Tag Archives: RAGE!

Stepping Away From the Rage

You might be surprised that I went dark for a few weeks after the election, but now I am writing a flurry of posts. I’ve actually had some of these posts written in draft form for weeks. I wanted to wait out the circular firing squad that I’m seeing on left-leaning social media. Unfortunately, it’s December and the circular firing squad isn’t going away. The absurdity is getting a bit much, so I’ve got to say my peace and move on.

As someone who spent years studying how different news organizations gravitated towards different topics in the 2008 election, I expected the same in 2016. Candidates have different things they care about, different priorities for the country. They also gravitate towards issues that poll well for them. We saw this kind of asymmetry in the primaries. Bernie Sanders was all about income inequality and then added political reform to reflect his struggles under DNC rules and new followers’ anger towards the DNC. Hillary Clinton emphasized race and gender to try and capture Obama’s base along with her foreign policy experience. For Republicans, Ted Cruz emphasized local government and Christian values. John Kasich emphasized pragmatic experience. Donald Trump emphasized immigration, trade and being an outsider who could make better deals to clean up DC.

In the general election, both sides converged on the campaign agenda. Trump made his campaign about his own personality, and Clinton agreed to make the campaign about Trump. People talked about race and gender largely via reference to Trump’s behavior and critiques of Trump. That’s why it feels like he has a mandate and why many on the left feel so devastated. I think a lot of progressive put all their eggs in the “make this election a referendum on Trump” basket and it didn’t quite work out. The symmetry of Campaign 2016 is part of why it got so nasty.

I’ll get back to this idea of symmetry and how it is haunting Democrats’ attempts to process the election in a bit. First it is important to recognize just how narrow Trump’s victory was. As a sports fan, I know narrow championship defeats feel much worse than getting blown out. A whole bunch of things had to break in Donald Trump’s favor or against Hillary Clinton. This list is adapted from a longer list David Roberts offered at Vox of possible reasons for Clinton’s loss. I’m not always a fan of Roberts’ work, but he did a good job in the beginning of his essay laying out all the explanations that other progressives have offered:

  • An unpopular candidate in Clinton
  • Poor Clinton strategy on which states to focus on
  • Lack of Clinton outreach to white working class / rural voters
  • Too much emphasis on Trump’s character vs. Clinton’s economic plan
  • The FBI, Russian hackers, Wikileaks all worked against Clinton
  • The media emphasized Clinton’s e-mails over any other story
  • Voter restrictions in states like North Carolina
  • The electoral college made Trump votes more valuable
  • Voters may have disproportionately chose third party candidates over Clinton
  • Racial and gender politics driving at least some voters to Trump as opposed to disqualifying him in voters’ minds.

After giving his long list, Roberts offers one of the more insightful things I have seen any Democrat say after the election:

Like everyone, I buy some of these more than others. But there are bits and pieces of evidence for all of them. Some of them don’t hold up on their own — voter suppression probably didn’t swing the election, nor did third-party candidates — but all of them plausibly played a role or have some grain of truth.

Even before giving the list of what went wrong, Roberts explains what went right. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. By the time all the votes are counted, Clinton should have the second highest vote total of anyone who has run for President of the United States. Trump earned 2.4 million fewer votes and squeaked through the Electoral College. Since Trump had such a narrow victory, it’s easy to say that Clinton would have won if just one thing broke differently.

I think this is why there has been so much unproductive finger pointing on the left. Clinton came so close to winning that everyone can convince themselves “I held up my end! It’s that other part of the Democratic coalition that let us down!” For starters, here’s Bernie Sanders:

You may recall that Sanders’ biggest problem in the beginning of his campaign was emphasizing economics almost exclusively. He said racial inequality was secondary to class. Black Lives Matter activists targeted his rallies for protests, charging the stage a few times. Sanders moved towards the left on race for the primary. But now that the Democrats lost the general election, Sanders is saying he was right all along. He hasn’t exactly been received warmly by other progressives.

Roberts posted these tweets in his Vox piece and then piled on:

There isn’t a ton of evidence that an economically populist message — divorced of appeals to xenophobia or white resentment — moves the WWC. In fact, as Andrew Prokop notes, “In two of those crucial Midwestern states that flipped to Trump, Democratic Senate candidates [Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland] campaigned on economically populist platforms — but they did notably worse than Hillary Clinton.”

Why is that?

Perhaps because politicians know, though won’t say, that appeals to xenophobia and white resentment work. If I may coin a phrase: It’s the white resentment, stupid.

I’m not sure I would want to build any kind of broad, sweeping theory over two data points. Feingold and Strickland were both politicians who tried to restart their careers after being voted out of statewide office. They both lost to incumbent Republicans. Defeating an incumbent is difficult! It’s hard to ignore incumbency and these Democrats’ previous losses unless you are so convinced race is the only answer that you ignore every other possibility. I have to admit, this is where I found Roberts very hard to follow. It feels like he’s ready to concede Ohio, Wisconsin, and every other state with a significant rural white population. Can that be right? Sorry, but I’m not one to throw in the towel.

Maybe there’s a weakness in the progressive coalition. Once someone is convinced that there is one best explanation, there’s a tendency to point fingers at every progressive who offers a different top priority.

Most of us have a wide range of priorities. If a pollster asked “what is the single biggest problem facing America today?” I could give a clear answer. Give me a minute and I can give issue #2 and #3. We prioritize how much we care about politics too. We can prioritize what kinds of things are dealbreakers on a first date and what we want most out of a career. Setting priorities is one of the basic things we do as people. It’s a basic thing for successful organizations as well. But when progressives say they care about one issue more than another, other members of the progressive coalition attack them for “selling out” part of the group.

The Republicans have their nasty fights too. How often has Ted Cruz accused someone of “selling out” conservative principles? However, the large Christian conservative faction embraced Donald Trump, a man who repeatedly worked with Playboy (should have checked his IMDB page). At the end of the day, most Republicans prioritized winning the White House over anything else, so they voted for Trump. After the election, Democrats are currently fighting a nasty battle about whether to prioritize broadening the party to win elections or ideological purity over race and racism. Anyone who wants to do any kind of political advocacy is going to face questions of how much to focus on ideological purity versus attracting a broad audience. These aren’t easy questions, and the answer probably depends on what you want to accomplish.

Progressives are currently fighting over one of the toughest issues they have ever confronted: how to argue against racism. There is no research that suggests calling someone a racist will cause them to say “aww, shucks, you were right!” Professors who study political persuasion tend to agree that immediately dismissing someone as racist, sexist or homophobic may be one of the least persuasive arguments out there. As I was writing this, this very premise of making political arguments that could persuade other people came under attack in certain academic circles:

Taking these tweetstorms at face value doesn’t add up. My hunch is that there is just enough of an unspoken difference in priorities for people to get angry with each other. Goff wants to focus on more active racists and define a set of behaviors or attitudes as unacceptable. Singal’s priority is thinking of how to best communicate with people who don’t explicitly endorse racism but voted for Trump anyway. Reading these back and forth tweets as an outsider, I think everyone is working with a different definition of what “persuasion” means.

When I taught students about political persuasion, I tried to move them away from the idea of flipping someone’s opinion on an issue. I knew the students who would care most about my lecture were people who felt very strongly on one side of an issue or issues, and they hated people on the other side. So I started the lesson by explaining that if someone is strongly committed, they are going to be incredibly difficult to budge. However, most people aren’t that strongly committed on most issues. The less committed can be nudged and prodded to care about the issues we care about. Instead of trying to convert the worst of the worst, I would try to prod the less committed to say “oh, ok, I’ll do it your way if I get a little something in return.”

There’s an interesting parallel to protests here. You might think protesters are all ideologues jumping up and down. It turns out that successful protests are focused on particular issues and tolerant of ideological differences. Setting priorities is critical. Positive priorities – explaining to people what you want to do – are far more successful than protesting just to critique someone. Effective protesters get friends and family in the door via social networks and worry about ideology later. Ziad Munson, who studied the pro-life movement, argued the right is far more successful at this. Think about all the sniping coming from different corners of the left. It’s a minefield! How many people do you think would look at the circular firing squad and say sign me up?

Other successful organizations tend to focus on their strengths and mitigate weaknesses. Let’s think of the Trump campaign. Trump excels at putting on a show, conveying emotion, and provoking people. He is weak at policy. He made his campaign about conveying emotions and provoking opponents to near constant distraction. To borrow from sports, Donald Trump set the tempo for this campaign. Hillary Clinton and other progressives were happy to play at this tempo, waging their own emotional campaign. I feel like I have to re-state this for emphasis. Donald Trump waged a highly asymmetrical campaign, but Clinton and other progressives decided to engage on Trump’s terms. It sort of worked too. Clinton was relatively weak at conveying emotion. She would have fared better if people focused on policy. And she still got more votes!

But Hillary Clinton is moving on. It’s time to think of Democrats’ strengths. This is more than a bit nerve wracking. Democrats’ main strength in this election was getting more aggregate votes for the presidency and the Senate, but Trump won the Electoral College and Republicans control the Senate. Republicans control the House and dominate at the local level. Yes, the electoral map favors the Republicans. But the only way to change the system is to get large majorities within the current system.

With all the anger surrounding the election and post-election squabbling, I started dreaming of a very different kind of government. Imagine a city where there were concerts outside city hall every week during the summer. It’s not a partisan rally. It’s not even a political thing. City Hall just happens to have a nice courtyard that makes for a great, low cost outdoor venue. Some people wander by for a few minutes before going to one of the local bars or movie theaters. Other people bring their lawn furniture. This is a regular summertime event next to one of my favorite coffee shops. When I dropped by to check out one of the larger concerts, I kind of got the feeling some people go every week. The band is great. Everyone feels welcome, like they belong in the community.

In 2016, the Democrats are the only major political party with the potential to imagine a society where everyone has the potential to make a valuable contribution, and everyone feels like they have the right to belong. Who wouldn’t want to live in a positive place where we all work hard to support each other and lift each other up?

Trump held a lot of rallies, but there was always suspicion and demonization of interlopers. He campaigned on the idea that no matter how much our neighbors have sacrificed to make America great, only a certain group of loyalists count as “true Americans.”

