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 path to its revival lies in self-sacrifice, and in placing collective interests ahead of the narrowly personal.
The death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world’s biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago. Some authors, like conservative philosopher Patrick Deneen, of Why Liberalism Failed, have come to bury yesterday’s dogma. Others, like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) come rather to praise. I’m in the latter group; the title-in-my-head of the book I’m now writing is What Was Liberalism.
But perhaps, like God, liberalism has been buried prematurely. Maybe the question that we should be asking is not what killed liberalism, but rather, what can we learn from liberalism’s long story of persistence—and how can we apply those insights in order to help liberalism write a new story for our own time.
Last weekend’s security conference in Munich was a stark reminder that this class has nothing of substance to offer a world in turmoil.
Eighty years ago in Munich, French and British politicians handed Czechoslovakia over to Adolf Hitler’s carving knife. Twenty-five years later, a German veteran of the ensuing war founded a conference in Munich that, in its own way, was designed to ensure that such a mistake would never reoccur. That veteran, Ewald von Kleist, came from a distinguished Prussian military family; he served as an officer in the Wehrmacht, had opposed Hitler, and participated actively in a plot against him. He was sent to a prison camp, and was lucky to have escaped execution.
The conference was originally called Wehrkunde (loosely translated as “military affairs”), and since 1963 it has met almost every year in Munich. The picturesque old Bayerischer Hof Hotel, where the event is held each year, becomes a seething mass of nearly 700 politicians, businesspeople, pundits, and officers, all eyed coldly and shoved out of the way by squads of contemptuous bodyguards. Attendees not eminent enough to have reserved seating often cannot elbow their way to the policy wonk mosh pit that the conference floor morphs into. The bathrooms can barely handle their traffic, and the hotel takes on the moist warmth and stale air of an aging high school gym. But still they come, now in the many hundreds, slowed by the officious motorcades of the truly important, trudging past half a dozen security cordons manned by thousands of vigilant German police.
The outrage directed against the New York Times writer Bari Weiss is the latest illustration of a culture that undermines the causes it seeks to advance.
One of America’s best attributes wasn’t fully real to me until I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, with Asian American classmates. Their answers to the question “Where are you from?” were often met with confusion by locals, who had trouble even conceiving of a nation without an ethnic conception of citizenship. As a Californian, I knew not only that people of Asian descent were as American as white people like me, but that many of their ancestors arrived before mine. And I saw why Americans who don’t grasp those truths offend.
Another of America’s best attributes concerns those who immigrate here. People who become U.S. citizens later in life—as did Albert Einstein, Desi Arnez, and Patrick Ewing—are no less American, no more “other,” than the native born. In fact, when my friend Andrew Sullivan was finally granted U.S. citizenship, as well as when efforts began to secure legal protections for undocumented immigrants brought here as children, I realized that my own conception about what it means to be an American is even broader than the legal definition: I’d long considered people like Andrew as well as those kids to be “one of us.”
A new study explores a strange paradox: In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.
Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.
Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or “STEM,” as its known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.
According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel “helpless while performing a math problem.”
Trump’s gravest responsibility is to defend the United States from foreign attack—and he’s done nothing to fulfill it.
As the rest of America mourns the victims of the Parkland, Florida, massacre, President Trump took to Twitter.
Not for him the rituals of grief. He is too consumed by rage and resentment. He interrupted his holidaying schedule at Mar-a-Lago only briefly, for a visit to a hospital where some of the shooting victims were treated. He posed afterward for a grinning thumbs-up photo op. Pain at another’s heartbreak—that emotion is for losers, apparently.
Having failed at one presidential duty, to speak for the nation at times of national tragedy, Trump resumed shirking an even more supreme task: defending the nation against foreign attack.
Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian persons and three entities that conspired to violate federal election law, to the benefit of Trump and Republican congressional candidates. This is not the whole of the story by any means. This Mueller indictment references only Russian operations on Facebook. It does not deal with the weaponization of hacked information via WikiLeaks. Or the reports that the Russians funneled millions of dollars of election spending through the NRA’s political action committees. But this indictment does show enough to answer some questions about the scale and methods of the Russian intervention—and pose a new question, the most important of them all.
