Being on the Lookout for Reporters Screwing Up

Highly-respected journalist James Fallows has a site called Breaking the News. In the interesting installment below, he discusses journalistic screwups and how to avoid being taken in by them:

We all make mistakes. People, organizations, countries. The best we can do is admit and face them. And hope that by learning from where we erred, we’ll avoid greater damage in the future.

Relentless and systematic self-critical learning is why commercial air travel has become so safe. (As described here, and recent posts about the JFK close call here and here.) Good military organizations conduct “lessons learned” exercises after victories or defeats. Good businesses and public agencies do the same after they succeed or fail.

We in the press are notably bad at formally examining our own errors. That is why “public editor” positions have been so important, and why it was such a step backward for the New York Times to abolish that role nearly six years ago….

Here’s an [example of a journalistic mistake]: the buildup to the “Red Wave” that never happened in the 2022 midterms.

Pundits and much of the mainstream press spent most of 2022 describing Joe Biden’s unpopularity and the Democrats’ impending midterm wipeout. As it happened, Biden and the party nationwide did remarkably well….

In its news coverage, not the opinion page, the New York Times had been among the most certain-sounding in preordaining the Democrats’ loss. [On] its front page just one day before the election, one lead-story had the sub-head “Party’s Outlook Bleak,” referring to Biden and the Democrats. It mentioned forecasts of “a devastating defeat” in the midterms. The other story’s sub-head was “G.O.P Shows Optimism as Democrats Brace for Losses.” The first paragraph of that story said voters “showed clear signs of preparing to reject Democratic control.” Again, these were news, not opinion, pieces.

Seven weeks later, the Times ran a front-page story on why so many people had called the election wrong—and how the Red Wave assumption, fed by GOP pollsters, hampered Democrats’ fund-raising in many close races. The only mention of the paper’s own months-long role in fostering this impression was a three-word aside, in the 13th paragraph of a thousand-word story. According to the story, the GOP-promoted Red Wave narrative …

…spilled over into coverage by mainstream news organizations, including The Times, that amplified the alarms being sounded about potential Democratic doom.

The three words, in case you missed them, were “including The Times.”

An NYT public editor like Margaret Sullivan or Daniel Okrent might have gone back to ask the reporters and editors what they should learn.

What are signs of lessons-unlearned that readers can look for, and that we reporters and editors should avoid?

An easy one is to spend less time, space, and effort on prediction of any sort, and more on explaining what is going on and why.

Here are a few more:

1) Not everything is a “partisan fight”.

[A NY Times story about the debt ceiling] illustrates the drawbacks of reflexively casting issues as political struggles, by describing a potential debt-ceiling crisis as a “partisan fight.”

In case you have forgotten, the “debt ceiling” is a serious problem but not a serious issue. In brief:

-The debt-ceiling is a problem, because failing to take the routine step of raising it has the potential to disrupt economies all around the world, starting with the U.S.

-It is not an issue, because there are zero legitimate arguments for what the Republican fringe is threatening now. (See Thomas Geoghegan’s recent article….

It’s like threatening to blow up refineries, if you don’t like an administration’s energy policy, or threatening to put anthrax into the water supply, if you don’t like their approach to public health. These moves would give you “leverage,” just like a threat not to raise the debt ceiling. But they’re thuggery rather than policy.

If you prefer a less violent analogy: since these payments are for spending and tax cuts that have already been enacted, this is like refusing to pay the restaurant check after you’ve finished dinner.

This is not a “partisan fight” or a “standoff.” Those terms might apply to differences on immigration policy or a nomination. This is a know-nothing threat to public welfare, by an extremist faction that has put one party in its thrall.

Reporters: don’t say “standoff” or “disagreement,” or present this as just another chapter of “Washington dysfunction.”

Readers: be wary when you see reporters using those terms.

2) Not everything is a “perceptions” narrative. 

[Note: I was going to avoid this silly non-scandal but Mr. Fallows is very good on the subject.]

Here are some more phrases that should make you wary as a reader. They are phrases like “a picture emerges” or “paints a picture.” These are clichés a reporter uses to state a conclusion while pretending not to do so. Others in the same category: “sure to raise questions”; “suggest a narrative”; “will be used by opponents”; and so on.

Consider again from the NYT, this new “inside” report on Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents.

It was a classic legal strategy by Mr. Biden and his top aides — cooperate fully with investigators in the hopes of giving them no reason to suspect ill intent. But it laid bare a common challenge for people working in the West Wing: The advice offered by a president’s lawyers often does not make for the best public relations strategy.

This might be a “classic legal strategy.” It might also be following the rules. The presentation reflects a choice about how to “frame” a story.

The mainstream press makes things an “issue,” by saying they are an issue. Or saying “raises questions” “suggests a narrative,” “left open to criticism,” “eroded their capacity,” and so on. This gives them the pose of being “objective”—we’re just reporters, But it is a choice.

