Face It: Some in the Public Want Misinformation

"I would much rather read a story encoded with some journalist’s unconscious bias than to read one from some journalist working hard to say nothing definitive," Leonard Pitts Jr. told journalists on Monday. (Photos by John R. McClelland)

“I would much rather read a story encoded with some journalist’s unconscious bias than to read one from some journalist working hard to say nothing definitive,” Leonard Pitts Jr. told journalists on Monday. (Photos [c] by John R. McClelland)

Face It: Some in the Public Want Misinformation

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr., syndicated Miami Herald columnist, delivered this speech on Oct. 9 at the 2017 News Leadership Conference, convened by the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors and Associated Press Photo Managers in Washington, D.C. These are his prepared remarks.

Good afternoon.
Thank you for that warm welcome and thank you to ASNE for inviting me to speak here today. I am always pleased when I get a chance to spend time with my fellow enemies of the people.

I’m here to spend a few minutes talking about false objectivity and the danger of truth. To put that another way, I’m here to ask you to have a little more trust in your judgment as news professionals and to understand that judgment is an integral part of journalism. To put it yet another way, I’m here to ask you to stop being so damn polite.

This was on my mind a lot last year as I watched coverage of the campaign of 2016. I was troubled by how often we seemed to go out of our way to pretend there was some rough similarity in the shortcomings of the two candidates for the presidency. But at some level, surely we knew this was false. Surely, we all knew the pretense did not hold up to simple fact.

On the one hand, you had a candidate who was judged to be a stiff campaigner lacking in warmth, said by the FBI to have been exceedingly careless in her handling of classified materials and widely considered to have been evasive in answering questions about her use of a private email server.

The other trailed a slime of racist, misogynistic and Islamophobic remarks and behavior, a lawsuit for fraud, charges of failure to pay his employees, multiple bankruptcies, a near-billion dollar tax write-off, a deep ignorance about the basics of governance, diplomacy and history, a propensity for fantastic untruths and crude insults of his political rivals, and a video tape in which he bragged in vulgar terms about sexually assaulting women.

"Suddenly, you could say anything you wanted and it didn’t really matter all that much of it were true."

“Suddenly, you could say anything you wanted.”

Yet there we were, dutifully reminding our audience that both candidates carried “baggage.” Well, I submit to you that Hillary Clinton’s baggage was carry-on. Her opponent was a Samsonite factory on two legs. And it bothered me that so many of us seemed so determined not to report that, not to treat him as the bizarre outlier he clearly was.

Indeed, so devoted were we to this narrative of false equivalence that, according to an analysis by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, there was actually more negative coverage of Clinton over the course of the full campaign than of Trump.

In the months since Trump’s election, covering him has only grown to be more of a challenge and has seen our attempt to practice judgment-free journalism carried to ludicrous levels. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was the debate over how to label the president’s habit of saying things that were at variance with the facts.

Some of us, including the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, argued that to call those statements “lies” carries a connotation of condemnation, unfairly suggesting an intention to mislead. After all, they said, we cannot know what is in Trump’s mind. So it made more sense, they said, to report Trump’s latest dubious claim, juxtapose it with the truth, and let the readers decide.

But all of that reasoning and rationalization ignored the stark reality that the man in question will likely go down as the prodigious teller of falsehoods in American political history. Consider that, according to a list published by the New York Times, Trump made about 115 false statements just between Inauguration Day and July 21 , which was the last day the Times updated its list. Consider that, according to PolitiFact, only 17 percent of the Trump statements it has ranked have proven to be wholly or mostly true.

It seems fair to say, then, that the man produces falsehoods like McDonald’s produces Big Macs.

That being the case, there was something unbearably precious about this debate over whether to dub those falsehoods “lies.” Yes, the term carries connotations. No, no one knows what is in the man’s mind.

On the other hand, it would seem pretty obvious that you don’t produce 115 falsehoods in six months nor wind up with a truth-telling rate of just 17 percent, by accident. And that’s not to mention that, when presented with the truth, Trump’s unvarying habit is not to correct himself, but to double down on the false information.

