2017 in Review: The (non) Story of the Year

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There’s a common adage among skeptics the world over: “Who watches the watchdog?”

Decades ago I had the honor of serving on the HFL School District’s newly formed “Technology Committee.” This group was tasked with the job of trying to determine the best way to integrate the then new technology of personal computers (and related software) into the learning environment. We quickly saw one of the greatest advantages as the enhanced ability to conduct research from direct sources. Librarians saw this as an opportunity to free up rare shelf space by replacing printed (and quickly outdated) encyclopedias with their digital (and instantly undated) equivalent.

For every upside, however, there’s a glaring downside. In this case, it was the credibility of the source. Britannica curates its encyclopedia, so there’s reasonable assurance the facts it presents have been thoroughly checked. But what about the vast amounts of uncurated raw content spawning fast (even then) on this new thing called the “world wide web”? Who checks those facts.

As diligent adults trained in research integrity – no matter what our varied professional background – we understood this to be a potential problem. Back then, the decision among educators was to create a “white list” of acceptable mass media sources. This included the usual names of popular and well-known print, radio, and television companies.

Unfortunately, a dozen or so local folks with excellent insight and the best of intentions couldn’t stop the juggernaut that would become Facebook, Buzzfeed, and YouTube. It soon became quite evident that anyone could upload anything in a fast and furious fashion. And no one could control that process. Nor would they want to. This was the living example of the First Amendment and our Founding Fathers would have been proud to have had a hand in laying the foundation of such a free and open society. Everyone with a modem and a keyboard had a right to say whatever they wanted, just as two centuries ago everyone with a printing press, paper, and ink had a right to say what they wanted.

Only, today, there are more people, and more keyboards, and you don’t even need a modem like you did two decades ago.

That being said, just because we all understand and accept that no one in America can prevent another person from their free speech (no matter how obnoxious), we also understand we are not obligated to believe everything we read. In other words, “free speech” can never be curtailed, but “free listening” must act as our own personal and individual “curator.”

Which brings us to so-called “fake news.” The term itself is fake. There is no such thing as “fake news,” as anyone well-studied in the art of rhetoric can attest. Of late, blaming “fake news” for all the ills of the world has become a favorite parlor game. To counter such fake news, several states (by coincidence, all controlled by the same political party and, by further coincidence, all following the 2016 election) have begun efforts to mandate “media literacy.” They’ll soon no doubt discover the problem with such government intrusion, as Facebook infamously (and recently) did.

Immediately following the 2016 election (again, by coincidence), Facebook, standing accused as allowing itself to be an enabler of “Russian Collusion,” grandly announced it would create a plan to address its role in the spread of “fake news.” One news executive was quoted by another news organization as saying, “Facebook has been under fire for this fake news flap. They obviously needed to do something. A lot of these elements seem like they’re logical steps to kind of help with the fake news scourge,” (“Facebook unveils new plan to try to curb fake news,” CBS News, December 15, 2016). Facebook created a reporting system and brought on partners like ABC News to vet suspected fake news.

A year later, Facebook, its tail between its legs, scrapped the program (“Facebook fail: Social network scraps ‘disputed’ flags on ‘fake news’,” USA Today, December 21, 2017). It turns out, as any behavioral psychologist would have predicted, flagging “fake news,” rather than discouraging readers, only encouraged them. But this wasn’t the only problem with Facebook’s effort. The problem ran much deeper, and well beyond Facebook. The problem was with the White List itself.

It turns out, the news media no longer prides itself on “curating” the news. Instead, at the behest of the usual bean counters, and despite what professional journalists say (and even believe), what matters most are clicks, audience count, and Nielsen Ratings. And what’s the best way to gin up these numbers? Why using the same click-bait tactics employed by the much despised purveyors of fake news.

Worse, these former White Listers have not only shunned the concept of curation, they actively pursue the opposite – the purposeful creation of news. Call this the “Woodward-Bernstein Effect.” It seems (by coincidence since the 2016 election) every reporter and editor today wants the head of a president mounted above their fireplace mantel. This obsession drives their day-to-day research, every narrative they write, and all the stories they publish. It’s no longer about the news, its about pushing an agenda in search of a Pulitzer (see “Newsroom Pros Reveal Candid Truth About Media Bias,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, October 19, 2017).