Our country was founded on an idea that people were created equal, with certain unalienable rights. We founded a democracy under the idea that giving people the right to choose their leaders was the best way to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t mean everyone was granted full citizenship right away. Every generation had its doubts about whether certain “undesirables” deserved the right to vote. Over time, we let more and more people vote and become full members of the community. There was fear. There was anger. But each time America emerged full of vibrant life, with liberty and happiness for more of our community.

I understand why people feel angry and outraged. I understand why people think resisting Donald Trump’s massive disregard for the Constitution requires picking fights at every turn. Remember, picking fights at every turn is Trump’s strategy. Are there progressives out there who think the best plan is to try and beat Donald Trump at his own game? If you oppose Trump’s attempts to deny Americans equality and unalienable rights, you can’t campaign on a message that many Americans are too stupid or biased to possibly be redeemed. Those emotions are too discordant. Democrats are the only political party that could imagine a future full of life, liberty and happiness for everyone currently living in the United States. That vision only works if everyone thinks they could be welcomed in to our community.



How Distracting “News” Works

As you may remember, Mike Pence went to the theatre a few weeks ago. Normally we wouldn’t care if a prominent politician went to see a Broadway play. However, Pence was booed when he walked in the theatre. Who would have thought that one of the most anti-gay politicians in America would be persona non grata on Broadway? It wasn’t “Chase Utley breaks Ruben Tejada’s leg then goes to Queens” booing. Nonetheless, news that Pence was booed on Broadway spread like wildfire. Then we got the seemingly inevitable backlash. Why were more people talking about Pence getting booed while watching Hamilton than Donald Trump settling the Trump University case by paying a $25 million judgment?

I’ll start with the most basic question: why were so many people talking about Pence getting booed? People can read the story and offer their snap judgment in under 30 seconds. There’s nothing more to the story than vice president-elect booed at theatre. People don’t need to know the plot of the play or Pence’s specific policies to ring in. The story encourages people to take clear sides: is booing the vice president-elect at the theatre a breach of decorum?

Because this is an entirely moral question, there isn’t a real risk of looking like a fool because we are poorly informed. I may not want to tweet about the Trump University case because I don’t know whether $25 million represents a large or small settlement compared to other cases like this. I don’t want to act like one of those PhDs who insists I know everything about everything! But you don’t need a PhD or even a high school degree to give an opinion on whether booing in the theatre is wrong. Middle schoolers could give a presentation to the class about it.

Debates over whether booing Pence or settling the Trump University case are more important say something more fundamental about news preferences. We normally think of news preferences as a list. So the list of things I thought were newsworthy that weekend went something like this:

  1. Trump settles Trump University case
  2. Trump nominates National Security Adviser whose rhetoric on Muslims fits ideally in to ISIS recruitment (they love the idea of an ideological holy war).
  3. UCLA is playing USC in the Crosstown Rivalry (* during the game this jumps to #1 through 100)
  4. It’s raining in LA and everyone forgot how to drive
  5. UCLA basketball looks good
  6. Trump’s other nominations
  7. I’m getting crushed in my NCAA confidence pool this week
  8. [Long list of stuff I don’t really care enough to offer in detail. I wrote the list down at the time, then wrote the rest of the post over a week later.]

Some of my list is pretty idiosyncratic. People who don’t care about college sports will cross off several items from this list. Since it’s a weekend with college football and basketball, both sports are well represented in 8-20 on my list. You probably have a different list of most newsworthy things from the weekend. That’s good! We are different people. We probably have different hobbies, different political priorities, and different emphasis on politics vs. other things in life. Maybe it’s a little frustrating that none of my Facebook friends enjoy the Piesman trophy. But life would be almost intolerably boring if we all agreed on everything.

Social Media Lists of Newsworthiness are Weird

You might assume that all of us have one internally consistent list of things we care about. In other words, the list of things we read, the list of things we share, and the list of things we comment on would all look the same. It turns out that may not be the case. How often have you liked or commented on someone’s post before actually reading the link? It turns out this happens a lot. People in new media production have realized there’s relatively little correlation between what people read and what people share or comment on. The list of things we find newsworthy enough to discuss on social media is not the same as the list of things we consume for our personal reading. A year ago, Atlantic writer Derek Thompson went through his top 100 tweets with links, trying to compare how often someone actually clicked on the link vs. other Twitter activity.


The scales on the graph are a bit wonky. I’m pretty sure the x-axis is a ran order from highest click through rate (a whopping 6 percent!) to his 100th best tweet (around 1% of readers clicking on the link). Thompson said his overall click-through rate was 1.7 percent. Now let’s focus on the big picture. If people had the same priorities for their personal reading and their social media discussions, these two lines would go in parallel. They don’t. This suggests there are some stories that people really enjoy talking about on social media, even if they wouldn’t dig deeper. Mike Pence getting booed during Hamilton is a perfect example. People can take sides without having to dig deeper.

Aggregating Individual News Preferences Makes Things Much Weirder

If we add all of our priorities together, you may expect another list: here’s what people think is the most important story, here’s number 2, and so on. That’s why we debate whether or not Hamilton is #1 as opposed to #2 or 5 or 25. If you look at how often people talk about each story, our group behavior is probably closer to a pyramid than a rank order list. A few events are near the top of enough individual lists so they shoot to the top of the news pyramid. Think of Super Bowls and presidential debates this year. It’s not just that the leader is #1 and the next most popular story is #2. The leader gets vastly more attention than #2, then the distance between 2 and 3 is smaller, and so on. Eventually we get to the point where the group is split. There may be a tie instead of a clear #5 story. The further down we go, the more we get to things that are on a bunch of lists but fairly low down, or things that are high on a few individual lists but don’t register on anyone else’s in the group.

If this seems a little abstract, let’s take a detour to the music industry. Every year, there is one artist who is the top seller. They usually have a crossover hit that fits in to some genre, pop, Top 40, and maybe some secondary genre. Then you have a few other hit albums that get crossover appeal. Then there is the larger group of albums that only sell in their genre, or maybe they have a few huge singles but can’t sell the album. At the bottom end, there are lots of people recording music at home who don’t earn any money.

News has the same unequal distribution, but the only way to notice is if we have a database of all the potential news stories that didn’t get in a news outlet. Most of us have never thought of news this way because journalists don’t exactly leave lists like this lying around. If you thought people second guess the media now, imagine what would happen if the New York Times published a list of “here are 50 stories we decided not to pursue further.” They’d never hear the end of it! We can come up with our own lists of stories we’d like to see and feel are left out just by using our imagination. That’s why we assume that no matter how many people we put together, we’d still get a rank order list. When I was a journalist, I assumed if I put every journalist together I’d get a clean rank order list, not a pyramid.

For my Master’s Thesis I wanted to look at whether politicians’ attempts to duck a question by talking about something else had any influence on what journalists wrote. I knew I couldn’t just look at news coverage to answer this question. I had to look at what a politician said and then what got published to make a before and after comparison. Because journalists won’t just hand over interview transcripts, I decided to use presidential press conferences as a dataset. The only way to make sure I separated the quotable statements from the unquotable statements, I had to analyze every single statement! Going through four conferences – a total of 1743 statements – took months. I wanted to code things like was the president criticizing someone, is he ducking a question, is he talking about the military vs. the economy, etc. Because any newspaper can be idiosyncratic, I used the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today. (Newspapers only is a bit old school, I know.) Out of those 1,743 statements, how many do you think were quoted in each newspaper?


{Here is some empty space so you can play the guessing game if you want to}


The correct answer is four! Leading newspapers tended to have some variety. Only 25 statements were quoted in three of the four newspapers. The full distribution looked like this:


I know, this may not be what you were expecting. When I presented my MA at the leading sociology conference, the veteran professor presiding over my panel didn’t understand this kind of statistical distribution. To be fair, I had to teach myself how to run statistical models with this kind of unequal distribution because it wasn’t covered in my grad level stats classes.

Here’s why it is so rare to have complete agreement on a quote. Part of it is New York Times and Washington Post allocated more space to presidential press conferences. The main explanation is that four writers covering the same story rarely choose the same quote if they have options to choose from. When George W. Bush spent five minutes criticizing Saddam Hussein, two reporters may choose criticism A and two may choose criticism B. This gets us to the upper-middle level of the pyramid. Presidents rarely say anything as direct as “We do not recognize the outcome of the election [in Zimbabwe] because we think it’s flawed.” When Bush said this in 2002, it was clearly a better quote than anything else he said about that election and each newspaper quoted it. Other scholars have seen similar unequal distributions with how often a particular person (van de Rijt et al 2013) or group (Amenta et al 2009) gets quoted in the news.

Mike Pence getting booed when he went to see Hamilton has a natural advantage for vaulting to the top of the pyramid. Pence didn’t say much of anything himself. Trump posted one tweet about how he was offended. The Hamilton cast read one reaction from the stage. Everyone talking about what happened will refer to the same very small set of information. I know, it seems like such a small thing that it’s not worth harping on. If you saw this story and thought “who cares if Pence got booed?” then me talking about a small set of shared information won’t make you care. It doesn’t make me have strong opinions on the morality of booing. The reason I’m talking about this small detail is because it has a surprisingly powerful effect in focusing aggregate behavior. When I looked at the most common phrases on the Internet in 2008, I had to control for the titles of songs, movies, TV shows and even video games. Since people repeated the title over and over, it biased my results for how often particular websites talked about politics compared to other topics.

Why Instigators Can Be So Much More Effective Today

If any simple story with a limited number of facts can rise to the top of our aggregated preferences, moral outrage is the rocket fuel. Stories like Pence getting booed encourage people to take sides. Any cultural instigator has a huge advantage in getting attention. They just need to make one offensive statement and it distracts people on both sides. Donald Trump used this strategy since the early days of his campaign. People were so busy talking about Trump and how offensive he was that they lost focus on how they would help voters’ lives. Republicans got caught in the web one by one. Hillary Clinton ran an almost entirely negative campaign about how Trump isn’t qualified instead of emphasizing how she would try to make people’s lives better.

It’s important to remember that Trump isn’t the first instigator to use these distraction tactics. The National Rifle Association has used them successfully for decades. NFL commissioner Roger Goddell deflects negative attention from team owners as they demand public resources for private stadiums.

