But how do we know it is true?

paper in typewriter says Investigation

In response to an email suggestion to watch the documentary “Totally Under Control,” a friend replied saying: “Thanks! Sounds interesting…but I have to ask the question: is it true? How do we know?”

Official Trailer for The Social DilemmaWith all the charges of “fake news” and media distrust, it turns out the methods for determining credibility and levels of truthfulness from various information sources hasn’t changed that much and most people know about it to one degree or another. My recommendation to watch the documentary carried with it the caveat it was controversial.  But I do think it is true, and toward the end, I explain why.

Most can discern when information supplied to us is trustworthy and true. Few people equate their doctor’s prescription for a new medication to an Internet video hawking a miraculous supplement. We know now research studies underwritten by tobacco companies “proving cigarettes were highly valuable digestive aids and safe,” were lies. Educated people naturally consider the sources of the data to judge the degree of trust it should be given.

In high school my “sport” was debate. I loved debating, was very competitive and on a team that made it to the state level. Between my junior and senior years of high school I spent two weeks at Michigan State University in a debate training institute.  Anyone in debate knew arguments must be supported. The first step in building that support was verifiable facts from trusted sources – encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, etc. And one’s sources meant something – judges did not score facts gleaned from The Reader’s Digest as high as from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.  Lacking factual support for an argument, you went to the next tier of proof, which was opinion.  Sometimes a quote supporting your position from a well-known, highly-educated and credible individual with a trusted position in the topic area could be almost as persuasive as fact. The more and better your sources and quotes supported sound reasoning and logic, the greater your chances of winning.

Dan Gillmor

Another area where I have experience is journalism.  Early in my free-lance writing experience, my work was subjected to fact checkers. Wow, what an experience! These professionals walked me through my piece sentence by sentence, challenging everything I’d written, asking over and over again, how did I know the truth of what was on the page, did I have more than one source, what were the sources, and so on.  Not all writers are trained journalists following ethical standards and not all magazines demand it, though a great many do.  Dan Gillmor wrote for the San Jose Mercury News during the part of my career when I was starting companies in the Bay Area. His articles were universally prized and hard to get. Meeting him once at a coffee shop for an interview, I offered to buy his coffee. He said, “No, it isn’t permitted by the newspaper.” In those days, coffee was only $2.00, but he was still not allowed to accept even that.  The paper understood a gift, any gratuity, or anything like that could subtly seep in, create familiarity and affect a story. Their reporters had to remain totally unbiased. Years later we became friends and he told me one day, “You know I can’t write about your companies anymore, don’t you?” He went on to explain he considered me a friend and the paper would assign someone else to cover if in the future I believed I might have something newsworthy.

Newspapers and magazines have various levels of ethical reporting and journalistic standards. The very best ones not only make those standards and policies available to the public, but make it absolutely clear to all writers and editors, that violating any of the guidelines can lead to termination. As an example, you can find the standards and ethics for the Washington Post here.

The WSJ and The Washington Post news organizations are widely respected, even though their editorial (opinion pages) hold very different opinions from one another. To their credit, both publications understand the difference between opinion and the facts they gather and report in their news pages and draw distinct lines between them.

At one time, both network and local television stations had newsrooms and viewed themselves as professional journalists.  Some still do, but others clearly dedicate the time formerly considered news, to creating stories that attract the most eyeballs and advertising revenue. When these programs began to be disguised as actual journalism, is when television news lost its credibility and became pure entertainment.  Today, cable and network television “news-like” content is being produced by people who fall into one of two camps:

  1. Television reporters, writers and anchors who are actual journalists and operate within a well-defined set of standards and ethics, which they have no problem disclosing or talking about. They have no issue correcting mistakes on the air.  They have frequently graduated from top schools with advanced degrees, are well-read, articulate and cautious. They tend to work hard on stories, ask interview questions which display deep, expert and thoughtful preparation. They provide highly useful and important context and background to help viewers comprehend a particular story.
  2. Reporters more skilled at story-telling than having a real concern for actual facts. Their goal is high ratings for entertainment. They are often egotistical and shamelessly sensationalist.  They have little or no respect for journalistic ethics. They may have a certain view of the world which they frequently share with their audience. They are not above promoting and sometimes even creating unsubstantiated stories with zero fact checking or scenarios they “report,” as if it were “news.” They are rewarded with massive amounts of money because they generate eyeballs/ears which the media entities that employ them turn into dollars.

