America, Bad Journalism, divided states of america, media, Serious Writing, Thoughts, TRUMP

Consumption of Information in a Divided Country

This is the 2nd installment in a series of posts outlining the divided nature of the United States of America. All posts can be found here

One of the hallmarks of a functional society is not just the availability and constant dissemination of information, but also the diverse sources that perform the act of dissemination. As an extreme, take North Korea for instance where there are a few media outlets (radio, print and TV) but they are all controlled by the same one source – the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. Contrast that to a country like the United States where there are approximately 1300 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations, and hundreds of news channels – and they are controlled by many different groups including many that are independently owned.

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So yes, the United States has way more freedom of press than North Korea (duh!). But this is not a binary measurement with North Korea as 0 and the United States as 1. There is a full spectrum of possibilities in between. We all know the consequences of the lack of freedom of press in a country like North Korea. But it would be incorrect to presume that the other extreme is perfect. Far from it. As we will see below, a free press doesn’t necessarily mean a fair press. It is not just the veracity of the reporting that counts in a free press. What counts equally is what is and what is not reported by each source of information.

(For the sake of ease of putting my point across in this post, I am going to use the phrases ‘sources of information’,  ‘information outlets’, ‘media house’, ‘news outlet’ and ‘media’ interchangeably. But what they will refer to is any platform through which information is disseminated on any topic. Additionally, when I refer to news outlets covering and presenting only ‘specific topics’ or ‘different sets of facts about a topic’, it is implied to include instances of news outlets presenting selective facts on a topic, covering only developments that peddle a certain narrative or that are favorable to an organization/ideology, providing disproportionately large amounts of airtime/print space to people espousing a certain point of view, present information/opinion in an us vs them format, etc).

The Ideal World and the Real World

In an ideal world, people think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information on hand and with no inherent bias. But we do not live in such a world. We live in a world where people believe that they think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information, and they believe that they do so with no inherent bias.

Another aspect of an ‘ideal world’ would be that any information disseminated by a source is both complete and unbiased. This means that any news outlet would provide all the different pieces of information on a given topic while providing the appropriate emphasis on each of those different pieces. But we all know that is also not the reality.

The reality is that different media outlets provide and emphasize different sets of facts on the same topic, but rarely present all the facts about it. Each outlet, of course, strongly believes that the specific sets of facts that they are emphasizing are the ones that deserve the attention of the society. So what we end up having is a large number of sources of information disseminating and emphasizing different sets of facts with each believing that their ‘coverage’ is the more relevant (or even important) one to the society. However, none of these media outlets would cover all the facts of the topic at hand.

How We SHOULD be Consuming Information

There is a very important distinction to be made here. It is one thing to have different media outlets emphasizing different pieces of information on a given topic but still doing so within the context of the overall umbrella of information on that topic. It is something totally different when the various media outlets choose to present and emphasize only certain pieces of information while partially or completely ignoring the rest of the facts on that topic. The former is an instance where the diversity of the information outlets becomes an asset by being able to provide a voice for those specific (parts of) topics that would otherwise have not been emphasized elsewhere. The latter implies straight up bias where the media outlets are deliberately disseminating a specific set of information while withholding another set of information.

Now let us take our real world where we have the latter scenario – one in which there are many different outlets that are disseminating information on different topics or different parts of the same topic, and exhibiting clear bias. In such a society, what would a rational person do if they sought information on a wide ranging topic such as, say, immigration?

First and foremost, they would go to one source of information and gather all the facts from that source. But importantly, they would also identify and acknowledge that the first source does not necessarily provide all the facts of the topic. This would then compel them to seek out a different source of information that would provide the facts that were necessarily not part of the first source’s coverage. Then they would repeat this until they believe that they have reasonably covered all the different aspects of the topic at hand. With this, they would then have a perspective on the topic based on complete information about the wide ranging aspects of that topic. And if society was filled with such people, we would have a very well informed population who would call for specific and reasonable action to address the issues of the society.

How we Actually Consume Information

(OK now let me return from that awesome parallel universe to our own less impressive one.)

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But unfortunately, we human beings are not a rational species. We are not even meant to be a rational species based on the way our brain works – which means we have to put in that much more effort to behave rationally. So what this means is that we all have inherent biases that are hard to get rid of. It also means that it is extremely hard for us to actively seek out information that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs or opinions. These two fundamental traits influence and manifest in the way we consume information.

