It’s tempting to think that the ideal way of learning, worshipping, or becoming informed involves no intermediaries, nothing to stand between us and the truth.
But life doesn’t actually work that way. We need intermediaries, what social scientists call “institutions,” to investigate, verify, and curate. We can’t know everything, and the division-of-labor principle for creating wealth suggests we shouldn’t try. But that means that others are going to specialize in finding things out, in verifying whether what was “found out” is in fact true, and in curating all that information so we only spend our time on learning or thinking about things that are important.
But there are problems with finding reliable ways of accomplishing each of these three core tasks of “news” institutions. The result has been what analysts call “disintermediation,” or the disruption of traditionally reliable mediating institutions.
As I have written in several places (beginning with “Truthiness” in 2007), the problems of investigation, verification, and curation are asymmetric: the discovery of falsehood can be crowdsourced, but the demonstration of truth or importance cannot.
Death of the Ancien Regime
In September 2004, a presidential election year, the television show 60 Minutes, a respected and authoritative institution of the news world, was under attack. CBS was being accused of having been duped by doctored documents, which at face value appeared to show significant irregularities in President George Bush’s National Guard service. Specifically, there was a “smoking gun” letter, which admonished Bush for a failure to report for a physical, in violation of a direct written order issued May 4, 1972, by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian.
The story had run on September 4. On September 9, Jonathan Klein, executive vice president of CBS News, came down from Olympus to appear on Fox News to “debate” Weekly Standard writer and pundit Stephen Hayes. Hayes and the host were both citing claims by bloggers that the documents were obvious forgeries, and that CBS should acknowledge that.
Klein responded with a level of condescension that will take its place beside Marie Antoinette’s historically dismissive “Let them eat cake.” The death of our institutions for investigation, verification, and curation is recorded for history: Klein, in what he clearly thought was a devastating put-down, sneered: “You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [i.e., fact-checkers at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.”
Klein was quite right, but the contrast turned out to cut in the other direction. Three decades had passed since the letters had been written (if they were real), so it would not be surprising if memories were hazy. After Klein essentially dismissed everyone except his highly professional staff, obvious peculiarities in the letters surfaced, and the focus quickly moved to apparently simple features of the primary letter in particular, the one in which the supposed “direct order” was issued.
Even a cursory look showed that the letter used a proportional typeface with raised (superscripted) letters for the unit designations (e.g., “51st”). These superscripts, in a smaller font size, would be nearly impossible on typewriters of the time, as they would have required changing the type ball and manually moving the line setting the perfect amount to create superscripts, and then moving the line back and changing the type ball again. Further, other (legitimate) letters from the files at around the same time from the same office showed a completely different, nonproportional typeface.
There were other irregularities. It quickly became clear CBS had almost certainly gotten this wrong, in their rush to be first to cover the “story.” Klein was right: there was indeed a stark contrast with the pajamas guys: no reputable news source should have used these documents to support that story, and there are lots of people who can demonstrate and document falsehoods.
The reason CBS had gone ahead is simple: they believed that story more than they believed in the need for double-sourced, irrefutable evidence. Dan Rather, in particular, believed that George W. Bush had violated an order to report for a physical. This was, for Rather, part of a larger “essential truth” (Rather’s words), that the president’s service record was an indication of indifference (at best) or outright shirking of duty during wartime. This idea of an essential truth, or a truth that transcends mere facts, is a remarkable claim for a news organization. CBS persisted in defending this exercise in truthiness long after it was clear to most people, even those who shared the basic distrust of the president and his policies, that they had gotten their facts wrong.
Dan Rather may well have been right; if we were having beers and Dan said, “You know, I’m pretty sure that Bush was technically AWOL in 1972. Several people have told me that,” I’d probably shake my head and say, “Yeah, I bet that’s right.”
But that’s guys having beers, or sitting around in pajamas. That’s not the same thing as high-quality investigation, verification of claims, and curation of what’s important. By bringing his opinion into a realm where professional standards require insulation against mere opinion, CBS sacrificed its position as an authority, and institution.
Before long, the supposed “source” for the letter had changed his story about where he had gotten it, and CBS eventually threw in the towel. Dan Rather issued a tepid, narrow apology for the use of the letters, and CBS News fired four people, including the (apparently) overzealous producer Mary Mapes. The CBS team had believed so firmly in the “essential truth” of their indictment of Bush that the Killian documents were seen as examples, not evidence. In fact, no evidence was required. They relaxed the normal standards of fact-checking and sped up the production process so they could be first with the story. The president’s guilt was known; the news producers’ only job was to get the word out.
The MSM Is Dead! Long Live… What?
I have several friends who were, and largely remain, gleeful, over the self-immolation of CBS News. I’m not so sure. When I was young, we watched CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite as if we were going to church. Watching Mr. Cronkite was like watching one of the figures from Mount Rushmore come to life and projected into our living rooms to tell us the results of careful investigation, to tell us what was important, and what was true about those matters.
I’m reminded of the scene from Gone With the Wind where the Yankees are moving to occupy Atlanta, and Scarlett is angry at the defeated, departing Confederate soldiers.
Scarlett: “Oh, wait. I forgot to lock the front door. What are you laughing at?”
Rhett: “At you, locking the Yankees out.”
Scarlett (seeing departing Confederates): “Oh, dear, I wish they'd hurry.”
Rhett: “I wouldn't be in such a hurry to see them go if I were you. With them goes the last semblance of law and order.” [Loud crash, as looters break store windows] “The scavengers aren't wasting any time. We've got to get out of here fast!”
We have been too quick, many of us, to exult at the departure of the justly defeated MSM. With them goes the last semblance of verification and curation. Investigation is still around, because reporters can do interviews and ask for Freedom of Information Act documents. But it’s very difficult to know whether the results are true, or important.
The problem is that we have discarded importance in favor of interesting. News organizations focus on attracting attention, using clickbait. That system of crowd-sourcing curation is disastrous, because there are many things that are important but not terribly interesting or urgent. One commentator recently noted that many of the incentives facing “media” were leading in this direction all along. Even if that’s true, it’s a bad outcome.
Being a trained researcher myself, I did some investigation on my own. There are — seriously — pages on the web that will help you generate clickbait titles to attract more clicks to your “news story,” since the curation function of our institutions is dead. I tried one to see what title I should use for this post, searching on “Main Stream Curation” as my prompt. The website suggested — I am not making this up — the following:
Why You Should Give Up Sex and Devote Your Life to Mainstream Media Curation
10 Ways Mainstream Media Curation Can Help You Live to 100
11 Ways Investing in Mainstream Media Curation Can Make You a Millionaire
On the other hand, that website also suggested “The Most Boring Article About Mainstream Media Curation You'll Ever Read.” So maybe there is still some legitimate verification out there after all.