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 show, this season, with exploitative plotlines that treat racism as entertainment, is becoming harder and harder to defend.
This post reveals minor plot points for The Bachelorette Season 13 Episode 6.
A few years ago, in response to a combination of scientific studies, legal cases, and human tragedies, commentators began to question the morality of watching American football. We’d always known the sport was an especially dangerous one to play—that, indeed, is part of its brute appeal—but now there was undeniable evidence of that brutality, rendered in statistic and awful anecdote. To watch the violence play out, it became increasingly clear, was to be in some way complicit in it—to cast asilent vote, not with one’s pocketbook but with one’s attention, in favor of all that violence continuing.
The Bachelorette, of course, depicts a sport only in the loosest sense; the show is very rarely violent in the literal sense of the term. And yet it has recently adopted the same rough outlines that football acquired a few years before: The show, always questionable, has become in its latest season more troubling than it has even been before. Recent episodes of the long-running ABC show have laid bare just how craven and exploitative its producers have become. Problems that have long been simmering in its world have come to a boil. Watching it has become harder and harder to enjoy—and, like that other blood sport, harder and harder to defend.
Early drafts of a canonical work show how Muslims' understanding of their faith has evolved.
“What does the Koran say about…?” is perhaps the most common question my students ask me in the Islamic history courses I teach. It’s an understandable question, but they will be disappointed with the answer if they hope it will explain how Islam has been interpreted and practiced for all of history.
In the post-enlightenment West, a society historically influenced by Protestantism’s “back-to-the-Bible” appeal, many of my students have grown up imbibing a public discourse obsessed with a religious or civil tradition’s origins and founding documents—the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Constitution—and by extension often assume that the only book of consequence for Muslims is the Koran. After 9/11, sales of the Koran skyrocketed. More recently, in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting, news outlets from Haaretz to Newsweek ran pieces asking “What Does the Koran Say about Being Gay?” And over the past month, as ISIS called for increased attacksduring Ramadan, the Koran was again scrutinized as the source of the violence.
Gerard Baker thinks the president lies all the time, but insists that applying that appellation puts too high a burden on news organizations.
Last January, Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, urged caution in using the word “lie” to label untruths spoken by Donald Trump. Last week, The New York Times published an opinion article titled “Trump’s Lies” that purported to be a definitive list of the president’s falsehoods, invoking the word “lie” repeatedly.
What did Gerard Baker think about that?
Katie Couric asked him at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, eliciting an extended defense of his reticence in using the l-word that began with an admission that he personally thinks that Trump lies a lot.
“What I think is not really important,” he began. “I think the president probably lies a lot, right? I think the president makes things up at times. I think I've got a fair amount of reasons for believing that.”
Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever incur the charges in the church’s longstanding history of abuse.
Australia’s most senior member of the Catholic Church, Cardinal George Pell, was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault on Wednesday, making him the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever incur the charges. Pell is also the chief financial adviser to Pope Francis, whose “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual assault has been accused of lacking follow-through and failing to curb the church’s longstanding legacy of abuse.
On Wednesday, Australia’s Victoria Police said multiple complainants had come forward against Pell, but did not provide any further detail regarding the nature of the alleged assaults. The charges are considered “historic sexual offenses,” indicating that they occurred many years ago. According to the Associated Press, two men have previously accused Pell, then a senior priest in Melbourne, of touching them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s. Pell, whose religious career spans more than 50 years, has consistently denied the allegations.
A California company makes weed vaporizers to suit every mood—here’s what happened when I tried them.
I’d been traveling for work—to Europe then to Asia then to Europe again while pinging back and forth from L.A. to New York. For months my carryon contained the sneakers that I didn’t use in the hotel gyms I never visited. I was exhausted to the brink of tears since previous to this spate of travel. I had a schedule so rote I could give myself jetlag by sliding lunch up half an hour.
I’d gone straight to the weed store from LAX—ragged—trundling my suitcase past the spangly Turkish restaurant with the outline of a hookah on the sign, ducking into the alleyway with the Thai massage parlor on one end and my dispensary on the other. On the inside the shop looks like a cross between an Apple flagship and a Danish lighting boutique except there’s a security guard with a gun and a brown-haired girl who checks your ID and card and buzzes you through.
A look at the varied and even contradictory changes that GOP senators are seeking in exchange for their votes
After abandoning a quick vote on his original proposal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to come up with a revised health-care bill by Friday so it can be ready for debate and a vote when lawmakers return to Washington the week of July 10.
His challenge is stark: At least 10 Republican senators have declared their opposition to the plan McConnell originally unveiled, and he can afford only two defections and still get the 50 votes he needs to pass the bill. If he does, Vice President Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote.
McConnell’s central hurdle is that the 10 critics are split nearly down the middle between conservatives like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee who want the bill to spend less money and repeal more of the Affordable Care Act, and more moderate senators like Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski pushing to restore cuts to Medicaid and provide more funding to states. At the majority leader’s disposal is a pot of nearly $200 billion resulting from the fact that the original draft reduced the deficit by more than the Senate was required to do. Short of simple persuasion, McConnell’s narrow path to passage likely involves a combination of more money sought by moderates and a loosening of existing regulations that conservatives want—if the various factions will agree to a trade.
The ways some “healthy voice hearers” cope might be able to help people with psychotic disorders.
Jessica Dorner was lying in bed at her cousin’s house when her grandmother, a “pushy lady” in an apron who had been dead for several years, appeared in front of her. “I know you can see me,” Jessica heard her say, “and you need to do something about it.”
It was a lonely time in Jessica’s life. She was living away from home for the first time, and she thinks her grandmother was drawn by some sense of that. She eventually told her parents what happened, and according to her they were concerned, but not overly panicked. “My parents are probably the least judgmental people I know,” she said.
As Jessica tells it, over the next two years, spirits visited her every now and again. Her brother-in-law’s deceased father began forming before her, ghostlike, just as her grandmother did. And while the experiences were intense and at times made her feel “crazy,” she said, they were infrequent, and insists that they were never a real source of suffering.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
The House and Senate proposals benefit those at the top explicitly at the expense of the lower middle class—and voters are beginning to notice.
One key reason Senate Republicans have been forced to retract and retool their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act is that the legislation favors one pole of the party’s modern coalition so emphatically over the other.
The teetering Senate repeal bill, like its predecessor the House passed in May, would shower a large tax cut almost exclusively on the very high earners who compose the party’s fundraising base. Simultaneously, the bill would impose deep benefit cuts—both in the private insurance market and Medicaid—on the older and blue-collar whites who now provide the largest share of the party’s votes.
To the frustration of liberal operatives and analysts (see: the best-seller What’s the Matter with Kansas?), Republicans have been able to surmount similar tensions for decades—in large part by appealing to blue-collar and older whites on cultural and racial grounds. With his brusque agenda of racially tinged nationalism, President Trump last November pushed that support to new heights.
An eminent historian explains why taking down Civil War statues doesn’t erase history—and why statues to slaveholding Founding Fathers aren’t next.
Perhaps not since the collapse of the Soviet Union has there been such a vogue for tearing down statues. And just as the removal of images of Lenin and Stalin rubbed nerves across the former Soviet Socialist Republics, the effacing of statutes in the United States has become an acrimonious debate.
The most recent flashpoint came in New Orleans, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered the removal of statutes of several Confederate generals. In the face of massive protests, Landrieu was forced to resort to both heavy police presence and unannounced nighttime removal to get the statues down. But there are plenty of other examples, beginning with South Carolina’s decision to quit flying the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol and running through more recent skirmishes from St. Louis to Charlottesville, Virginia.