Is this intentional? Of course it is. How can any reasonable individual argue otherwise?

So it was incumbent upon us to tell the truth, which is that Trump tells lies. Not untruths, not misstatements, not statements for which there is no evidence. He lies like a rug, as my mother used to say. And as troubling as that is, what is also troubling to me is that some of us have so much trouble simply saying that.

But this propensity of ours for false equivalence and for masking hard truths with soft euphemisms extends beyond the present president. You see it in the debate over climate change, where the clear scientific consensus is that the planet is getting warmer and human activity is the cause, yet in our coverage we continue to treat dissenting voices as [if] they had some equivalent claim on the truth. There may still [be] some doctor out there who believes [that] should be treated with laxatives and bleeding, but I can’t imagine he or she would get equal time on the pages of the Dallas Morning News or the Miami Herald.

Anderson Cooper in Egypt in 2011. (Credit: CNN Screen Shot)

Anderson Cooper in Egypt in 2011. (Credit: CNN Screen Shot)

I am reminded of a controversy that unfolded six years ago during the uprising in Egypt when CNN’s Anderson Cooper reported that the government of then president Hosni Mubarak was “lying” when it said protesters had not been 10 detained or harassed, that only 11 had been injured, and that journalists were being allowed to report fully and freely on the conflict.

Cooper was broadly condemned for that by other journalists and the interesting thing was, none of them faulted him on the facts. They all conceded he had reported the truth – Mubarak’s government was lying. Yet they still condemned him for “taking sides.” But it seemed obvious to me that Cooper was on the side of the facts. And isn’t that where we’re all supposed to be?

But too often, in our inability to speak the unvarnished truth, we are anywhere but. As an African-American, I have many times noticed this tendency in our reporting on controversies of race and culture. There, we often succumb to the use of weasel words in describing behavior that is clearly steeped in racial hatred.

I don’t mean the behavior that is open to interpretation, the kind of thing a reasonable person might or might not find offensive, the kind of thing that could conceivably stem more from poor taste or sheer ignorance than from conscious bias. In those cases, it’s perfectly appropriate and accurate to describe the behavior in question as “racially inflammatory” or “racially charged” or “racially insensitive.”

But too often, we use those words not to describe dubious behavior, but to avoid taking a stand on behavior that leaves no room for doubt.

In Jacks Creek, Kentucky, a pastor was under fire for using the N-word three times from the pulpit.

The local paper called it “racially-insensitive” language.

An aide to the mayor of Jersey City was said to have once given a speech in which he declared, “all white people have a little Hitler in them.” The local paper called that “racially-inflammatory.”

In Grymes Hill, New York, a noose was drawn around a photo of an African-American student, temples were defaced with swastikas and a local official sent out an email comparing African-American children to excrement. The newspaper wrote about “a racially-charged vandalism spree” and “racially-inflammatory emails.”

Indeed, just two months ago, when neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen marched through Charlottesville and one of them drove a car through a crowd, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer, there were reports describing it all as “racially-charged” violence.

But that violence was not “racially-charged.”

Neither was it “racially-inflammatory” or “racially-insensitive.” It was racist, pure and simple.

Why is it some of us found that so difficult to say? Why do we draw up short when circumstances require us to be definitive?
We got into this trouble, I think, from the best of intentions. We were trying to be objective.

Let me take you back 16 years. It was in 2001 that former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg unloaded on the news media in a book called “Bias,” in which he argued that journalism has an institutional prejudice against conservatives. I thought he made some fair points. I thought he made some that were not so fair.

The media overcorrected

The media overcorrected.

But the cumulative effect of that book on news media has, for my money, not been a positive one.

Harangued by Goldberg and other critics about their ideological predispositions, both real and imagined, I think news media overcorrected, evolving a new school of journalism that sought to tear the act of reporting free from any human judgment.