It’s easy to blame Facebook, particularly with their fake news scandal. However, my press conference research largely predates Facebook. That being said, social media makes these problems worse because it aggregates individual decisions. Any story with least common denominator appeal will do better with the aggregate herd than with any individual. Stories that let people take sides on social media and advocate for their “team” have an even more powerful effect than what I saw from journalists. Individual journalists make relatively independent decisions. People on social media may get even more pleasure by talking about the thing that everyone else is talking about.

So How Can We Avoid Being Suckered in to These Stories?

It’s easy to point the finger at media organizations and say they should have better priorities, or point the finger at Facebook’s mysterious news algorithm. But that’s not really satisfying. I want to be able to take some control. Hopefully you do too. Well good news! One of the best ways to avoid being suckered in to low level scandals is to have strong independent judgment on what kinds of things matter. No one else is going to be the reliable voice saying “who cares about this nonsense?” The only people who bring up a story like Pence getting booed are going to be people who have strong opinions…or someone like me who really misses teaching from time to time.

The other key is to recognize that some people in your social media feeds will probably get suckered in to just about every minor story that lets them share their moral beliefs. No matter what happens, it just seems “too important” not to say how outraged they are. The people with the most influence over the process, starting the cascade of posts, are the people who tend to show the least restraint. Over the last few days I have talked to progressive, moderate, and conservative friends who have all said they are leaving social media. I didn’t even ask. They brought it up. Political posts keep rolling through their feed like crashing boulders, and they want to duck out of the way.

This is a good principle for self-preservation, but the only way to have meaningful change is to convince people to show some restraint before they push the petty outrage of the day on to the rest of us. I understand it’s hard to show restraint and let some things go. But I also know that if people can’t prioritize and let some stuff go, their social media feeds will turn in to a broken car alarm. It’s not a perfect metaphor. When it comes to politics some people actually love the sound of broken car alarms. They love outrage news and think every single action helps move a broader movement! But there are lots of people like me who don’t enjoy outrage news. Persuasion is about connecting with other people, not jumping up and down proclaiming how your morals are superior to everyone else. There’s little upside in going online to vent about every single petty grievance. If you voted against Trump because he can be taunted with a tweet, hold yourself to the same standard.


Scammers, Camelot, and the demand for fake news

Last week I walked past the single worst Black Friday ad I ever saw. A local clothing store advertised “openning” 10-6 on Thanksgiving. Yikes! Was this the worst Black Friday behavior I have ever seen in my neighborhood? It’s close, but I saw worse at the local Best buy a few years ago. While I was shopping for a laptop bag, a woman was complaining to customer service that she was locked out of her accounts. Apparently someone texted this woman claiming that she had won an award. She just needed to send her banking information to get paid. Of course, it’s a scam. I turned around to look at the low level best Buy employee and saw the quick look of terror on his face. How does he explain that this potential customer just got scammed and there’s nothing he can do to help? How can he be sympathetic to this confused woman walking in to Best Buy with her child instead of wanting to scold her for falling for such an obvious deception?

If you’re an old enough Internet user, you probably remember scams involving “Nigerian princes.” In case you forgot, this was a scam where someone sent bulk spam email claiming to be a Nigerian prince who has to move money offshore due to political unrest. If you give your bank account info, they would wire $10,000 to your account. Most people realized this was too good to be true, even before the scam became publicized and tech firms dedicated resources to blocking these spam e-mails. However, there were some people who desperately wanted to believe there was a Nigerian prince who would make them rich. Selfishness and laziness beat suspicion and careful research. The selfish and lazy might be pretty easy to exploit.


If you follow tech news over the last week, you saw headlines that the top 20 most shared stories on Facebook had more fake news stories than real ones. Google and Facebook both blocked fake news sites from their advertising sales networks this week – now that the US Presidential election is over. Facebook has always had an unusual set of “community standards” for regulating content. Visual depictions of violence and sexuality are generally banned. The company frequently claims it has tweaked its “News Feed” algorithm to show “higher quality content” as opposed to clickbait. However, Facebook has always strenuously objected to the idea that it is a media company with a profound influence on journalism. Here’s Mark Zuckerberg, trying to answer questions about whether his company helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election:

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

I’m not sure anyone really believes this, even Zuckerberg. Facebook acted against fake news sites four days after Zuckerberg’s quote (and after Google’s ban). It’s a field day for people who want to blame Facebook’s lack of transparency – or social media more broadly – for Americans’ declining interest in facts and evidence. As much as people have a right to be frustrated that Facebook didn’t do anything about fake news until after the election, it’s not like Facebook was the birth of online scams. People have tried to use the Internet to try and exploit selfish and lazy users for decades. They used other technologies before the Internet. Instead of blaming Facebook, we should ask why would people want to spread misinformation with their friends and family?


My take here is probably different than most people because I actually covered a secession campaign. In 2002, the San Fernando Valley wanted to secede from the rest of Los Angeles. The secession movement started as part policy oriented and part symbolic. Every public school in Los Angeles County is in one school district. Valley voters wanted to break away from the unwieldy behemoth. They also believed their tax dollars were being used to subsidize the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. On a symbolic level, Valley residents felt like they were taken for granted by a remote city hall. It wasn’t a rural / urban divide like presidential elections. If Valley voters formed their own city of Camelot, it would have been the seventh largest in the country! (Sidenote: Camelot won the vote for what to call the new city.)

By the time I started covering the story, Valley secession leaders had already conceded on their largest policy grievance. Camelot would still be part of the LA Unified School District. I talked to voters who said “what’s the point of seceding if we’re still tied to LAUSD?” Other reporters thought there was no way secessionists could get enough votes. They needed to run up enough votes from within the Valley to get a majority citywide. Secessionists didn’t fully want to campaign on keeping Valley tax revenue in the Valley either. The county ruled that Valley residents would have to financially compensate the rest of Los Angeles if secession passed, to make up for lost tax revenue.

With only a weak policy case, potholes became a major campaign issue! Some Valley residents saw every pothole as a reminder that their area didn’t get a “fair share” of city services. Mayor Hahn dispatched construction crews to smooth over problems, both literally and figuratively. (At this point I am obligated to say I don’t live in the Valley and my street gets enough flooding to become one lane only during moderate rain.) Valley secession leaders wanted voters to feel like City Hall was remote. They also reminded people that most local media organizations were located in the older area of the city and not the Valley, so they were biased against secession. The Los Angeles Daily News – which was based in the Valley – was decidedly pro-secession.

There are several things that make San Fernando Valley secession different than the 2016 presidential election. While the Valley has more Republicans than the rest of Los Angeles, it is still a majority Democratic area. Every voter is urban. The two sides had relatively similar arguments about what would happen if the Valley seceded. Valley secession leaders did minimize the potential disruptions. LA’s black neighborhoods emphasized how they would lose out financially if the Valley seceded, but there were few accusations of racism. In the end, the pro-secession movement was even more based on emotion than Donald Trump’s campaign. Trump promised to make American great again. He made incredibly vague policy promises. Trump’s promises may not be credible. But Valley secession leaders openly said they couldn’t deliver on their initial promises of divorcing LAUSD and keeping all the tax revenue.

A slight majority of San Fernando Valley voters still believed secession was a good idea and voted to leave the city! Why would they believe the promises of the secession campaign, even if all the evidence said secession wouldn’t provide tangible benefits for Valley residents?

  • Disrespect: Various activists had discussed secession for decades. They felt they were not given a full share of public services, even though they paid a disproportionately high bill compared to the rest of Los Angeles. I don’t remember anyone counting what percent of potholes were unfilled in the Valley as compared to downtown. “We aren’t getting a full share” may be one of those things that is entirely symbolic and not based on rational calculation.
  • If the moral claim rings true, people may turn a blind eye to empirical fact: The facts were not on Valley secession’s side. The county set the terms for secession after certifying that the Valley would be a viable independent city. The terms were not ideal for secession leaders. One balked and abandoned the campaign. The rest held on to their cause, despite mounting empirical facts about how any new city could not do what they wanted to.
  • People emphasized moral claims when policy issues were murky: In 2002 the Los Angeles Unified School Board was so dysfunctional that creating a new Valley School Board with new criteria and policies seemed a lot easier than fixing LAUSD. School board governance played a major role in the 2005 mayoral race and Antonio Villaragosa’s first two years as mayor. No one really knew how to solve the giant mess. No one had a good policy idea. Voters may have been quicker to embrace the symbolic politics of secession because no one offered a policy solution to the tangible problem of underperforming schools.

Now let’s think about what we know of Trump voters:

  • Disrespect: Definitely. Trump voters tend to say the federal government has forgotten them. The political class may not focus on rural areas. Remember, disrespect is a feeling that may or may not have a basis in fact. So is neglect. It’s entirely possible for multiple groups to feel disrespected by the power structure, and for those groups to hate each other.
  • If the moral claim rings true, people may turn a blind eye to empirical fact: Trump offered a wide range of campaign promises, and voters didn’t seem to mind when some of these contradicted each other. In particular, Trump’s tax policies clearly favored the rich. When I think of moral claims ringing true, I think back in the first primary debate. Trump was asked if he would back the Republican nominee no matter what. He refused to say yes. Later on he attacked other Republicans for being in lobbyists’ pockets and bragged about buying influence. The moral claim was very clear: “every politician is a self-serving asshole, but I’m the only one who is honest about being an asshole.” That’s when I thought Trump had staying power.
  • People emphasized moral claims when policy issues were murky: A lot of industrial workers are facing downward mobility. There’s a tendency to focus on Trump voters not being the absolute poorest, then discounting any kind of economic argument. But Trump voters are disproportionately older. Regardless of partisanship, most of the parents I have met care deeply about their children’s opportunity to have a good life. I spent my teenage years in an area that transformed drastically from farmland to suburbia. I left for college before the transformation was finished, so I’d go home and my parents were going to new malls that didn’t exist when I was growing up there. All of this was positive economic growth, but it’s still alienating. This affects how I think about declining industrial towns? Has any politician really offered a solution for declining industrial towns over the last 20-30 years? There isn’t a good plan for how to help workers whose skills are less valuable today, or the potential alienation of economic change. We got nostalgia and moralizing about trade instead of real solutions.

I can see reasons why the people who supported Trump would also be likely to buy in to fake news. I can see why people would believe the feelings contained in these stories and want to share them widely.