I’m sure you see what I’m talking about (assuming you still partake of mass media news consumption). You see it every time the organization brags about its prowess in “investigative” reporting. While this is a laudable goal, it breaks down the moment the organization fails to curate and instead promotes an advocacy position. Then, as we have seen over the last year, you see only one point of view – and a lot of missed opportunities.

So, the biggest story of the year is the one that was never printed. All the King’s investigative reporters and all the King’s editors (and a special prosecutor) couldn’t uncover any real evidence of any sort of illegal collusion, despite a year of trying. Yet they’ve managed to write, publish, and broadcast an endless font of stories on the subject, including several notable ones that had to be almost immediately retracted. What stories did they fail to uncover in the process? Those are the stories of the year.

Are You an Instigator, a Skeptic, or Merely Somebody Else’s Tool?

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They say the world is made up of two types of people. They’re wrong. The world consists of three types of people, but two of those types get all the press.

Journalists like to frame issues in a binary fashion – one side against another. That’s simple. It’s black and white. It’s A versus B. Reporters don’t do this because they can’t handle the complexity of multiple opposing points of view. They structure their stories as a duel between competing interests because readers find those stories easiest to digest. The audience finds such pairings quite familiar. Literature is replete with examples: Ahab vs. Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty, and Bambi vs. Godzilla, to name a few.

It’s not just drama. Philosophy often has an attraction to complimentary combinations. We see this most markedly in the Taoist notion of “dualistic-monism” as expressed in the Continue Reading “Are You an Instigator, a Skeptic, or Merely Somebody Else’s Tool?”

The Man Who Refused to be a Victim

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In the fall of 1959, Warren Sutton did something that got him in a lot of trouble. A star collegiate athlete entering his junior year, he began dating the 18-year old daughter of an official of the university he attended. Her age wasn’t the thing that got him in a lot of trouble. The fact her father was bursar wasn’t the thing that got him in a lot of trouble. No. the trouble came about for the most superficial of reasons. You might even call them “skin-deep.” Specifically, his was black and hers was white.

While not prohibited in New York State, interracial marriages were not granted constitutional protection until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia statute banning such arrangements. Warren Sutton merely dated a white woman. He didn’t marry her. Still, he was hounded out of Alfred University that year, eventually finishing his stellar college basketball career at Acadia University in Canada. How good was he? He was good enough to be drafted by the NBA St. Louis Hawks. He opted for a more promising career in Continue Reading “The Man Who Refused to be a Victim”

Playing Through the Pain

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Warning: Parents, doctors, and youth sports administrators may find the following quite disturbing.

It’s a classic “guy” thing. Playing through the pain. It’s also a throwback thing. It harkens to an era when (especially football) coaches would admonish you for dogging it on account of a presumed injury. These coaches themselves reflect an even earlier epoch, one where boot camp drill sergeants berated new recruits, pushing them up to and then beyond their physical limits.

We can’t do that anymore. We now live in a sissified society, constrained by both the very real fear of catastrophic liability claims and an unnatural craze that decries all things alpha male. There was once a time – from our Continue Reading “Playing Through the Pain”

Dave Snyder and The Alfred Sun Show How to Promote (Civil) Community Discussion

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german-tv-discussion-1251809The role of the media in society has been the subject of debate since before our country’s founding. Such was the oppression of the British government during the pre-Revolutionary era that our Founding Fathers, with great wisdom and foresight, codified “freedom of speech” directly on our Constitution via the first amendment. Through the years “polite society” has continually modified what was considered “proper decorum” when it came to public communication, it’s only been until very recently that our nation has forgotten the corollary of the First Amendment: “I may disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” In modern times, it’s becoming increasingly accepted to wish death upon those that disagree with you.

The role of the press in maintaining the freedom of speech cannot be understated, and jolly old England appears front and center in this fight. It was Queen Elizabeth I who, in 1585, first created laws to limit the freedom of the press. Here’s the flavor of those laws: Continue Reading “Dave Snyder and The Alfred Sun Show How to Promote (Civil) Community Discussion”