Many times, at parties and in other conversations over the years, I
have vociferously defended fellow journalists against charges of bias
in their work. Particularly journalists working in the lowly field of
print journalism, as opposed to TV.
everyone in the field is perfect, unbiased, or even a good reporter.
And not that I haven't ever encountered an editor who really, really
wanted a story to say "X" as opposed to "Y." I remember one editor who
complained that a story I'd done about NASA test pilots didn't make
them sound like the wild cowboys he imagined they were.
(Unfortunately--or fortunately--the truth about test pilots is, they're
not cowboys. They're precision engineers and very calculated
risk-mitigators, hitting test cards with calm, methodical accuracy. The
risk isn't in their attitude. It's in the inherent hazards of testing
new technology under real conditions for the first time.)
within those caveats, I've always maintained that the majority of
professional print journalists, anyway, try very, very hard to get the
story right. But recently, I had an experience that gave me a new
perspective on the issue.
A few weeks ago, I
attended the public launch of a company's product that had, until that
point, been kept tightly under wraps. The product involved a
breakthrough approach and new technology that had the potential of
having a revolutionary impact on its industry, as well on consumers
around the world. Unlike most of the journalists covering the event, I
was not an expert on that particular industry. It wasn't my normal
"beat." The reason I was there was because I'd been interviewing the
company's CEO over the previous several months for a book project. But
that also meant that while I wasn't an expert about the industry in
general, I was in the odd position of knowing more about the company's
"secret" product than any other journalist in the room.
was an eye-opening experience. A lot of major news outlets and
publications were represented at the press conference following the
announcement. A few very general facts about the product had been
released, but the reporters had only been introduced to details about
it a half hour earlier. There was still a lot about how it worked, how
it differed from other emerging products, and why the company felt so
confident about its evolution and economic viability, that remained to
But the reporters' questions
weren't geared toward getting a better understanding of those points.
They were narrowly focused on one or two aspects of the story. And from
the questions that were being asked, I realized--because I had so much
more information on the subject--that the reporters were missing a
couple of really important pieces of understanding about the product
and its use. And as the event progressed, I also realized that the
questions that might have uncovered those pieces weren't being asked
because the reporters already had a story angle in their heads and were
focused only on getting the necessary data points to flesh out and back
up what they already thought was the story.
is always a tension, as a journalist, between asking open-ended
questions that allow an interview subject to explain something and
pressing or challenging them on accuracy or details. But if you think
you already know the subject, or already have a story angle half-formed
in your head, it's easy to overlook the first part.
journalists at the press conference didn't have a bias as the term is
normally used; that is, I didn't get the sense that they were
inherently for or against the company or its product. They just
appeared to think they knew the subject well enough, or had a set
enough idea in their heads as to what this kind of story was about,
that they pursued only the lines of questioning necessary to fill in
the blanks of that presumed story line. As a result, they left the
press conference with less knowledge and understanding than they
otherwise might have had. And while nobody could have said the
resulting stories were entirely wrong, they definitely suffered
from that lapse. Especially, as might be expected, when it came to the
predictions they made about the product's evolution or future.
In his new book, How We Decide,
Jonah Lehrer cites a research study done by U.C. Berkeley professor
Philip Tetlock. Tetlock questioned 284 people who made their living
"commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,"
asking them to make predictions about future events. Over the course of
the study, Tetlock collected quantitative data on over 82,000
predictions, as well as information from follow-up interviews with the
subjects about the thought processes they'd used to come to those
His findings were surprising.
Most of Tetlock's questions about the future events were put in the
form of specific, multiple choice questions, with three possible
answers. But for all their expertise, the pundits' predictions turned
out to be correct less than 33% of the time. Which meant, as Lehrer
puts it, that a "dart-throwing chimp" would have had a higher rate of
success. Tetlock also found that the least accurate predictions were
made by the most famous experts in the group.
Why was that? According to Lehrer,
"The central error diagnosed by Tetlock was the sin of certainty,
which led the 'experts' to impose a top-down solution on their
decision-making processes ... When pundits were convinced that they
were right, they ignored any brain areas that implied they might be
Tetlock himself, Lehrer
says, concluded that "The dominant danger [for pundits] remains hubris,
the vice of closed-mindedness, of dismissing dissonant possibilities
A friend of mine who's an editor at the New York Times
said those results don't surprise him at all. "If you watch a White
House press conference," he said, "you can tell who the new reporters
are. They're often the ones who ask the best questions." I must have
looked a little surprised. "Seriously," he said. "I actually think we
should rotate reporters' beats every two years, so nobody ever thinks
they're too much of an expert at anything."
an interesting idea. There's some advantage to having good background
in a subject, of course. For one thing, it takes a lot less time to
research and write a story if you at least know the general subject
matter and have tracked news developments in it over a period of time.
And while an expert can miss information because they assume they
already know what there is to know, a newcomer can miss information
from not knowing enough to know what there is to ask.
a tricky balance to try to strike--in part because assuming we know the
salient points of a topic or story isn't an obvious, conscious bias as
most people define or understand the term. Indeed, "practically all" of
the professionals in Tetlock's study claimed, and no doubt believed,
that they were dispassionately analyzing the evidence. But it's a
reminder that we all have, as Tetlock put it, the potential to become
"prisoners of our preconceptions." And that sometimes, even if we think
we know the story, it might be worth asking questions as if we don't.
Every now and then, we might hear or learn something that, as long as
we're open to hearing it, might change our minds about what the real
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
First, he was tweeting about peas and guacamole. Then he was making playlists on Spotify. Now, he’s commenting on Facebook posts.
President Obama left a message on the above post by Humans of New York, a popular photo blog run by Brandon Stanton, whose content oscillates between heartwarming and heartbreaking. Here’s the post, with the signature “-bo” signoff the president uses on social media to tell users it’s the real deal.
The post comes a day after the Obama administration secured enough Senate support to guarantee Congress cannot block the nuclear deal brokered with Iran in June. And if you choose to read into its meaning, the post is the latest move by Obama to interact with Iran in ways that other recent U.S. presidents have not. In 2013, Obama spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by phone, marking the first conversation between U.S. and Iranian heads of state in 30 years.
A tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor believes young people are drawn to Jesus, tradition, and brokenness.
“When Christians really critique me for using salty language, I literally don’t give a shit.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, former addict, and head of a Denver church that’s 250 members strong. She’s frank and charming, and yes, she tends to cuss—colorful words pepper her new book, Accidental Saints. But she also doesn’t put a lot of stock in her own schtick.
“Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic—that’s interesting for like five minutes,” she said. “The fact that people want to hear from me—that, I really feel, has less to do with me and more to do with a Zeitgeist issue.”
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.