Because of our inherent bias, we are already predisposed to certain sources of information. These outlets typically cover and emphasize specific people, topics or parts of topics that we are already in (at least) general agreement with. Consuming information from such a source will further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and opinions about a topic while gathering no new or potentially contradictory facts about the same topic.

This will lead us to a deeper entrenchment into the same set of beliefs and opinions thereby helping our brain get even more cozy in its comfort zone. And then, the vicious cycle turns into more like a spiral where we get entrenched deeper and deeper into our own sets of beliefs and becoming increasingly incapable of processing any information contradictory to it.

But unfortunately, that is how information is consumed in this day and age. We gather our information from sources that typically disseminate the kind of information we already agree with, while (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding sources of information which provide information that could potentially be contradictory to what we already believe in. Essentially, we are all slaves to our confirmation bias.

In the next post, we will look at how such a mode of information consumption impacts society in general. 

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America, Bad Journalism, Dudeism, Fake News, media, Mediocrity, Serious Writing, Thoughts

What ‘The Big Lebowski’ Teaches Us About Media Bias

In one of the most enduring scenes that ever came out of Hollywood cinema, there lies a rather deep hidden meaning. It becomes painfully obvious once you see through it. And when you do, you will appreciate the script and the context that much more. The scene is from the movie The Big Lebowski and features Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.

Here is the context (SPOILERS ahead!):

The Dude has failed in the task entrusted to him by an old billionaire. The task is to deliver a large amount of ransom money in exchange for Bunny – the trophy wife of the said billionaire. He has instead lost that money and the old man castigates him for his ineptitude by showing him the consequences of his failure – which involves a toe that is  believed to belong to the said kidnapping victim. Disappointed with himself and worried about the victim, The Dude then ‘discusses’ the situation with his buddy Walter Sobchak. Here it is in full:

WALTER
That wasn’t her toe.

DUDE
Whose toe was it, Walter?

WALTER
How the fuck should I know? I do
know that nothing about it indicates–

DUDE
The nail polish, Walter.

WALTER
Fine, Dude. As if it’s impossible
to get some nail polish, apply it to
someone else’s toe–

DUDE
Someone else’s–where the fuck are
they gonna–

WALTER
You want a toe? I can get you a
toe, believe me. There are ways,
Dude. You don’t wanna know about
it, believe me.

DUDE
But Walter–

WALTER
I’ll get you a toe by 3 o’ clock–with nail polish. These
fucking amateurs. They send us a
toe, we’re supposed to shit our-
selves with fear. Jesus Christ. My
point is–

DUDE
They’re gonna kill her, Walter, and
then they’re gonna kill me–

WALTER
Well that’s just, that’s the stress
talking, Dude. So far we have what
looks to me like a series of
victimless crimes–

DUDE
What about the toe?

WALTER
FORGET ABOUT THE FUCKING TOE!

Essentially, the Dude has come to believe that the toe that is shown to him by Jeffrey Lebowski (the Billionaire) does indeed belong to ‘Bunny’ – the Billionaire’s wife – the apparent victim of a kidnapping. But Walter is clearly having none of it. He firmly believes that the toe is another in a series of ‘victimless crimes’ that are done by ‘fucking amateurs’! (Of course, in the end Walter turns out to be spot on!)

Which all brings us to a simple question.

Why did the Dude believe that the toe did indeed belong to Bunny? 

On the face of it, the apparent ‘proof’ consisted not of direct evidence of the identity of the victim, but instead consisted of an indicator – one which needs to be taken at face value without questioning in order to arrive at the suggested conclusion – that the toe does indeed belong to Bunny. It is this very ‘indicator’ nature of the evidence that Walter Sobchak questions and confidently declares that he could generate the same evidence by 3 o’ clock that same day (with nail polish!)!

The Dude believed the initial assertion (that Bunny was harmed because of his ineptitude in not delivering the money) not because of the ‘proof’ (a severed toe) that was presented to him. Instead, he started off by taking the initial assertion at face value without questioning, and then used the ‘proof’ to confirm this belief. The narrative was setup in such a way for the Dude that he just assumed the initial assertion was true and perceived whatever ‘proof’ he was then presented to simply confirm this assertion – even if that ‘proof’ was simply ‘indicative’ in nature.