My long-time friend Jonathan Alter [had] an op-ed column in the NYT arguing that the narrative about Biden’s handling of the few classified documents will be hugely destructive to him and the Democrats. Even though, as he says, the realities of his classified-documents case are in no way comparable to [the former president’s]. (More on the differences here.)

As a matter of prognostication, maybe Jon Alter is right. I hope he isn’t. As he notes, Biden in office has time and again beaten pundit expectations [and now it turns out Mike Pence had documents too].

But as a matter of journalistic practice, I think our colleagues need to recognize our enormous responsibility and “agency” about what becomes an issue or controversy. “Raises questions,” “suggests a narrative,” “creates obstacles”—these aren’t like tornados or wildfires, things that occur on their own and we just report on. They are judgments reporters and editors make, “frames” they choose to present. And can choose not to.

Which leads us to…

3) Not all “scandals” are created equal.

Here are things enormously hyped at the time, that look like misplaced investigative zeal in retrospect:

— (a) The Whitewater “scandal.” For chapter and verse on why this was so crazy, see the late Eric Boehlert, with a very fine-grained analysis back in 2007; plus Eric Alterman at the same time; plus Gene Lyons, who lives in Arkansas and wrote a book called Fools for Scandal a decade earlier.

I would be amazed if more than 1% of today’s Americans could explain what this “scandal” was about. I barely can myself. But as these authors point out, it led domino-style to a zealot special prosecutor (Kenneth Starr, himself later disgraced), and to Paula Jones, and to Monica Lewinsky, and to impeachment. It tied up governance for years.

—(b) The but-her-emails “scandal” involving Hillary Clinton in 2016. A famous Gallup study showed that the voting public heard more about this than anything else.

I doubt it. Yet it was what our media leaders emphasized. I’m not aware that any of them has publicly reckoned with what they should have learned from their choices in those days.

But today’s news gives us a chance to learn, with:

—(c) The Biden classified-documents “scandal”.

What unites these three “scandals” is that there was something there. Possibly the young Bill and Hillary Clinton had something tricky in their home-state real estate deal. Probably Hillary Clinton did something with her emails that she shouldn’t have. Apparently Joe Biden should have been more careful about the thousands of documents that must be in his offices, libraries, etc.

But “something” does not mean “history-changing discovery.” In the 50 years since the original Watergate, the political press has palpably yearned for another “big one.” So every “scandal” or “contradiction” gets this could be the big one treatment. And this in turn flattens coverage of all “scandals” as equivalent. It’s a slurry of “they all do it,” “it’s always a mess,” “they’re all lying about everything” that makes it hard to tell big issues from little ones.

We see this with bracketing of the T____ and Biden “classified document” cases. They both have special prosecutors, so they can be presented as a pair.

Human intelligence involves the ability to see patterns. (Two cases involving classified documents!) But also the ability to see differences. (In one case, a president “played politics” by cooperating with the authorities. In another, by lying to and defying them.)

The similarities are superficial. The differences are profound.

From past errors of judgment, we in the media can learn which to emphasize.

Encountering Political Unreality at the Jersey Shore

In the Thomas Edsall column I shared yesterday, there’s a long section dealing with the warped psychology of our worst politicians and fellow citizens. I was going to share some of it, but a more interesting and more entertaining example appeared in my email.

Thomas Zimmer, a German historian, moved to the US two years ago. This summer, he was on vacation at the Jersey Shore and got into a heated conversation with an apparently nice old lady.

While chasing seagulls on the beach with my two little boys, we ran into two elderly ladies …I expected some pleasant small talk, and that’s indeed how it started. But within maybe four minutes, one of the ladies had launched into a tirade about the impending doom of the Republic and rattled off one rightwing conspiracy theory after another. She was particularly alarmed about encroaching government tyranny: Outraged about the FBI having “raided” Mar-a-Lago just a few days earlier, and utterly convinced that the IRS was about to unleash 87,000 new agents – which she seemed to imagine as a heavily armed special ops force – on her and her fellow supporters of “President T____”…

87,000 IRS agents, out to destroy the lives and livelihoods of real Americans.

That number has been everywhere lately. In his first speech as Speaker of the House, the night he was finally elected, Kevin McCarthy proudly announced “when we come back,
our very first bill will repeal the funding for 87,000 new IRS agents” – thunderous applause from his caucus, the camera then focused on Marjorie Taylor Greene, and she was so, so happy.

McCarthy kept his word. The first legislation Republicans passed in the House would repeal funding, over $70 billion, for the IRS, basically cutting all the resources Biden provided in the Inflation Reduction Act from the summer. To make sure those 87,000 new IRS agents would never haunt and harass American patriots.

Show me your first piece of legislation and I’ll tell you who you are – in this case: a party that’s almost completely untethered from empirical reality. Because no one was planning to hire those 87,000 new agents in the first place. The idea that the IRS was about to more than double its current personnel has been widely debunked, over, and over, and over again. The additional funding in the Inflation Reduction Act was intended to strengthen the IRS’s enforcement capabilities, especially the capability to audit wealthy people, which simply is more difficult, takes longer, is therefore more expensive. It would mostly replace funding Republicans had previously cut, allow the IRS to revert some of the dramatic decline in the number of full-time employees over the past decade, and compensate for staff retiring over the next ten years. This was also, according to the Congressional Budget Office, going to raise revenue significantly.

