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
Invented centuries ago in France, the bidet has never taken off in the States. That might be changing.
“It’s been completely Americanized!” my host declares proudly. “The bidet is gone!” In my time as a travel editor, this scenario has become common when touring improvements to hotels and resorts around the world. My heart sinks when I hear it. To me, this doesn’t feel like progress, but prejudice.
Americans seem especially baffled by these basins. Even seasoned American travelers are unsure of their purpose: One globe-trotter asked me, “Why do the bathrooms in this hotel have both toilets and urinals?” And even if they understand the bidet’s function, Americans often fail to see its appeal. Attempts to popularize the bidet in the United States have failed before, but recent efforts continue—and perhaps they might even succeed in bringing this Old World device to new backsides.
As the Trump presidency approaches a troubling tipping point, it’s time to find the right term for what’s happening to democracy.
Here is something that, even on its own, is astonishing: The president of the United States demanded the firing of the former FBI deputy director, a career civil servant, after tormenting him both publicly and privately—and it worked.
The American public still doesn’t know in any detail what Andrew McCabe, who was dismissed late Friday night, is supposed to have done. But citizens can see exactly what Donald Trump did to McCabe. And the president’s actions are corroding the independence that a healthy constitutional democracy needs in its law enforcement and intelligence apparatus.
McCabe’s firing is part of a pattern. It follows the summary removal of the previous FBI director and comes amid Trump’s repeated threats to fire the attorney general, the deputy attorney, and the special counsel who is investigating him and his associates. McCabe’s ouster unfolded against a chaotic political backdrop which includes Trump’s repeated calls for investigations of his political opponents, demands of loyalty from senior law enforcement officials, and declarations that the job of those officials is to protect him from investigation.
Congressional Republicans and conservative pundits had the chance to signal Trump his attacks on law enforcement are unacceptable—but they sent the opposite message.
President Trump raged at his TV on Sunday morning. And yet on balance, he had a pretty good weekend. He got a measure of revenge upon the hated FBI, firing former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe two days before his pension vested. He successfully coerced his balky attorney general, Jeff Sessions, into speeding up the FBI’s processes to enable the firing before McCabe’s retirement date.
Beyond this vindictive fun for the president, he achieved something politically important. The Trump administration is offering a not very convincing story about the McCabe firing. It is insisting that the decision was taken internally by the Department of Justice, and that the president’s repeated and emphatic demands—public and private—had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
Although the former secretary of state’s contentious relationship with the president didn’t help matters, Tillerson’s management style left a department in disarray.
Rex Tillerson is hardly the first person to be targeted in a tweet from Donald Trump, but on Tuesday morning, he became the first Cabinet official to be fired by one. It was an ignominious end to Tillerson’s 13-month stint as secretary of state, a tenure that would have been undistinguished if it weren’t so entirely destructive.
Compared with expectations for other members of Trump’s Cabinet, the disastrous results of Tillerson’s time in office are somewhat surprising. Unlike the EPA’s Scott Pruitt, Tillerson did not have obvious antipathy for the department he headed; unlike HUD’s Ben Carson, he had professional experience that was relevant to the job; and unlike Education’s Betsy DeVos, his confirmation hearing wasn't a disaster.
Scholars have been sounding the alarm about data-harvesting firms for nearly a decade. The latest Cambridge Analytica scandal shows it may be too late to stop them.
On Friday night, Facebook suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica, the political-data company backed by the billionaire Robert Mercer that consulted on both the Brexit and Trump campaigns.
The action came just before The Guardian and The New York Timesdropped major reports in which the whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged that Cambridge Analytica had used data that an academic had allegedly improperly exfiltrated from the social network. These new stories, backed by Wylie’s account and internal documents, followed years of reporting by The Guardianand The Intercept about the possible problem.
The details could seem byzantine. Aleksandr Kogan, then a Cambridge academic, founded a company, Global Science Research, and immediately took on a major client, Strategic Communications Laboratories, which eventually gave birth to Cambridge Analytica. (Steve Bannon, an advisor to the company and a former senior advisor to Trump, reportedly picked the name.)
UMBC’s big win wasn’t a miracle; it was a well-executed plan.
People now know the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as the ultimate Cinderella, an overnight social media sensation, the team that magically emerged as the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But our story is far less fairy tale than it is classic American dream. Our magic comes from questioning expectations, putting in the hard work, and staying focused.
The nation saw the results on the court Friday night. My colleagues, students, alumni, and their families came to the game knowing the team would give the game their all. Our men’s basketball team embodies our definition of grit. We knew the players were bringing both passion and preparation to the game. We knew that they would listen to the guidance of head coach Ryan Odom, support one another, give their individual best, and get tougher and tougher as the game went on.
A new six-part Netflix documentary is a stunning dive into a utopian religious community in Oregon that descended into darkness.
To describe Wild Wild Country as jaw-dropping is to understate the number of times my mouth gaped while watching the series, a six-part Netflix documentary about a religious community in Oregon in the 1980s. It’s ostensibly the story of how a group led by the dynamic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased 64,000 acres of land in central Oregon in a bid to build its own utopian city. But, as the series immediately reveals, the narrative becomes darker and stranger than you might ever imagine. It’s a tale that mines the weirdness of the counterculture in the ’70s and ’80s, the age-old conflict between rural Americans and free love–preaching cityfolk, and the emotional vacuum that compels people to interpret a bearded mystic as something akin to a god.
The first female speaker of the House has become the most effective congressional leader of modern times—and, not coincidentally, the most vilified.
Last May, TheWashington Post’s James Hohmann noted “an uncovered dynamic” that helped explain the GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare. Three current Democratic House members had opposed the Affordable Care Act when it first passed. Twelve Democratic House members represent districts that Donald Trump won. Yet none voted for repeal. The “uncovered dynamic,” Hohmann suggested, was Nancy Pelosi’s skill at keeping her party in line.
She’s been keeping it in line for more than a decade. In 2005, George W. Bush launched his second presidential term with an aggressive push to partially privatize Social Security. For nine months, Republicans demanded that Democrats admit the retirement system was in crisis and offer their own program to change it. Pelosi refused. Democratic members of Congress hosted more than 1,000 town-hall meetings to rally opposition to privatization. That fall, Republicans backed down, and Bush’s second term never recovered.
As an admiral I helped run the most powerful military on Earth, but I couldn't save my son from the scourge of opioid addiction.
The last photograph of my son Jonathan was taken at the end of a new-student barbecue on the campus green at the University of Denver. It was one of those bittersweet transitional moments. We were feeling the combination of apprehension and optimism that every parent feels when dropping off a kid at college for the first time, which was amplified by the fact that we were coming off a rocky 16 months with our son.
We had moved him into his dormitory room only that morning. I remember how sharp he looked in the outfit he had selected, and his eagerness to start class and make new friends. We were happy, relieved, and, knowing what we thought he had overcome, proud. At lunch, I asked Jonathan whether he thought he was ready for the coming school year. “Dad, I can handle it as long as I continue my recovery,” he said. “Everything flows from that.”