Some of us began to notice this a few years after Bias was published. Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, caught the gist of it in a commentary he did for NPR back in November of 2004.

He told of a CNN anchor who introduced a piece about “claims” that weapons were missing from a munitions dump in Iraq, which was a political embarrassment for the Bush administration. The anchor then tossed it to talking heads from the Democratic and Republican parties to offer their interpretations of the story.

But as Westen pointed out, there was nothing to interpret. There was no “claim” the weapons were missing. That they were missing was fact. That this was a political embarrassment was also a fact.

So why couldn’t the anchor simply say that and move on to the next story? Why did we need political interpretation of this truth from liberal and conservative flacks? I’m convinced it was because CNN thought anything less would be “biased.”

As Westen put it, “We’ve grown accustomed to hearing two versions of every story, one from the left and one from the right, as if the average of two distortions equals the truth.”

I couldn’t agree more. Rather than address and correct the biases Goldberg wrote about, mainstream news media seem instead to have
embraced false equivalences and mealy-mouthed euphemism in hopes of avoiding anything like judgment. Judgment, we have come to believe, is a bad thing. Judgment, we think, is not in our job description. Our North Star and prime directive is a thing we call “objectivity.”

Well, pardon me, but I am here to speak heresy.

You are not objective. You have never been objective. You will never be objective. To be objective is to act without human emotion and I’m sorry, but no one this side of Commander Data from “Star Trek” is capable of meeting that standard.

Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable in journalism because journalism is, by definition, human experiences as processed by human beings.

And journalism without judgment is not journalism at all because journalism by definition is an act of judgment.

When you choose to run one story and not another, when a reporter decides which questions to ask and which answers to use, when one photo is picked over another, when you choose where to cut the quote and where to place it, when you make the thousand ordinary decisions it takes to do your job, you are exercising judgment, deciding what is important and what is less so, who has the moral high ground and who does not.

Or as a one-time editor of the Miami Herald was known to quip when some young reporter was working overly hard to achieve “objectivity”:

“So…what? Five minutes for Hitler, five minutes for the Jews?”

You recoil at that because you know, that’s not balance. That’s insane and obscene.

There are two sides to every story, the axiom goes. But the axiom is wrong. Sometimes, there is only one side.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, there was only one.

When Martin Luther King’s forces marched through Birmingham, there was only one.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, there was only one.

So no, you will never be objective — and thank God for that.

Fairness and balance, on the other hand, might, on your best days, be an achievable standard. And it is to that standard that we must pledge allegiance.

Editors and reporters responsible for hard news coverage must work to be aware of and overcome their own ingrained biases, must make it their mission to give voice and a fair hearing to the broadest cross-section of responsible ideology.

But at the end of the day, none of that requires that we surrender the human faculty of judgment.

And it is time we quit pretending otherwise, time we quit being spineless about doing — and defending — the work we do.

Especially since the work we do is so critical to a functioning democracy – and never more so than now.

Arguably the worst thing about our experiment in false equivalence is the timing. We withdrew into judgment free journalism just as a technological revolution was changing the very way people received and even thought about the news, just as the very process of gathering and disseminating the news was becoming democratized to the point where any idiot with a computer and a modem could now call herself — or himself — a reporter. Some of us even sought to embrace what we called “citizen journalism.”

I have never been a fan of that term or that concept.

For all the undeniable good the occasional citizen with a cell phone in the right place at the right time might accomplish, for all the needed light some talented and insightful blogger might shed on some knotty social problem, a so-called “citizen journalist” does not have the training, the dedication to accuracy, the commitment to fairness and impartiality, or the resources that a real journalist does. On the day you’re willing to trust your wisdom teeth to a citizen dentist or your tumor to a citizen surgeon, then I will take seriously the concept of citizen journalists.