At this point, I think other left-leaning writers would just look down at Trump voters and stop writing. Buzzfeed’s story about fake news getting more Facebook engagement than real news feels plausible. It’s very plausible if you don’t know many Trump supporters and you’re looking for some explanation of how they got “fooled.” I retweeted the story without thinking twice. I didn’t even read the study! A friend of mine who voted for Trump posted a critique of the Buzzfeed study design over the weekend. I read the critique, then read the Buzzfeed methodology. Hate to say it, but Buzzfeed fooled me.

Here’s the short version of what Buzzfeed did wrong. They looked up the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 real news stories. Top 20 lists are highly unequal. The #1 hit is far more popular than #2, but the gap between #2 and #3 is smaller, etc. One huge hit skews the entire set. Remember how Buzzfeed generated massive traffic by posting a dress where people disagreed on what color it was? To make things worse, fake news should have a natural advantage in this metric. If someone is creating fictional news, it is by definition a unique story. Legitimate news outlets don’t get many exclusives. Let’s say 10 people share a fake news story about a Trump-Clinton debate, 5 share the Washington Post’s lead story, 4 share their B story, and 3 more share their third story. More people shared information from the Washington Post than a fake news site, but the fake news site has the biggest single hit. In reality, the one fake news site is competing against dozens of high profile real media organizations and getting swamped in the total volume of Facebook engagement.

So why would people believe the Facebook fake news story?

  • Disrespect: Yes. Democrats’ general election campaign was mainly an argument that Donald Trump doesn’t represent the characteristics we want in a leader. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election. Disrespect for progressive values may be an understatement for how progressives feel today, particularly if they are focused on identity politics.
  • If the moral claim rings true, people may turn a blind eye to empirical fact: The main people who bought in to Buzzfeed’s fake news story are Democrats who feel big media organizations didn’t do enough to clamp down on Trumpism. Remember how people bought the myth that network TV news was avoiding “issue” coverage – another study based on terrible methods. There that many sophisticated methodologists in the world. I can’t really fault people for not understanding the weird statistical distributions that biased the Buzzfeed study when they were barely mentioned in my years of graduate level statistics classes. (It’s going to take a separate full length post to explain in detail.)
  • People emphasized moral claims when policy issues were murky: In this case we need to delete “policy details” and replace it with “research methodology.” It’s easy to do a simple study of media content that compares apples to oranges. It’s much harder to compile a list of potential stories or sources and then analyze how different media organizations treat them. But this is the only way to see how rare breakout hits are and how much more attention they get than any other story or source. The statistical skills needed to analyze these data sets are also extremely rare. When I gave talks at academic conferences, most of the other panelists didn’t know what a negative binomial regression was, let alone the audience. That’s why the burden is on me to explain.

We might all be vulnerable to news that is factually incorrect but feels true. I bought in to a flawed study in an area where I spent a decade becoming an expert on that methodology, because I didn’t bother to check the facts! How can we avoid falling victim to our own weaknesses?

I think the key is to look for potentially disconfirming evidence. I wrote about this at more length yesterday, but here’s the short version. As a person sitting in my apartment writing a blog, I don’t think I have the power to affect the supply of fake, misleading and manipulative political posts. Sure, I could jump up and down blaming Facebook. But here’s the good news. Each of us has tremendous power over our own demand for fake and misleading news. I know exerting this power isn’t easy. It’s tempting to just look for evidence that supports our claims. If you are a debater or a lawyer, you want to make an argument based on the evidence that is the best possible interpretation for your side. Evidence that we might be wrong stinks. Most of the time we don’t want to look for it, and we feel like fools if we actually find it. So why bother looking for evidence that would hurt our side?

In the end, it comes down to a question of whether we want to focus on our own feelings or convincing other people. If you just want to make yourself feel good, there isn’t much of a reason to look for disconfirming evidence. Just remember that someone out there is going to recognize your laziness. If you’re lucky, they’ll just want to embarrass you for buying in to a myth. If you’re unlucky, they’ll see you as a mark, willing to hand over political power in exchange for the right set of feelings. The best way we can empower ourselves is by looking for disconfirming evidence. We can keep ourselves from being fooled. We can’t rely on others to do it for us. At the same time, knowing other belief systems is normally a pre-condition for persuading other people.

Forget “fake” news. Focus on “news” that lacks fact.

In the last week many of my academic friends who don’t study news have gotten a lot more interested in “fake news” as a potential social problem. First there was the Buzzfeed story claiming that the top 20 fake news stories during the last few months of the election got more Facebook engagement that the top 20 “real stories.” (I’ll talk more about that study itself separately.) Then there was the NPR story on a psychology experiment showing that students couldn’t adequately separate more and less credible sources of information. Since most people don’t have direct experience teaching about news media, let alone this new issue of fake news, there’s a lot of things I could share. It’s hard to know where to start. I’m going to write a few separate posts.

Let’s start with the most basic idea of how to stop fake news. Why not just hand students a list of websites and say “these websites are fake!” Google and Facebook blacklisted a set of websites after the election, trying to keep fake news from benefitting from their advertising networks. Giving people a list of websites makes me think of giving someone a fish versus teaching someone how to fish. Is fake political news written by teenagers in Macedonia more important than politicians selectively giving information to manipulate prestigious reporters? What about the growth in political memes that have no facts, only feelings? I think this New Yorker cartoon sums it up well:



Caption: “I’m sorry, Jeannie, your answer was correct, but Kevin shouted his incorrect answer over yours, so he gets the points.”

I don’t know if the cartoonist is aware of the irony here. There’s a big banner saying “FACTS DON’T MATTER.” There’s a caption that captures part of the reason progressives resent Donald Trump and his electoral victory. But there are no actual facts in this political cartoon. We don’t know what Jeannie or Kevin said so we can judge the answers for ourselves. Of course, giving facts is not what political cartoons do. They try to present clever mockery. I understand why the cartoon feels true. But the key to distinguishing fake news and other kinds of emotional manipulation is being able to separate literal fact from arguments that feel true or symbolize truth without containing verifiable facts.

Just to give a preview of where I’m going, every style of telling stories has strengths and weaknesses. For my final in Sociology of Mass Communication a year ago I asked students how they would write about the Trump campaign. Why did they choose that style? What are the strengths and weaknesses of that approach? If a student couldn’t talk about the negative ramifications of their decision, they couldn’t get an A. I knew that students could think about the cons of each approach, they could walk out of my class knowing how people may try to use that style of story telling to manipulate them. Sometimes it’s politicians using the media. That’s been one of the main themes of this blog in the past. But since people are mainly worried about fake news today, I’m going to focus more on media producers trying to manipulate our emotions.

I didn’t teach about “fake news” per se when I taught sociology of mass communication a year ago. I’d only change one thing if I taught again this Winter or Spring, and it’s something much broader than fake vs. real news. Fake news is just one kind of manipulation. The New Yorker cartoon is another. Donald Trump dragging out the hot takes over Mike Pence getting booed while watching the play Hamilton is a third kind of manipulation. I’m less concerned about the differences between flat-out lies, tactical half-truths and people relying on emotional arguments because they don’t have facts or evidence to back up their claims. Each form of manipulation can be resisted by asking the same set of questions instead of taking content at face value.

1) How much does the article rely on factual claims or evidence? Some articles are entirely descriptive, trying to relay a set of facts for an audience who didn’t directly see what happened. Other articles rely heavily on moral claims and interpretation rather than empirical evidence. That’s a different type of argument and we’ll get to it in a bit. Traditional interview-based journalism offers quotes as a kind of evidence. Direct evidence from documents is rare.

2) If someone relies on factual claims, where does the evidence come from? Can you clearly trace how evidence traveled from the original source to intermediaries to your brain? For example, reporters interview people and quote them. We don’t know what the reporter decided to quote and what was left out. But we can be fairly certain that the person being quoted said those literal words. Then we can evaluate the reputation of the person being quoted. We can also evaluate the reporter’s reputation. If we can’t clearly trace the flow of information from one person to the next, they may want to hide something. Whistleblowers need anonymity for protection. However, a wide range of political operatives seek anonymity to promote half-truths and misinformation.

3) What emotions is someone trying to convey? Are they trying to make you feel a certain way about things? Some writers and meme creators’ goal is to convey a certain set of feelings. Think of the New Yorker cartoon: it wants to convey outrage. Most newspaper and network TV reporters work very hard not to convey any of their own emotions about the stories they are reporting on. This kind of stoic emotional restraint is pretty rare in other kinds of storytelling. My goal is make sure we all pause and consciously understand where a writer is coming from and what they want us to feel. I don’t want to get my emotions pushed around by anybody, even people I tend to agree with. Any time someone is giving us a set of feelings that we want to believe, we are at risk of not checking their facts and evidence as closely as we should.

4) How honest and up front is the writer about why they are doing what they are doing? I actually haven’t taught this before, but I think it’s an important follow-up to question 3. Every argument has assumptions. If someone is making an argument, how much are they willing to clearly state “here are my goals and my assumptions.” When someone is giving an interpretation of evidence, do they explain why they gave this interpretation? Do they acknowledge other potential explanations and make a case for why their interpretation is better? If someone can’t acknowledge that other interpretations exist, it’s probably because they can’t make a good case for why their interpretation is the best.

My own sense from spending my entire adult life working in or studying journalism is that it’s hard for a writer to excel at giving both factual evidence and feelings. I think it’s particularly hard to combine the two when writing about politics, since the main feelings people convey are moral outrage and judgment. It’s much easier for me to try and combine facts and feelings when recapping a baseball game than in writing this post. That’s why there are tradeoffs. No writer can be consistently good at everything. No one is perfect.

When I teach about journalism, my main goal is to get students to acknowledge these tradeoffs, then ground them in specific examples. Elite media organizations that have access and avoid reporters’ personal judgments tend to defer to sources in order to protect access. When Trump lied on Twitter about the popular vote, many leading news organizations copied his claim in the headline without any critical skepticism. Large news organizations tend to fear an inability to prove an elite source is lying more than they fear publishing an elite’s statement that is probably false. Nixon campaign aides first took advantage of this in 1968 (see Crause’s Boys on the Bus), and it’s been a staple in political operatives’ playbook ever since.