Now where else have we all seen this? Where have we seen a topic being presented in such a way that it makes an assertion first and then uses primarily ‘indicative’ evidence to backup its claims?

There are a good number of ‘news’ websites and print media that utilize this very technique to sell stories and content. Many headlines from such organizations are usually articles involving a recent quote by a personality of some significance, or one or two facts that include numbers. This is then typically followed by a description of the context. But there is a sub-category here. This group of articles contain something more. It is usually subtle, but it is there nonetheless.

These articles contain a narrative that interpret the said development in a very specific way. And they do this not by offering any hard facts, but by providing evidence that are at best ‘indicative’ in nature. These articles usually contain a catchy headline that typically signals something to be feared or worried about. The article then starts off by repeating the assertion made in the headline in a more elaborate manner. Then it goes on to the actual quote or fact(oid) which typically forms a very minor part of the full article. Then the article attempts to reference previous similar developments in an effort to forge an apparent pattern – all spelling doom to varying degrees. Then the article goes on to make statements that involve the use of modal verbs such as ‘may’, ‘can’, ‘might’, ‘could’ indicating the possibility of further bad news. And then, finally, at the end of it all, to tie it all together (I had to obviously use the pun!) and to bring a sense of authenticity and confirmation to their idle speculations, they ‘reveal the toe’!

The ‘toe’ typically involves a quote by someone directly unrelated to the actual development, but one who holds a position of some significance in some industry, academia or organization that would entitle him/her to have opinions on the matter under consideration. The bigger the said person’s significance/position, higher the level of authenticity that is perceived to be on the speculations. It is important to note that these quotes are not something that is made by these persons out of their own volition without being specifically asked for. This is almost always a situation where the quotes are actively sought out by the person writing the article, and these quotes are then included in the article to provide a sense of truth and authenticity (and general concern) to the speculative inferences/statements made preceding them. (They send us a toe, we’re supposed to shit ourselves with fear.) In a sense, the person writing the article has already built a narrative (without many facts to support them) and then looks for quotes from ‘experts’ or ‘analysts’ to corroborate the same. Of course, nowadays, these ‘experts’ are dime a dozen. (You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me.) So it is another question altogether whether every single ‘expert’ he/she contacts provides quotes that corroborate their narrative, or if he/she only includes those experts’ quotes that does corroborate their speculation.

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See this Dec 25th article on CNN Money about Brexit for a good demonstration of the above idea. Also go to this Dec 13th article by the same writer on the same topic where he appears to have some information that doesn’t necessarily support the narrative in the article in the Dec 25th article. Also observe how he has cleverly left out those pieces of information in the Dec 25th article.

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So at the end of it all, it is simply a case of the writer making an initial speculative assertion and then ‘revealing the toe’ to backup their claims. So the question you, as a reader, have to ask is, “Am I being presented actual proof based on hard facts, or am I being ‘shown the toe’?” If you suspect the latter, then you know the ‘news article’ is nothing more than clickbait garbage. If it is the product of actual investigative journalism, then you will probably see a lot more information in the form of hard facts backing up the said claims. It is up to you to actively seek out the difference.

In this day and age of information/noise overload, if you even mildly suspect that you are being ‘shown the toe’, then it very likely is indeed just garbage. You should then be wary of any article from that particular source of ‘news’. This is a very simple and practical approach to consuming news media today and to distance ourselves away from fake news, pre-determined narratives, and idle speculation masquerading as truth. And if enough people do this on a regular basis, then we might still have some hope left for humanity’s progress.

America, Bad Journalism, media, Movies, Serious Writing, Thoughts, TRUMP

The Rewards of Reading/Watching a Full Speech or Interview

In this age where information comes from media stories featuring selective quotes and needless commentary, it is very easy to miss out on the beauty, elegance, significance, and sometimes the necessity, of reading or listening to a full speech or an interview AS IS. It helps us get the proper context for the words, compels us to decide for ourselves what the highlights of the speech/interview are, and most importantly, it allows us to frame our own opinion about the content and the person.