The very fact that some of us took the idea seriously suggests a lack of respect for our profession even as it illustrates the dimension of the problem we now face. This idea that journalism is  now something anyone can do has taken root in our culture and is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Unfortunately, while some of the people playing at journalism are conscientious about it, a great many more are simply out to see how much anarchy they can sow, how much paranoia they can stoke, how much of the tenuous fabric of this country they can tear apart.

So far, they have done an excellent job.

We saw visceral proof of that last year when a 28 year old man from North Carolina came here to Washington and shot up a pizza restaurant because it had been “reported” — by Alex Jones of Info Wars among others — that the pizzeria was ground zero of a child molestation ring run by Hillary Clinton.

It was an utterly ridiculous story. But the fact that it didn’t seem utterly ridiculous to some unspecified minority of Americans should give you pause. Actually, it should chill you. It would be a mistake to assume that what happened in that pizzeria was some isolated aberration. It is actually the culmination of a trend that has been building for years. In the increasing absence of definitive and unequivocal journalism, there rose this alternate universe of websites, radio and television shows that imitated journalistic tropes and was absolutely willing to be definitive and unequivocal. It looked and sounded like journalism.

The only missing was the part about giving a damn about fairness, impartiality and facts.

None of that was part of the mission statement here. Providing intellectual aid and comfort for ideological extremism was. Suddenly, you could say anything you wanted and it didn’t really matter all that much if it were true. Where truth had once been hard and fast, now it was soft and malleable and subject to interpretation. Which is how you end up with a counselor to the president saying, with a straight face, that the White House press secretary offered “alternative facts.”

Again, this has been coming for a long time.

Stephen Colbert spoke of it 12 years ago in the first episode of The Colbert Report, where, in his character as blowhard conservative pundit, he coined the word “truthiness” to cover that which one feels to be true and wants to be true, regardless of whether it actually is true.

Six years later, then Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, offered a textbook example of this, claiming in a speech on the floor of the Senate that abortion services were well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does. When Planned Parenthood challenged this, pointing out that only about three percent of its services involve abortions, Kyl’s office sent out a written statement that his comment was “not intended to be factual.” I repeat: “not intended to be factual.”

It could be a mission statement for this era, for all the politicians and alternate universe journalists who play whack-a- mole with the truth on a regular basis.

It could be a mission statement for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who claimed Democrats set up and manipulated the violence in Charlottesville.

It could be a mission statement for Tucker Carlson, who said the United Stated ended slavery around the world.

It could be a mission statement for newly elected Sen. Roy Moore, who said there were communities in Illinois and Indiana living under sharia law.

And you have to understand: What I am reacting to here is not simply the lies, but the absolute indifference to the truth.

This image is taken from a World War I recruitment poster that prominently featured Henry Johnson, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. (Credit: U.S. Army)

This image is taken from a World War I recruitment poster that prominently featured Henry Johnson, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. (Credit: U.S. Army)

This was embodied vividly for me in an email I received seven years ago, one I referenced in my most recent column. I had written about Henry Johnson, who was an African-American soldier of the First World War. Johnson was not a big man. He stood 5’4” and weighed 130 pounds and yet, he singlehandedly fought off over a dozen Germans who tried to overrun his post. This happened on May 15, 1918. Though his gun jammed and he was wounded 21 times, Johnson defeated the Germans, held his ground and lived to tell the tale.

In response to that column, I received an email from a fellow named Ken. He wrote: “Hate to tell you that blacks were not allowed into combat intell 1947, that fact. World War II ended in 1945. So all that feel good, one black man killing two dozen Nazi, is just that, PC bull.”

Now, the story of Henry Johnson was recounted in news media of the time, including the New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post, it’s found in history books like Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett, Jr. and the Dictionary of American Negro Biography by Rayford Logan. Theodore Roosevelt even called Johnson one of the five bravest soldiers in the war. Yet, when my assistant, Judi Smith, sent Mr. Thompson documentation of Johnson’s heroics, he still insisted it had not happened.