Writers who emphasize moralistic takes and emotion have more incentive to hide, selectively misinterpret or fabricate factual evidence. Someone who really wants to convince me that Trump voters are all racist isn’t all that likely to bring up other reasons why they support Trump. On the other hand, Trump voters who are not explicit supporters of the KKK are trying to emphasize all the non-racial reasons why someone would vote for Trump. Three weeks after the election and I still see both messages from friends, like it was the day after the election. That’s why things like the New Yorker cartoon stick out to me. They encapsulate outrage and victimization, but are not going to persuade anyone who doesn’t already have those feelings deep in their heart before reading the cartoon.

Being self-conscious about what we want from news is hard. I think it has always been hard. We don’t want to acknowledge that every genre of media is imperfect. People who want all-facts news may not want to acknowledge how reporters can be manipulated by powerful sources. People who want a certain set of emotions, moral stance or political ideology may not want to acknowledge there are times they put feelings before facts. Trump exploited this his entire campaign, skewing this election almost entirely towards emotion. Remember that Democrats’ main campaign theme was that Trump was emotionally unstable and personally unqualified for office. We took the bait instead of focusing on a positive message. It’s easy to see something on social media, get agitated, and react right away. This is a more pervasive and bipartisan problem than “fake news.” For another example of what makes this so hard, let’s take the following passage from the end of an article Dara Lind wrote for Vox:

Journalists have long been sensitive to the prevalence of misogyny on social media. In 2016, they’ve become alarmed by anti-Semitism on social media as well. Journalists know and work among women; they know and work among Jews.

Many of them don’t know and work among many people of color. The amount of attention paid to racism on social media (or in real life) among journalists is, accordingly, often disproportionately small — or delayed.

Let’s think about how to factually evaluate the claim that journalists pay more attention to misogyny and anti-Semitism than racism. We could try to construct a database with a list of misogynist incidents, religious bigotry and racism, and then construct a second list of writers and what they wrote about. How often did a particular group of writers tackle a particular topic? This is incredibly difficult, painstaking work. I spent years working on a project like this dealing with media and blog posts from the 2008 election as part of my dissertation. In the end, I could produce criteria for defining statements on race, gender, religion and a large number of other topics. I could produce data on how much a particular set of news organizations preferred or dispreferred phrases on each topic, relative to any other topic.

Even if I provide facts, there is no factual basis for saying whether enough attention is being paid to racism or misogyny or any other issue. The current level of attention is a fact. The ideal level of attention is a feeling. It’s a moral stance. I chose this passage from Lind’s somewhat unrelated article because it does a great job of showing how 100% fact based story telling only goes so far. A description of how much attention is currently being paid to race with no moral claim about how much attention should be paid to race will be unsatisfying for many audiences. Trust me, I have the negative reviews to prove it. On the other hand, moralistic claims that lack evidence are unsatisfying for a different audience. Lind claimed that journalists pay a disproportionately small amount of attention to racism. The rest of the article doesn’t give any additional evidence to support this claim since it is largely focused elsewhere. Unfortunately, that means I have no idea if Lind is trying to manipulate me or not.

If you want to teach critical thinking about media content and not just give students a list of fake news sites, you have to empower students to offer different moral priorities than you. I know some students in my last class liked outrage news a lot more than I did. I assume some of my readers will like it more than I do. That’s fine. My students also liked Buzzfeed’s day-to-day content a lot more than I did, while I wrote lectures while listening to three hours of college football podcasts. I made a point to illustrate a few of my eccentric non-political preferences to set a tone that I didn’t expect them to copy my political, moral preferences either. My goal is to help people make better informed choices about what media we read so we can be aware of what we are not getting. I want us to be able to protect ourselves from all different kinds of deception in the news – particularly from writers we tend to trust the most.

Of Course Matt Lauer Failed

Once I got more experience as a teaching assistant, I stopped asking professors to give me examples of an A paper. I started asking “what gets a B?” instead. In other words, what are the pros and cons of an average student’s paper? I knew most professors had similar ideals for A work but many of them couldn’t articulate the pros and cons found in the average student’s work. If we talked about the standards for average work in advance, it was much easier to evaluate students throughout the spectrum.

I haven’t been a teaching assistant for years, but I thought about these different ways of evaluating people’s work when I started reading reviews of Matt Lauer’s performance as moderator of the Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday. If you missed it, James Hohmann of the Washington Post has a good summary of all the reactions. People have an ideal of what debate moderators should do. Lauer is the inverse of professors agreeing on an A. Everyone has different standards for an ideal moderator but they agree that Lauer wasn’t it. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time grading papers, but I have a hard time grading Lauer on a simple pass/fail scale. So if you had to give Lauer a more specific grade, how many points would you give him out of 100?

It’s a weird question, I know. Unless you review media podcasts you probably don’t think about giving journalists a numerical score. People normally think of journalists and media organizations in binary terms (trust / distrust, like / dislike) or ordinal terms (favorite, second favorite, etc.) I’m asking what score you would give Lauer because there are several presidential debates coming up, so it would probably be good to define what counts as a “passing” grade for moderating a debate. If Lauer didn’t press Trump when he lied about always opposing the Iraq War, but he didn’t make any other mistakes, would you have given him a passing grade?


Moderators are graded very differently than other forms of journalism. Part of this is because debates are live. I used the delete key several times while writing this sentence, but live television has no delete key. I once worked at a local television station that declared someone died in a fire, went to commercial break, and then announced that person was alive. Accidentally announcing someone’s death is an embarrassing mistake, but still fixable. If Trump lies during a debate, and the moderator doesn’t challenge him immediately, it’s much harder to apologize to the audience and then go back to challenge Trump after the commercial. It’s impossible to grill Hillary Clinton over her e-mails then ask a softball question about them. Major news interviews, press conferences and debates are created to be a performance. We judge people on whether they can perform in the moment.

I read hundreds of examples of journalistic theatre for my dissertation research. Journalists have been evaluating performances in these presidential events for as long as they have been on the record. Both the theatre and the literal words people said are potential news. Writers can separate the two in to different stories. Television pundits do not separate the literal words from the performance in post-event coverage. (This has always been controversial.) It’s not unusual for a moderator like Matt Lauer to become one of the many stories after a high profile news performance.

Remember that when we read a news story, the interaction that took place between journalists and their sources is usually hidden, so we can’t really form an opinion of it. My favorite example of these negotiations at a high profile level is Bill Clinton answering questions about Monica Lewinsky, a fundraising scandal, and other domestic topics while flying over the Amazon on Air Force One. He wanted to “avoid being hammered by domestic questions” in his press conference with Brazil’s Prime Minister later that day (ABC’s Good Morning America, 10/14/1997, 7 AM broadcast).

Would you be critical of this kind of backroom deal leading to one on-the-record soundbite in a short story? These agreements are the engine that makes day-to-day reporting work. We don’t know much about these negotiations because even if a researcher gives everyone anonymity observing the interaction changes it. When Matt Lauer is interviewing the two main presidential candidates live, it’s a rare theatrical event that draws our attention. We expect journalists to do a more active job moderating the discussion because it’s the rare chance we actually get to see how they ask questions as they ask them.


It’s easy to look back on Matt Lauer’s performance asking questions and point out mistakes. Most pundits used this as a jumping off point to talk about what they thought the ideal moderator should do, what they should avoid doing, and how poor moderators could hurt the public. It’s important to discuss ideals. However, we know people’s definition of an “ideal” debate moderator is extremely subjective. I doubt I could sit down with my neighbors and reach a consensus on the appropriate number of questions to ask about particular topics. It’s even harder to figure out how hard to push a candidate who is giving a deceptive or non-responsive answer. One person’s “holding candidates accountable” is another’s “biased moderator hijacks debate.” Candy Crowley became a partisan lightning rod after challenging Mitt Romney in 2012.

As someone who taught sociology, I’m far less concerned about Matt Lauer’s individual performance than pundits. I don’t care if you want to give him a 55 or a 35 or a 0. They are all failing grades. What I am concerned about is the institution of journalists moderating candidate forums and debates. Can any journalist do well enough to get a passing grade moderating a debate in our current system? It’s easy to assume that Lauer is an individual incompetent and we just need to replace him with a better moderator. However, debates are such rare events that it’s easy to forget what the baseline is for an “average” moderator as we hold out for perfection. We forget that most debate moderators are closer to Lauer than Crowley, because the post-debate scrutiny makes it very hard for the Crowleys to keep their job (Crowley left TV news in 2014.) Hohmann argued “[moderators] are bound to be heavily criticized no matter what they do.” Fox News’ Chris Wallace has already explained why he will choose the more passive facilitator role:

WALLACE: I see myself as a conduit to ask the questions and basically to get the two candidates … to engage. I view it as kind of being a referee in a heavyweight championship fight. If it succeeds when it’s over, people will say, you did a great job. I don’t even remember you ever even being on the stage.

Q: What do you do if they make assertions that you know to be untrue?

WALLACE: That’s not my job. I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that. … If one of them is filibustering, I’m going to try to break in respectfully and give the other person a chance to talk. But I want it to be about them. I want it to be as much of a debate, people often talk that it’s simultaneous news conferences. I want it to be as much of a debate as possible. Frankly, with these two and the way — as Keith Jackson used to say about football rivals, these two just plain don’t like each other. I suspect I’m not going to have any problem getting them to engage with each other, but I don’t view my role as truth squading and I think that is a step too far. If people want to do it after the debate, fine, it’s not my role. “

Whatever you think of Wallace’s politics, he is offering a coherent theory of what debate moderators should do. Some progressive bloggers have already given Wallace an F, over a month before he takes his turn as debate moderator. On the other hand, staying out of the way as much as possible may be the only viable strategy for any kind of moderator to try and pass journalism’s hardest final exam. When I taught summer school, I only wanted to spend one day’s worth of class on an exam. That meant the final covered everything. I knew it would be a hard final, so I added an extra credit question to pre-emptively weight the grade. If challenging presidential candidates when they lie is so hard that almost every moderator assumes they will fail, we need to change the structure of the debate to let them succeed.

Here’s what I would do. Get a range of voters from across the political spectrum to sit in the debate room, like a jury. They have a green button when they can press when they want the moderator to dig deeper and challenge a candidate. They have a red button to press when they want the moderator to move on. If a majority (or maybe 60 percent) of the panel rings in, everyone gets notified. Moderators get the feedback, the viewing audience gets the feedback, even the candidates get an alarm. I would experiment with letting the panel pick the question topics too. The only way to become a debate moderator is to be a veteran DC journalist. These journalists are relatively experienced in interacting with politicians (it is a skill), but probably have different priorities than the audience.