Whenever there is an interview or a speech given by some personality I am interested in, I typically just google the full transcript of it. Yes, it takes a little more time to get through it, but it is always very rewarding. The flow of the content is very important to me, as is the overall tone and content.

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I am specifically reminded of an interview Kanye West gave to Surface Mag. It is one of the best interviews I have ever read, and after reading it, I have to grudgingly accept that this man is one of the most fascinating human beings on this planet. At the risk of going against the very point I am trying to make here, I am going to pull out a couple of quotes from what Kanye says in the interview (You will see why this is justified!):

This is turning into a 12-minute freestyle. Which is good. When I talk it’s like a painting.

I think you should just run this interview clean. You gotta let the painting be open with this let-me-just-zone-out-with-Ye-for-a-second thing.

Just gotta admire the man! He knows exactly what he is saying and how people should hear what he is saying!

In all honesty, I am sure all powerful people who have ever given an interview or a speech – only to have the media cherry pick the most controversial statements and reduce the whole interview to just that one soundbite – will agree with Kanye on this one!

But there is another side to this story. It is the part where we, as common people, MISS OUT on something beautiful, elegant and sometimes absolutely necessary information or advice simply because we do not have the patience or the desire to read through a whole interview or speech. Let us face it. Today, we get our perspectives from Memes, our opinions from Facebook updates, and our news from a headline. We also watch videos only when the information or situation to be conveyed is done so in a compressed manner and is under 30 seconds.

Amidst all this cacophony of piece-meal consumption of information, it is easy to spot and observe what we do see. But it is hard to realize what it is that we do not see, especially when we do not know what to expect.

In essence, what we are missing out on is a deeper insight into some idea, a better appreciation (good or bad) of the person who is making the speech, or simply some crucial facts about an issue. When we finish reading a full speech without interruption (such as commentary/ads, etc), we even have the opportunity to pause for a second and just meditate on the words of the person. Anyone who has actually done that – say after reading a book or watching a full movie – will be acutely aware of its rewards. And the more people do that, the better the debate will be on any given topic.

John McCain has been dominating the news cycles for his No vote to repeal Obamacare and defeating the Republicans’ attempt to dismantle the law. Media outlets have also been showing clips of his speech prior to the No vote where he urged bipartisan attempts to rework the healthcare law and all bills in general. But what most folks missed out on is the full speech he gave. I read the full speech yesterday, and I was extremely moved by every word that he said. There was such an important message with so many details in what he said. The flow of the speech and the ultimate plea it makes resonated with me long after I had finished reading it. It was a speech that showed there is still some hope left for this Congress to work the way it was intended to. And for all the problems plaguing this administration and the Republican party, this speech showed there may still be some sane men left who know their duties and responsibilities. It is a speech every single American – liberal or conservative – should read/watch in its entirety. There is so much truth in what McCain says that one really needs to spend a few minutes just contemplating after reading it. Ultimately, it is what every American NEEDS to hear in this day of partisanship and great divide.

 

It is easily one of the best political speeches I have ever read. In fact, if this man was running for President, and gave this speech, I would tell all my friends to vote for him. (And that is a big deal coming from a guy like me).

So yes, please go ahead and read his full speech or watch it below in full.

I started writing this post as just a small Facebook update when it began to take a life of its own. But this is something I feel very strongly about in general and so I had to do justice to it, and hence this longer post.

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Reporting of selective quotes or providing needless commentary or background in a media story frustrates me to no end. And so, I offer the following general approach to bypass such unnecessary and/or incomplete articles:

If you read a headline you find interesting, first observe if the headline itself is a quote or a statement. If it is, and you already know the background of that story, then simply skip all the ‘reporting’ in the article and go straight to the quotes. Read the quotes and be done with it.

If you are not familiar with the story, then read the full article.

If the article quotes what Trump said on Twitter, close the news article, open Trump’s Twitter account and read all his tweets from the previous day or two up until his latest tweet. Then be done with it. There is really nothing more to know.

The above approach most commonly applies to all developing stories where there has been some incremental development. True journalism instead can be found in articles that are NOT developing stories and where there has actually been some investigation involved.

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America, Bad Journalism, Lame, media, Mediocrity, Serious Writing, Thoughts

The Benefits of a Biased Media

One of the things that has truly fascinated me after me coming to the USA has been the state of the mainstream media in the US.