What bothered me wasn’t that he had trouble believing what Henry Johnson did; it’s an amazing story. What bothered me wasn’t that his own information was so blatantly wrong; contrary to what he wrote, African Americans have fought in every U.S. war since the revolution of 1776, the military was desegregated in 1952, not 1947, and there were no Nazis in World War One.

No, what bothered me is that this gentleman felt no need to even address the facts, much less refute them. He believed what he believed and there were no facts factual enough, persuasive enough, authoritative enough, to get him to even consider changing his mind.

Since then, I have had variations of that experience many times:

“Mr. Pitts, do you expect me to believe it just because it’s printed in the New York Times?”

“Mr. Pitts, can you really believe it just because a university study says it’s true?”

“Mr. Pitts, I’m not going to believe that just because you back it up with government statistics.”

We are witnessing nothing less than a secession from reality by a large portion of our fellow citizens, a civil war of ideas and ideals in which the brazen lie carries the same weight as the actual fact, provided it is said loudly enough and satisfies the listener’s emotional need.

And I read where Facebook and the Kansas City Star have teamed up on a news literacy project while Politifact is touring conservative enclaves around the country, both in a bid to battle misinformation. And I think these are wonderful ideas. But I also think we have to be prepared for the very real notion that battling misinformation will prove more difficult than you might think. I’ve become convinced that some of us actually want misinformation, prefer the comforts of the lie to the challenges of the truth.

In which case the ultimate fix, if there is to be one, will not come from appeals to this generation of news consumers, but from educating the next generation, the ones studying now in middle and high school, teaching them to value the truth and to be discerning and critical consumers of the news.

This is critical for the simple reason that a nation which has no agreed-upon pool of facts in common can have no shared framework from which to address its problems, much less solve them.

I am aware of what will probably seem the very slippery slope that I invite you out onto. Some of you will balk at the notion that judgment has a place in journalism. Some of you will be concerned about inflicting your own unconscious biases upon your readers. And some of you will no doubt note that it’s rather rich hearing all of this advice about how to cover the news from a guy whose job description is opinion.
To take those in order, I will say that I’m glad the newspapers covering the Civil Rights Movement did not fear judgment, even knowing that some got it wrong and some stood on the side of segregation and oppression. But I am thankful there were enough journalists who saw a very clear moral story unfolding in the 1950s and ‘60s and had the courage, conscience and conviction to frame it as such.

"The ultimate fix, if there is to be one, will not come from appeals to this generation of news consumers, but from educating the next generation, the ones studying now in middle and high school, teaching them to value the truth and to be discerning and critical consumers of the news."

“The ultimate fix, if there is to be one, will not come from appeals to this generation of news consumers, but from educating the next generation, the ones studying now in middle and high school, teaching them to value the truth and to be discerning and critical consumers of the news.”

As to the infliction of your unconscious biases, yeah, that’s a danger. Hell, it’s a probability. But that already happens. As I’ve said, you can’t escape judgment in journalism, even when you try. The only corrective is to try to be aware of your blind spots and open to those who offer constructive correction. That’s the best any of us can do. I would much rather read a story encoded with some journalist’s unconscious bias than to read one from some journalist working hard to say nothing definitive.

Finally, as to being an opinion writer talking about news coverage, yeah, guilty as charged. I am well aware that what I do offers me a leeway that a reporter simply doesn’t have.

But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

I am inordinately proud to be one of you, even in – especially in – an era that is so challenging for the nation at large and for journalism in particular. I persist in believing that ours is an honorable and noble profession and that, for all the studied cynicism with which your average journalist armors herself on a daily basis, most of us know that, most of us understand there is a reason ours is the only profession mentioned by name – and specifically protected – in the Constitution. I persist in believing most of regard what we do as a calling.

Today, I am calling you to be definitive, to exercise your best judgment and most of all, to be brave. The people we serve need that from us more than they ever have, whether they know it or not.

In an era of false equivalence, pretzel logic and alternate facts run amok, the facts need someone to defend them, the truth needs someone to tell it.

I can think of no one better than us.