I think the main advantage of this new debate institution is to diffuse responsibility away from the moderator as auteur. Wallace acknowledged he is responsible for everything: the questions, the follow-ups, when to cut someone off. He and other moderators bear the full responsibility for the performance. If the “jury of voters” decides when to challenge a candidate’s assertion, people will still get mad at the jury when it goes against them. This is actually the point – it would be easier for moderators to pursue the truth if it looks like an independent group is giving them permission to do so. I suspect letting people buzz in is also a more effective way to contain a candidate like Trump, who tend to ignore or attack journalists trying to corral him but is deeply unpopular with the general public.

People live tweet debates already. We are increasingly ready for a debate institution where people buzz in to give live reviews of candidate and moderator performances. Lots of people had feedback for Matt Lauer. Why not create a way to help him and help the country instead of just sitting on the couch saying “I could do better than that?”

Why Shoot the Objective Messenger?

Donald Trump continues to frustrate progressives. His latest offense is tweeting out a meme over the weekend calling Hillary Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Trump’s graphic appears to have been copied from a white supremacist message board. Mic.com has consistently pursued the links between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups since November, when Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistics Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most whites and most blacks are killed by blacks. A wide range of news organizations criticized Trump’s November tweet, pointing out that there is no “Crime Statistics Bureau” and that most homicides with a white victim also have a white killer. Many pundits on the left expect a more vigorous media response to Trump’s latest tweets:

Carlos Meza is a research fellow at Media Matters for America, the largest think tank specializing in progressive media criticism. This type of argument dates back to the Vietnam War. Anti-war protesters wanted to get in the news in the first place (initial coverage excluded them). Then they wanted the media to avoid “taking both sides” and take an explicit anti-war stance. For 50 years there have been progressives who want media organizations to take an explicit moral stand with the left. I read a lot of these critiques in graduate school, dating back to Todd Gitlin’s relatively sympathetic take on Students for a Democratic Society. The argument hasn’t really changed over the years. Progressive critics always say news organizations care too much about money when they should be using their platforms to take moral stands.

Critics like Meza don’t spend as much time thinking about what would happen if mainstream media organizations all embraced progressive moral stances when reporting the news. What would happen if the media emphasized “combatting open bigotry” instead of “impartiality and balance”? How much could media organizations actually do here? Meza argued any media organization that takes both sides instead of taking a moral stance against Trump is “aiding and abetting evil.” Ironically, I was already working on a post explaining why it doesn’t make sense for most mainstream media organizations to take these stances before this weekend. The short answer is people don’t know why media organizations make particular choices, so they apply their political bias to interpret any news report. A media organization’s claiming that “TRUMP IS A BIGOT” won’t convince people who don’t already believe Trump is a bigot. It will only label the media organization as left-wing and make the accusation of bigotry more ideological. The full answer is much longer and explains why Trump can get so much media attention in the first place.

Connecting the Dots

Before getting in to the weeds of how media organizations work, it helps to review the research of former UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel. He wanted to see how people made sense and maintained order in everyday life. He intentionally provoked unsuspecting people in order to see how people made sense of things and what they took for granted. He would erase your circle and draw an X through it in tic-tac-toe. He had students try to barter for the price of their groceries and interrogate bus drivers about how we could be absolutely sure the bus was going where the driver said it was going. Tic-tac-toe makes for a funny game in the classroom, but most of these experiments outraged people. (I’m obligated to warn you not to try this at home…unless you want to mess with a telemarketer.)

My favorite of Garfinkel’s “breaching” experiments actually took place in a laboratory. Participants were allowed to ask 10 yes or no questions and get replies from a social psychology professor (presumably Garfinkel) in the next room. All the participant had to do is write down what they thought about each response before asking the next question. One after another, people asked deeply personal questions and explained how the answers made sense. However, the “expert” in the next room was just someone flipping a coin and then saying “yes” or “no” in to the microphone. The answer was completely random, but the research subjects accepted the validity of the answers. More importantly, they wrote elaborate stories to justify the response.

Sports fans know that people tend to tell bad stories when they start with an end result and then work back to discuss process, despite all the data available in sports. Let’s imagine every time Derek Jeter bats is like rolling a 20 sided die, and he gets a hit on 1-6. Random coincidence could lead him to keep rolling low numbers in big at bats – and a 30 percent chance of success isn’t that rare. However, luck and coincidence make for terribly unsatisfying stories. Sports fans are like the people in Garfinkel’s experiment. Did this team win? It’s a yes or no question. Most fans start with the final answer, then have to come up with a story of why this happened. That’s how some athletes get labeled as “clutch” and others as “chokers.” The label is usually based on winning and losing, not direct knowledge of the athlete’s decision-making and whether he made good decisions.

Why Can’t We See How Journalists Make Decisions?

I started with sports because we can objectively measure athletes’ performance, look at how many championships they won, and still tell awful stories connecting the process to the result. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t see every play that went in to the progress of the playoffs or the regular season. That’s what it is usually like when we try to explain news coverage. Most social scientists don’t even try to compare the starting point of news events to the final story (or lack of a story). You can get published in the top sociology journal just by looking at a collection of final news stories and then proposing a story about why those news stories would have one set of themes instead of another. Why is it so hard to study the process of writing news more directly and systematically? Once we understand this, it will be much easier to understand why news organizations may not want to take explicitly moral stances against Trump or anyone else.

1) What counts as “news”?

When I taught undergraduates about the newsgathering process, I always started by asking them what counts as news. You may not be a journalist, but you can easily play along. What kinds of things would you post on social media? What do you want to read? Even when I taught a small class of under 20 people this fall, we quickly realized that no one would have identical rankings of potential news stories. Every newsroom I have worked at could get in to the same arguments. When Gaye Tuchman wrote one of the classic ethnographic studies of newsrooms in the 1970s, she found newsworthiness was the hardest thing for journalists to define. Even professionals use a “know it when I see it” philosophy to assess newsworthiness.

2) Content producers need heuristics

Let’s imagine you were working at a newspaper. Maybe it would be more appropriate to imagine you are writing your own blog like I am right now. You want to make sure you keep producing the best stories for your audience, so you keep searching for new stories and eliminating possibilities. How much do you write? The answer is nothing! The rate of new things happening in the world is faster than the rate at which we can eliminate possibilities. Even if we are writing our own blogs and don’t have to argue with anyone, deliberation takes time. The only way to get anything written is to limit your search and say “I’m going to write about the most interesting thing I can find by a certain time.”

Journalists use a wide number of heuristics to manage the influx of potential stories – and most partisan sites seem to use similar heuristics. One of the main heuristics is to sit down and write a list of who is most likely to provide news stories, then assign reporters to check in with these sources on a regular basis. Planning events in advance lets journalists know “if I show up at a particular place and time, I can produce a story.” Reporters may not be able to verify if a source is telling the truth, so they default to trusting officials because they should have legitimate knowledge to information (Fishman 1980 holds up surprisingly well).

3) Everyone has incentives to hide the process

When we read a final news story, we don’t know if the reporter spoke to any press flacks to arrange an interview. We don’t know if anything was said off the record to explain the goals of the story, limit the scope of questions, or ensure a story is published at a particular time. When reporters selectively quote from interviews, we don’t know what was left on the cutting room floor. If reporters summarize what someone said and what they meant, we don’t know if the reporter understood correctly. (Most complaints about misquoting are really complaints about misunderstanding the intent of a statement.)

It’s probably easiest to understand why journalists don’t want to show the full process. They appear to have a lot of freedom. When reporters really have a lot of options, they don’t want to be second-guessed. Remember that Meza works full time at Media Matters, a think tank founded to second-guess journalists. When reporters have limited ability to search for stories before deadline or can’t get access to desirable stories, they want to hide their failure. When in doubt, reporters rely on official sources, but they want to hide an overly cozy relationship. The news organization that opens itself up to second-guessing may lose its audience to a tight-lipped competitor.

Everyone else involved in the news process also has incentives to hide the process and just focus on the final result. Audience members don’t want to sift through the reject pile every day – we have other things to do with our lives! If a source spoke off the record to attract news coverage or coordinate an interview, they would want to hide the friendly relationship. It looks better if the politician’s event is really the most important news of the day instead of merely being the easiest story to find. (Donald Trump’s media deluge is going to be much easier to understand by the time we’re done.) Sources who don’t know how to catch journalists’ attention or who say really embarrassing things in their interview may not want to explain how they were stupid.

News Stories Aren’t Enough

We know that news stories do not emerge from some alternative dimension. When we only see the final story in the newspaper, on television or online, it may not be completely satisfying. We want to be able to tell our own story of how reporters did their job. Trump coverage is a great example. If a news organization doesn’t call Trump a bigot, many progressives will be outraged. Meza and the thousands who liked or retweeted him need a story of why the media covered Trump neutrally.

Since reporters don’t want to tell us how they make decisions, we need to construct a myth from somewhere. We know people have likes and dislikes. We know news coverage emphasizes certain things more than others. Therefore, it is very simple to infer that reporters emphasize the things they like and ignore the things they dislike. Meza engaged in a very simple form of this, asserting that journalists inherently like objectivity and neutrality. Tuchman argued objectivity is more strategic. It’s a way to minimize the number of people who are outraged like Meza is.

When I studied press conferences I found the president got three out of every four quoted words in the New York Times the next day. Shorter stories about press conferences only had one source: the president. When journalists told longer stories they added more sources to give reactions. You probably didn’t realize that. I didn’t realize it until I did the study. A certain kind of news story can be mathematically unbalanced for decades and people won’t notice. When I presented these findings most audiences were stunned. Then they got angry. It helped me realize that people aren’t used to thinking about balance or imbalance in the news as some formal mathematical property. My audience mainly thought about how news gets produced when they see a story they don’t like! This is when people need to create some sort of myth to explain why the media isn’t giving what they want.

Let’s Trust the…Politicians?

