to the Internet, of course, although the rise of cable television in the 1980's and the ever-expanding number of books that are published in one form or another factors in as well.

But here's the catch - it doesn't mean the audience is learning anything. In fact, we're probably learning less, at least in terms of information worth knowing.

That's because we now can pick out who is delivering the news to us, and make sure the point of view matches our own. You don't have to hear an opposing position, unless it's almost by accident.

We have to give Fox News credit for starting this trend, for better or for worse. Conservatives for years have claimed that most of the media has a liberal bias, dating back I guess to Nixon and Agnew. Personally, I don't think it was as big as claimed, but most journalists I know are a little more liberal than the population as a whole because they have a bias for action. Doing nothing, in the conservative tradition, doesn't create much news.

The group at Fox perceived an opening in the political dialogue by hiring conservatives in their prime-time commentary role, and then mixing in points of view during the rest of the day (although liberal guests usually get double-teamed by the conservative anchors). Viewers flocked to it. MSNBC tried the same approach to the left, but hasn't been as financially successful - perhaps due to demographics, perhaps due to the fact the outlet doesn't do bias as well as Fox.

But that's not all. There are conservative and liberal web sites. For every Drudge Report there's a Huffington Post. It keeps getting easier not to read a discouraging word about your side. And I'd have to guess that has made people much more likely to accept ridiculous points of view that are self-generated and promoted but which have no basis in reality (see the whole Obama birthplace matter). That sells more books by authors from the fringes, because the points of view have a better chance of being accepted.

That leads to the question of what this all means for journalists. Can't say I like it.

Our training is to try to figure out what's accurate, sort out the facts, and come to some conclusions. If candidates lie in political speeches or ads, this profession is the one that's charged with calling it to everyone's attention. It's taken very seriously, at least on this end. But to take one example, Mitt Romney apparently feels free to say and place in an ad the implied fact that Jeep is moving a product line to China without fear of being shouted down by responsible third parties.

At this point in the political cycle, I could use some good, objective information on what's going on. There are plenty of good journalists who are trained to think that way. Sometimes I think I'm one of the few who appreciate that sort of approach. Most people seem to want to only hear from their side; any other opinion is part of the "lamestream media," to quote noted philosopher Sarah Palin. 

And is there anything worse than listening or reading to someone put an obvious spin on events, even if they don't care about facts? I can appreciate the fact that office holders have to spout the party line on television and in print interviews, but I could do without these relatively anonymous unnamed party strategists.

My guess is that all of this tends to harden political positions. That leads to strict party conformity, a feeling that the other side is filled with idiots (we've been bashing Presidents since Reagan in one form or another), and a sense that compromise is death politically.

None of this is good. The process is headed in the wrong direction, and I'm not sure how we turn any of it around.

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