So, how to you know truth? The easiest and fastest way, look at the source.  In the case of the documentary I recommended, it was produced by Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian. You don’t win Oscars in the documentary category by making stuff up. His team was careful to site their sources. Since this is about Covid-19, they filmed interviews and reproduced other interviews with attribution from the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield and others directly involved.  Others they interviewed were the people in charge during the period for which they were reporting. Michael Bowen, who is interviewed extensively for the film, is a republican who voted for Trump and believed in him passionately. Bowen’s life-time of involvement and experience in the medical supply chain business provide highly credible insight into what caused so many deaths in the US.

Beyond this particular film, generally, if you don’t want to be deceived by what appears to be news but really isn’t, follow these guidelines:  First, reduce the amount of time you spend with any television programs in category 2 above. Second, read news as reported by news organizations with a documented set of ethical standards and a track record of supporting reporters who write challenging pieces, even when unpopular. And third, read the opinion pages of not only the publications with which you agree, but also read opinions of those who are on the opposite side of where you typically tend to be.  Reputable fact-based publications are always careful to label opinions as opinions.  They do not peddle opinions as facts.

Disproportionate High Value – Episode 2

After retiring, I stopped renewing subscriptions to 5-6 monthly business magazines, daily delivery of the WSJ, NYT and half a dozen trade publications. Electronic versions have not caught on with me, so call me a journalistic dinosaur.  I don’t care. I missed BusinessWeek and the WSJ Weekend Edition the most. Then a friend gave me a copy of THE WEEK Magazine. It grabbed me.  It seemed expensive ($74 for six months, $129 for a year), but I subscribed anyway. This weekly magazine is now on my very short list of things delivering massively more value than what they cost.  Let me explain.

First, the magazine is all about content – not advertising.  With revenue so dependent on subscribers, this publication really focuses on making things great for readers. The next peculiarity is not investing in reporters or original news gathering. They don’t spend a dime trying to be the first one to report anything. Instead, they deeply research what happens every week in the areas they cover, examine everything known about a topic and summarize the key points, giving full attribution to their sources. This has several benefits:

  • First, good writers and editors are paramount, and they have the very best. After twenty five years of having my articles published in a host of different magazines, I learned good editors were priceless.
  • Next, every article and topic covered is done with the fewest words possible. Again, it takes excellent editors to cut extraneous text. Since they reference sources for every article, if you want to go deeper, it’s easy to find the full story on which their summary is based.
  • They don’t tell you how to think and I love this. They report the facts of what happened.  As most stories generate opinions, they quote meaningful views from both sides.  My liberal-leaning friends have told me while they like The Week, they feel it leans a bit to the right. My conservative friends like it too, but say they detect a slight left-leaning view.  Threading the non-partisan needle is near impossible, but my sense is they get it right far more often than not.
  • Like Goldilocks, they’ve managed to find nearly the exact right number of pages to cover the week’s news. Not too many, not too few. Just the perfect number of topics and the mountain of information chiseled down to the elements for each. The magazine can easily be read, cover to cover, in one sitting.
  • And like Goldilocks with her perfect porridge, they include enough critical subjects to make me feel I’m (sort of) keeping up with the news. In just 40 pages, they cover the following: the week’s main stories, how they were covered, the controversy of the week (and who thought what about it), the USA at a glance, the world at a glance, people news, summary of the three best opinion columns in the US, three best from Europe and two international during the week and who agreed/disagreed and why. Then it’s on to the week’s best editorial cartoons, one page each on Technology, Health & Science, Arts & Music, best books, top film & home media, Food & Drink, Consumer section (best values), Real Estate (best properties on the market), Business Page, Personal Finance page, Best Business Columns and Obituaries, followed by the last word, a two-page summary on a topic the editors feel will appeal to readers. The subject areas never change and always stay in the same place. I love that.

If you’re interested, I found a page that shows all of their covers and appears to let you look inside any of them.

Lastly, I’ve heard you can try The Week Magazine for free, for six weeks, and cancel afterwards and not owe them anything.  I’ve no idea if that works or not, but if you want to try it for yourself, here is a link to their subscribe page.

P.S.  Maggie occasionally makes the recipe-of-the-week and we have always enjoyed them.