The only people with a real incentive to talk about how reporters search for and write up news stories are the people who feel screwed over by the process. Let’s say someone was left out of the news. They could complain about censorship and say the press was playing favorites. Reporters don’t want to share “here are the sources who are in my top tier, second tier, etc.” Now let’s say someone is getting negative coverage. Pick any presidential candidate from 2016. They have all made mistakes and gotten negative coverage as a result. Why is the press focusing on this one negative story instead of other positive stories? Candidates have complained about an overly negative press for 50 years. It’s a claim that news organizations have never really been able to deflect. We know reporters choose a few stories from a wider set of potential stories. Reporters want to hide the process and their own political preferences. Now that I am no longer a news reporter I can say there was little correlation between whether someone was a good source and whether I personally agreed with their politics.

There’s something very unusual in how we think about political bias in the news. Politicians sell a myth that the media is biased and there are always better stories (about them) for reporters to focus on. We believe the politicians! After all, what possible reason could someone have to lie when asking for our vote? It’s absurd to think about how many people buy in to politicians’ myth of how news gets created by biased reporters. This shows how unsatisfying reporters’ claims of expert news judgment are. We want to tell some myth or origin story of how those news stories are created and why they favor some people or topics instead of others. Politicians may be extraordinarily self-serving, but they are the main group offering an explanation. Activists like Meza – who want to fundamentally change media organizations – are the other group offering explanations.

How Does This Help Us Explain the Trump Show?

Donald Trump announced he was running for president a year ago. He has dominated the airwaves since. We probably haven’t seen such a dramatic imbalance in how much coverage one candidate got relative to others in his party’s primary. A few months before Trump announced, I predicted someone who ran a campaign based on social identity would get considerable media attention. However, Trump’s media strategy has gone beyond what I predicted. He emphasizes getting a large volume of coverage like no candidate before him. He speaks almost entirely in feelings, often subverting the entire premise of a “fact check.” I think Trump’s strategy takes full advantage of an audience that needs to manufacture coherent stories to explain patterns in news coverage and a press that refuses to tell this story themselves.

Conventional Wisdom: Avoid Gaffes

Before going in to Trump’s strategy in more detail, it is important to know how over the last 35 years political communication has gotten more professional and strategic. One of the main lessons for these strategists is to minimize gaffes. Politicians hold a lot of choreographed media events and photo ops. They may try to answer the question they wish they were asked instead of the question they were actually asked. Strategists probably don’t think they can completely bowl reporters over with these strategies. Any veteran reporter will recognize the manipulation at work. But they can’t stop it. The goal of these strategies isn’t to make a big impression. It is to limit the number of things a reporter has to choose from.

A good metaphor is a college football team that schedules Directional State University and Small School Tech to try and inflate its won-loss record. Large college football teams can essentially buy wins. Some teams also play in much more challenging leagues than others. A good team with a weak schedule may only have 2 or 3 games out of 12 that they have any real risk of losing. When most fans saw 13-0 Florida State in the first year of the college football playoff, they saw a great champion instead of a team that barely beat a number of teams in on a weak schedule. Florida State lost badly once they faced high quality competition in the playoff. Last year people were fooled again, this time by Big 10 champion Michigan State and runner up Iowa in the Rose Bowl. People saw college football teams that won a lot of games and told themselves a story that these teams were among the best in the country. They didn’t bother to check how these teams won and whether the process was solid.

Most politicians try to win our confidence with the same principle. They want to accumulate positive story after positive story mainly by limiting the pool of information that reporters have to pick from so there are only positive stories left. They try to avoid unscripted events that may give genuine moments that could inspire the audience, because these events could go badly. College football fans look the other way when a team from their conference benefits from an easy schedule. Partisan audiences do the same thing in politics. We want to see the other candidates go through the ringer and get beat up, but we assume our favorite candidate went through a much tougher schedule than they actually did. Clinton and Sanders were actually fairly nice to each other, compared to Obama v. Clinton in 2008.

Trump’s Casino Approach

Donald Trump doesn’t exactly come across as someone following the “avoid gaffes” conventional wisdom. He’s using a different strategy: try to be the lead story every day and accept some negative headlines rather than go a news cycle without being the top story. Flooding the airwaves is also a kind of gaffe deflection strategy. Most candidates try to avoid gaffes because they think one critical mistake could fester and sink a campaign. Trump tries to keep one gaffe from defining him by creating a new headline. Changing the story is an old public relations strategy. Most politicians try to use it to prevent negative stories, while businesses tend to use it after a scandal has happened. Trump is more than willing to give a new story about his campaign to distract from a gaffe, even if the new story is also negative.

If news organizations give media coverage based on whether a politicians has said something that will help the readers decide whether or not to vote for that candidate, then Trump has certainly earned the media attention he is getting. We expect certain things out of a generic Republican or generic Democrat. If a Republican says “Obama did a bad job” is that news? Republicans have been saying that non-stop for eight years. Regulation bad, free markets good is another very generic Republican position. Trump attracted attention by saying things that were well outside the Republican mainstream. He was more strident in disparaging Mexican immigrants. Trump also attacked mainstream Republicans, claiming they were too dependent on the Koch brothers and other big money Republican donors. Any member of a political party who criticizes their own party gets considerably more media attention (Groeling 2010). Sanders also got attention for attacking the Democratic National Committee. What makes Trump unique is his near exclusive reliance on a large number of news media appearances and social media messages instead of a balanced strategy including on-the-ground campaign staff or advertising.

Casinos tilt the odds so after enough games the house always wins. Trump has stacked the deck too. Whether it is intuition or calculation, Trump has a tremendous sense of what people will consider newsworthy. This doesn’t mean people agree with what Trump has to say. All it means is Trump can monopolize media attention. If people like Trump’s message, all the free media brings voters. If people don’t like Trump’s message, they may act like Meza and blame the media for giving Trump so much attention. People who don’t want to be subjected to the Trump show need some explanation for why so many media organizations pursue it. Maybe the media is politically biased. Maybe they emphasize Trump because Trump brings ratings and pageviews. The more voters question news organizations’ judgment, the more it helps Trump. Either way, Trump can get an advantage from dominating the headlines every day.

The other unusual thing about Trump’s campaign is his willingness to invent or ignore facts. Most politicians are afraid of saying something factually untrue. Reporters could run a “fact check” and embarrass the politician. Trump makes so many things up that the Associated Press used 10 fact checkers to review a speech on June 22. I don’t think Trump cares about fact checks because he is not trying to combine rational facts with emotional appeals. Trump’s campaign is entirely emotional. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, truth simply doesn’t appear to be a part of Trump’s message; Trump’s message is all about truthiness.

Truthiness Meets Hidden Journalistic Practices

Because journalists do not share every step of how they choose one news story and one angle over another, they have always required the audience to fill in gaps about who is credible. Everything a reporter shares about how they establish priorities is a gap people could use to undermine a reporter’s credibility. That’s why reporters use facts as supporting evidence as much as possible. When they don’t have facts, they use quotes and put someone’s claims in quotation marks. Most politicians and interest groups give some evidence to back their claims. We take it for granted that people will use some evidence. Trump doesn’t use facts as supporting evidence. There’s nothing to “fact check.” Audiences have to decide for themselves if Trump’s claims about America and policy proscriptions feel true, racist or fascist. Meza is the latest in a long line of progressive activists who do not trust the audience to reach the “right” conclusion without a massive shove from the media. Bigotry must be actively combatted. Journalists cannot be neutral. In his view, presenting both sides helps a bigot so much that it is “aiding and abetting evil.” (Has Meza linked to supporting evidence himself since I wrote this?)

Veteran reporters know it doesn’t matter how much you try to shove the audience to a particular position, they are still going to create myths to explain why a journalist took a particular stance or covered a particular story. When reporters actually offer an explanation it is often fuel for these hostile myths. That’s why reporters don’t accuse someone of lying without documented evidence. The accusation doesn’t make someone any less credible without proof. Let’s say CNN’s Jake Tapper stood up and screamed “You are a racist!” when interviewing Trump a few weeks ago about the judge in the Trump University case. (In case you forgot, Trump cited the judge’s “Mexican heritage” as the reason for not dismissing the lawsuit.) I assume this would make a critic like Meza happy. I think this is what he wants Tapper and other journalists to do. But Meza already agrees with the assertion that Trump is a racist.

If people weren’t convinced Trump is a racist after that interview, there’s nothing that Tapper can say to change this. People tell myths about reporters’ ideologies and biases even when they have nothing to go on besides the final news story. These myths are mainly ways to discount news stories that don’t fit our political preferences. If Tapper took an explicit anti-Trump stance, he would just make it much easier for people to discount him as an ideologue. Just think about partisan media organizations for a moment. How much are they trying to actively persuade neutrals or the other side? Most of the content is giving true believers hot takes that make them feel good. If you really want to persuade people, you have to give them enough rope so then they can decide for themselves that they want to change their mind.

Ironically, the fear that media organizations are “legitimizing” Trump appear to be unfounded. Every public opinion poll has found many more Americans disapprove of Trump than approve of him. Trump’s favorability hit a record low of 29 percent in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll and has hovered in the low 30s in other polls. More than half of those polled in both the ABC/WaPo poll and a separate Bloomberg poll have a strongly unfavorable view of Trump. People can decide for themselves how they feel about Donald Trump without objective media organizations explicitly calling Trump a bigot or a fascist or something else. A wise progressive may conclude it’s better to present Trump in his own words and let the audience conclude he is a bigot than to add explicit condemnation, which could make it seem like a biased media is out to get Trump.

If you ask people “is the news media doing a good job?” most of them will say no. They read news stories, but most news stories just don’t give readers what they want to feel. Objective media is defined by stoic attempts to distance reporters’ feelings from their narratives. Partisan media is defined by outrage. If you want something else from the media, you are probably out of luck. We need some narrative to explain why the media doesn’t give us what we want. These narratives always ascribe motivations and preferences to the media while leaving out sources. People blame the news organizations for covering Trump so much. It doesn’t matter that objective, “both sides” media coverage is leading a majority of Americans to have a strongly negative view of Trump.

What Is News?

I went to grad school to research what counts as news. How do people make these decisions? I never set out to do a breaching experiment. But when I proposed that sources may have power over journalists – and this could be quantified – I broke several of sociology’s norms. I didn’t automatically buy in to any of the common myths that ascribed motivations or bias to journalists. I wanted to empirically test these theories, to the degree that these theories were testable and a regression analysis can test any theory.