For one, it is downright pathetic and despicable. News has been conveniently and deliberately replaced by a toxic amalgam of speculation, sensationalism, hype, exaggeration, “expert opinion”, and dramatized debates – all aimed at providing no useful information or perspectives. I have personally come across very few instances of actual news reporting over the past couple of years among American news channels.

Secondly, and perhaps, more significantly, almost every single news channel in the USA is, simply put, biased. It is either Left or Right. But, to me, what appears to be the real talking point  is that there is barely any effort made by the news channels to try to dispel the general impression of bias among the viewers. Yes there have been a few statements released by the channels and a few of them may even have something indicating no bias in their slogans. But these efforts appear to be nothing more than rhetoric. It is a way of saying : “We will say we are unbiased just because we are required to, but you the viewer already knows better.”

Unbalanced and not hiding it.

My intention here is not to expose the obvious fallacies in a biased media. It has been well documented and a google search will provide ample references to read through. Instead, I intend to explore the contrast I have seen with the biased media back in India. In fact, after due contemplation, I have come to realize and appreciate the NEED for a biased media.

Back in India, the story isn’t that different from the first point I mentioned earlier. It is equally pathetic and despicable and checks all the boxes of the toxic amalgam. It is also heavily biased. But where the Indian and American mainstream media differ, is that ALL the news channels in India are biased towards only one political party.

Just a quick summary of the current political scenario in India. The ruling party is the Congress (with its allies) and the main opposition party is the BJP (with its allies). The Congress party has historically dominated the elections and they have been in power for the past 7 years now. They are also extremely corrupt. The opposition party has had its own fair share of troubles from within and is now looking to challenge the upcoming 2014 elections with a popular and charismatic new leader in one Narendra Modi.

The mainstream media (both print and TV) have almost without exception stuck behind the ruling Congress party through all its scandals, failed economic policies and the impotent Prime Minister. News items are routinely twisted to portray the Congress in favorable light to the public. Questions are repeatedly asked of the BJP and its allies while no similar inquiry is made into the Congress. This process has been going on for a while now. So much so, it has become the norm of any news channel.

In such a situation, I have always looked at the US model of mainstream media – and its bias. If the Republican party leaders say something totally ridiculous (which appears to happen every other day nowadays), MSNBC will eat those Senators or Congressmen alive on Live television. Whenever a scandal breaks open for the Obama administration (which also appears to happen every other day nowadays), Fox News is right there to keep pounding on the issue till….well…the next scandal breaks out.

Ultimately, there is no letting up for either party. A Congressman can have some media outlets putting out a story in his/her favor but there is no stopping a bunch of other media outlets who will keep harping away at his/her story until something bigger comes up.

Now here is where the contrast becomes very evident. In a country where the entire news media favors one single party, the scales are already tilted. The solution to this does not involve in getting the existing news channels and print media to become unbiased. Instead, the balance in the scales can only be achieved by throwing an equal weight on the empty scale.

The subtleties and fine details of any bill, legislation, scandal, breakthrough or victory is best revealed through a critique. That is an observation I have repeatedly seen to be true. And simply put, there is just not enough air time for a news channel to critique/analyze BOTH sides of the story on any news item – definitely not when the priority is the previously mentioned toxic amalgam. In such a situation, the only solution is to create two extremes and allowing them to balance out the scales to the best of their abilities. This allows for both points of view to be presented in full and anybody who wishes to hear both sides of the story will have their needs met.

The downside of this proposition is the obvious. The general population may already have certain beliefs and opinions that are usually in agreement with one or the other political party. This inevitably leads them to watch the news channel that serves their bias. Because you see, when people watch news, they are not looking for information. They are looking for confirmation. This then becomes a classic case of confirmation bias – a perfect platform to reinforce already existing beliefs and opinions. So for instance, as time passes by, it will become increasingly difficult for a liberal to get himself to watch Fox News to see the other side of the argument.

Not to say that this isn’t already happening in the US. But the crux of my argument is that the alternative – a balanced and unbiased media –  is just not a reasonable expectation. If this is acknowledged, then the only other option that would balance the scales is having a fully biased media – with certain media outlets catering to one side of the story and another catering to the other side of the story.