They encourage profligate spending and help dictators burnish their prestige. Who needs them?
Other than fuel corruption, make countries spend pointlessly and profligately, inflame nationalist sentiment, act as onanistic stand-ins for geopolitical tensions, and cloak authoritarian leaders in legitimacy, what have the Olympics ever done for us?
It is my real and very honest question every two years: What are the Olympics good for? Why do we continue to have them? Certainly for the athletes participating they can represent the pinnacle of a career worth of hard work; maybe even a life’s ambition realized. But for the rest of us, what is the point? Aside from the temporary flash of sumptuous spectacle, there’s little good that ever comes of the Games. If anything, they exacerbate some of the worst of human nature.
Those toiling inside this administration are fooling themselves if they think they can somehow rise above the character and temperament of this president to shepherd this country through to a more normal time.
What a contrast.
I woke up on Sunday morning and first read the news accounts of National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s cogent speech to the Munich Security Conference. I then read the president’s tweets. And some more tweets. And, just when I thought he was done, some more tweets.
As I have written before, you have to give this administration some credit for having assembled some pretty good foreign policy talent. The Republican Party arguably didn’t have the deepest bench on foreign policy in 2017, having been out of the executive branch for eight years, and some of the best talent available to the administration after Trump was elected was ineligible for having signed one of the infamous Never Trump letters over the course of the 2016 campaign.
The new Mueller indictment doesn’t get at the root of the problem: the unchecked market power of social-media companies.
Last Friday, the Justice Department charged 13 Russians with attempting to subvert the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The case presented by Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out an elaborate scheme of information operations, carried out primarily via the social media websites Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Through the Internet Research Agency, a so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, the Russians created hundreds of fake accounts on these services, which then disseminated fake news and other misleading content about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to hundreds of thousands of users. They focused their campaign on topics that divide America—race, immigration, and religion—and targeted battleground states. According to figures reported by Facebook and Twitter, the Russian campaign reached more than 125 million Americans on Facebook; over 675,000 people engaged with Russian trolls on Twitter. The Russians’ effort is, of course, ongoing.
The ideological conflict in Black Panther animates not only Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack for the movie, but also the artist’s whole ethos.
During “Fuck Your Ethnicity,” the very first song on Kendrick Lamar’s very first album, a robotic voice beamed in with this: “Reporting live from Planet Terminator X, I am Martin Luther King with an AK-47.”
That moment feels prescient after the release of Black Panther, the Marvel superhero story soundtracked by Lamar. There’s the line’s sci-fi, futuristic concept. There’s the nod to black nationalism and hip-hop history with the mention of Public Enemy’s Terminator X. And there’s the twinning of symbols of violence with nonviolence, suggesting that even a champion of compassion might still sometimes have to pick up a weapon.
Ryan Coogler’s absorbing Black Panther uses the hidden high-tech African utopia of Wakanda as the setting to explore a question well familiar in the arc of history. What should people routinely exploited by racist systems do? Individually pursue their own success? Band together and fight back? Or find a third way? As my colleague Vann Newkirk writes, Black Panther fits into a long lineage as “a fantasy about black power”—and about how best to use that power.
“If the Internet Research Agency were a start-up media company, they probably would not be picking up a fresh round of venture capital.”
It might be nice for Democrats and #NeverTrumpers to believe that Russia’s troll factory brought Donald Trump the 2016 Presidential Election.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians associated with the Internet Research Agency definitively shows, given current evidence, that while a small team in St. Petersburg ran a successful audience-development campaign mostly on behalf of Trump, that campaign was neither targeted nor sizable enough to change the election’s result.
Make no mistake: This was self-described and actual “information warfare.” The point was to sow discord and distrust in the American electorate. And with a few dozen people—around 80 at the peak—they managed to reach 150 million people through Facebook and Instagram. In September 2016, the indictment states that the monthly budget of the unit that contained the U.S. election-interference operation was $1.25 million. That’s pretty good bang for the buck.