After my fourth year of graduate school I was mocked for being the only person at the media sociology panel who wanted panelists to say something about their methods instead of skipping to the data. Each panelist described a different role for sources in their study. I asked them to speak more directly about the role of sources during the Q&A. I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone – I only ask questions at talks that I think the speaker can reasonable answer. Three of the panelists froze and the fourth tried to hide under the table! I made the mistake of emphasizing sources and strategy at a time when my peers turned to critics like Meza to fuel their echo chamber.

Like I said earlier, veteran reporters know at a certain point they have to trust their audience because there is nothing more they can say to sway their audience. I think I’ve reached that point with my blog. Unfortunately, offering factual information to support claims of how journalists make decisions is harder than finding factual information on nearly any other topic. One of the things I taught my students when teaching research methods is that people can always find a way to discount research if they want to – and some people are highly motivated to discount research about news.

I’m not going to delete this blog. I could always bring it back at some point. But after a decade of banging my head against the wall I need a break.

Why Does the LA Times Know they Can’t Rally Readers?

There was a shooting two days ago in the same building at UCLA that I taught a few classes in. Over the last year I met a number of engineering, computer science and biology students looking to add statistics to their skill set. I couldn’t work on Wednesday. I was too busy texting friends to see if they were on campus and safe. Thankfully all of my friends are safe, but I know there are people in the UCLA community who cannot say the same. After any mass shooting we see various editorials and thinkpieces. To quote a Los Angeles Times staff editorial posted an hour after police gave the all clear sign:

“In this case, it was only two dead. Murder-suicide in a small office. And so America shrugs. Just another violent incident in the daily parade of gun violence that defines contemporary America.”

This shooting was much closer to home. It turns out the shooter was a former graduate student with a grievance against his professor. Teach enough students and you will run in to someone who is neurotic and absolutely refuses to take responsibility for their failures. Six months ago a student told me she turned in a homework assignment but got a zero because my teaching assistant missed it. I grabbed my phone, emailed my TA, and said I would get back to the student. Problem not solved. This student kept insisting she did the assignment. It didn’t matter how many times I said “we’ll check.” This student followed me out of the office and through the quad, continuing to insist she did that assignment. I think the only reason she stopped following me was because she recognized we were walking to the main administration building! She never did that homework, of course. Her final had explicitly racist answers. Good thing she was unarmed.

I wouldn’t say I am completely back to normal after the shooting. On the other hand, most of the performances around the shooting feel very familiar. Newspapers have played the LA Times’ role condemning gun violence before. Progressives have criticized the National Rifle Association before. If everyone fills their part of the script, we will see he main spokesman for the NRA come out in a few days and say this tragedy could be prevented if more people were carrying guns (as if that would pre-empt the initial shooting.) The LA Times editorial staff concedes that the nation accepts gun violence as “commonplace” and “that society will just shrug this off is tragic in its own way.” How did we get to the point where a leading newspaper would openly concede that their editorials are unlikely to sway the public?

The last time I remember so many people asking “why can’t the media blow the whistle about something outrageous” was in November. Donald Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistic Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most White murder victims were killed by Blacks. However, the “Crime Statistic Bureau” does not exist. FBI statistics show most Whites are killed by other Whites. Reporters traced the graphic back to a self-identified neo-Nazi. Could reporters call Trump a liar? A racist? What would it take for reporters to “blow the whistle” and get people’s attention? I changed my lecture last minute to try and address this question, and tried addressing it in more detail the next week. After the shooting at UCLA, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my notes and try to explain why it is so hard to shake people in to believing something is serious and needs attention.

Media Setting Priorities?

A generation ago Walter Cronkite famously turned against the Vietnam War. (Cronkite’s own short retrospective on this is also worth watching.) Many historians think that Cronkite – a journalist – took the single most important step to sway public opinion on the war. Cronkite was famously stoic and detached as an anchor, even when describing how President Kennedy was shot and killed. I showed this clip in class once, then asked my students if they could or would take the same tone if they had to announce President Obama had been shot. Most said no. I imagine if we go back 50 years, most people would say no as well. Cronkite’s stoic detachment was part of what made him so trusted. He came off like a neutral arbitrator of what is important. Cronkite breaking character when condemning the Vietnam War showed an intensity and importance that went beyond day-to-day news coverage.

Walter Cronkite was famous and well-respected, but his journalistic standards weren’t that different from other journalists of his era. Nightly network news was seen as a public service. It was a requirement to keep a broadcast license. Edward Epstein wrote in his 1793 book News From Nowhere that the NBC executives he studied didn’t think about maximizing the audience or potential profits – they incorrectly assumed broadcast news could never turn a profit. Since national journalists of the 1960s and early 70s thought their job was entirely about public service, they didn’t care too much about audience preferences. Journalists thought it was up to them to educate the public and tell them what they should be caring about. If the nightly news could only contain 15 stories, then journalists would give you a list of the 15 most important stories they found that day. Major events like California’s upcoming primary election could get multiple slots in the top 15 to show even greater importance than just getting the #1 slot.

Media organizations play some of this filtering role today. Every media organization looks through a huge set of events happening in the world and pulls out a smaller set of things to write about. I go through that process myself as a small time blogger. We need this specialization and division of labor because we only have so much memory and so much time. It is impossible for us to be fully aware of everything that is going on in the world. Everyone produces their top 15 stories of the day, or top 30, or maybe their single story of the week if they write part-time.

The difference is today we have a much wider range of top 15 story lists to choose from. Audiences can comparison shop. If you want someone who feels as outraged as you about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, some partisan media site will fill the “ragehole” for you. If you want minute details about state-by-state primary rules and how they affected the election, there is a site for you. If you want a little update on the presidential election but don’t want it to gobble up 5 of the top 15 story slots, local newspapers and local television broadcasts will screen out the obligatory daily campaign updates.

Walter Cronkite didn’t have to think about creating a brand specializing in national news. Newspapers were regional. There were only three television networks, and they all broadcast similar types of news at similar times. Nightly news could ignore the audience’s preferences because there was minimal competition. Cronkite’s successors at CBS, along with reporters at national newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, have to cater to a specific audience. People who want to read about national politics on a regular basis tend to have strong political opinions. One of the main ways that older media organizations have tried to keep this audience is by treating single statements as enough for a full news story – as long as what the politician said would outrage part of the audience. These stories are very easy to write. It’s a cost-effective way to give the core group of politics readers the feeling of being immersed in a campaign.

Sharing Is Caring…too Much?

How did you reach this blog post? Did you type the name of my website in to your browser? Set up an RSS feed? Chances are you came across a link via Facebook or Twitter, or maybe a Google search. That’s more and more common these days. One recent study indicated a majority of Americans get their news from Facebook instead of directly visiting media websites or watching / reading offline content. Of course not everyone is on Facebook, and many Facebook users have no interest in politics. Think about your friends and family who are the most actively posting about politics on Facebook. Are they a little…different than the other people in your feed?


I’m blocking this guy. Wouldn’t you?

If you can’t imagine one of your friends or family members constantly yelling at the computer screen as they click “share link” you are lucky. Most of us have a range of anger. Some things don’t bother us at all, some are just a little annoying. There are only a few things that would get me screaming – like seeing the news that a UCLA student shot their former professor. You won’t see me post the minor squabbles I have. I make the conscious decision that many things are not worth writing a short Facebook post about. It’s definitely not worth your time to read me talking about minor annoyances. Most of us have some kind of filter. But we also know people who will post every grievance they have about the political process or one of the candidates in this election. When I see someone who posts how they are angry about something in politics or culture most days of the week, it makes me think of one of my favorite lines from TV’s Justified:

Raylan Givens: It’s all somebody else’s fault. You ever hear the saying “you run in to an asshole in the morning, you ran in to an asshole. You run in to assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Social media caters to people who want to spend their time confirming their political views and demonizing the opposition. How could you search for people who feel the same way you do about Donald Trump without social media? It’s going to be a lot harder. Any in-person rally or protest will be limited by geography. Sites like Facebook and Twitter quickly realized their biggest comparative advantage is the ability to let users find other users who share a common interest, even if they have nothing else in common. Hashtags, suggested friends and search features made this possible for the first time. These sites also use algorithms to promote posts that have already gotten a large number of likes and comments. Facebook is very proactive in hiding posts that do not get engagement. And Facebook’s experiments have shown people engage more with emotional posts than neutral ones. When we put this all together, angry Facebook posts will get more visibility and engagement than anyone inspired by Walter Cronkite.

Because sites that produce some kind of political media content are increasingly dependent on Facebook users sharing links, they are increasingly dependent on the emotional content that elicits engagement on Facebook. Sharing drives web traffic. This media ecosystem is great at signaling who is angry about what. Even traditional media sites are embracing “who is angry about what” as a common story trope for national politics. It’s not an entirely flawed system. People who would get ignored in Cronkite’s generation have an opportunity to share their views now.

The main problem is every company involved in political media has an incentive to cater to the people who cry “wolf” over every offense, regardless of its seriousness. Every post playing up how offensive something is will attract some of the audience that is looking for something to yell about today. It’s a great way to maximize your page views among the core audience for day-to-day political stories. But this media ecosystem is what enables someone like Donald Trump to get a record amount of media attention. Even before Trump ran I predicted that a candidate could monopolize media attention by filling the “ragehole” – the core political audience’s demand for daily outrage.

Most people want to reserve the media’s outrage alarm for something serious like Wednesday’s shootings at UCLA. (Remember that for all the attention Trump is getting, most Americans do not vote in presidential primaries.) When I read the LA Times staff editorial, I saw the voice of a media organization that knew what most people needed…and that they could never fulfill this need. After a decade of giving the niche politics audience what they want to maximize page views, they knew their opinion wouldn’t stand out from just another hot take on gun control once it gets to our Facebook feed.


There is one important silver lining in my analysis. It’s something that my students taught me. We don’t need to rely on media organizations to change in order to solve this quagmire. We don’t need Facebook to tinker with their algorithms again or get off Facebook altogether because algorithms are evil. All we need to do is stop liking and commenting on everything that gets us a little riled up about politics. Watching those friends and family members who do nothing but rant about politics is a lot like watching a car crash. I know we all tend to stop and stare at accidents – and that causes a traffic jam on the other side of the highway. People who use social media to wage a daily battle are getting in accidents. They are causing a traffic jam for the rest of us who want a different kind of media coverage. We can all do our part to avoid these accidents by showing some restraint. My 19-23 year old students had already learned this.