The Right, however, told an entirely different story. Back in August, McCarthy railed
against “the Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents” – which rightwingers often took quite literally: Armed agents, a proper tax army, will come after American patriots! As the IRA was passing the Senate, slightly different versions of this paranoid story were shared across the Right, Tucker Carlson and the rest of the rightwing propaganda machine went all in, and white power militants and fascistic groups were putting out recruitment videos: Heavily armed IRS agents are coming to raid our homes – gotta get ready to defend yourselves and all you hold dear in this world!

Which brings us back to my beach encounter with the rightwing base version of this bizarre conspiracy theory….Like I said, the encounter started with some unsuspicious small talk. About life in general and vacationing with two little kids in particular. “Where are you from? … She was ecstatic to hear [I’m German] and told me about her many trips to Germany with her husband, how they had actually lived over there… “We are both academics,” she emphasized….

At that point, the conversation could have gone in many different directions. [But] the next thing she said was: “I hope you’re teaching your students the Fourth amendment!” –“The Fourth amendment?” I must have replied, while already thinking: Oh no… It was too late. The elderly lady who had been delighted at the sight of my kids chasing seagulls just minutes earlier was now going off: about the “illegal raid” (on Mar-a-Lago), what an outrage it was, how shameful, how the country was doomed.

I should have just walked away right at that moment. Why didn’t I? … Instead of just turning around and fleeing, I reflexively mentioned something about equality before the law, probable cause, a judge signing off on the warrant… In return, I received a crash course in rightwing conspiratorial talking points and how they relate to each other. “It was that Epstein judge, did you know that?” the lady said with that “I’m about to open your eyes to what’s really going on” messianic zeal that conspiratorial thinkers often possess. The Clintons, by the way, “stole furniture worth tens of thousands from the White House, did you know that?” A crime far worse than taking “some documents that belong to him anyway,” apparently. “Why should he have to give back his letters just because some archivist wants them.” And, anyway, they “invaded his private home,” the now very animated lady continued, “even Melania’s chambers, can you imagine?” That actually made me laugh for a second. Which earned me a really nasty look. Melania’s chambers. Hm. I tried to build some sort of bridge, I think, maybe lighten the mood, by saying: “Well, if I was hiding evidence, I would certainly try to make it disappear amidst the chaos in the kids’ bedroom!” But she wasn’t having any of it. More nasty looks.

“Why are they going after him, and not Hunter Biden?” – “Hunter Biden?” I heard myself say, reflexively, “We’re talking about the former president. Has Hunter Biden ever held public office?” She gave me the whole “Joe did his bidding… oh, the corruption!” spiel.

Then it became really personal. “You are from Germany,” she said, in a way that expressed both frustration and disappointment, “you should know about Hitler and Mussolini, you should be outraged!” I foolishly allowed myself to think: Now we’re talking history, I’m on firm ground, I know what to say: “If you are concerned about the rise of fascism, you’re looking at the wrong side.” That remark just made her angry, however. “Ah, you only say that because you’re from Germany, and you don’t know what’s going on here…”

… And that’s when she dropped the IRS bomb: “They are arming IRS agents as we speak – they are coming to our houses, they are going to raid our homes, taking away everything!” Was she talking about wealth? Guns? I couldn’t say. I must admit I had never heard of this specific conspiracy theory. I was baffled. I said: “Come on now…” That set off her final tirade: “Ah, you’re one of those people, you’re just consuming liberal propaganda, reading from the magic laptop all day…” (whatever the magic laptop is?).

She was actually yelling at me by that point. On the beach. I basically froze. Thankfully, her friend, who had been visibly uncomfortable the whole time, chimed in: “I think we should probably go this way, and you should go that way.” Yes. And so, we did.

To recap what I know about her profile: She was an elderly white person, with an academic background, widely traveled, had lived overseas, and, it can be assumed, reasonably affluent. I’ve spent a fair bit of time reflecting on what, if anything, I should take away from this encounter:

1) She obviously didn’t fit the ideal of the economically anxious, left-behind by the evil forces of globalism T____ voter, nor the stereotype of the conspiratorially inclined fringe….

2) What this “conversation” put into stark relief for me was that the idea of “keeping politics out of it,” of deliberately preserving and creating non-political realms in which we can all still come together harmoniously, is simply not plausible – and is becoming less plausible every day. This person was fully politicized. Her interaction with a complete stranger, on the beach, became very political within a few minutes. And it wasn’t the fault of those “woke” activists or those supposedly dangerous trans people aggressively injecting their views, their politics everywhere at all times – it was all on this resentful senior citizen.

3) Similarly, there just is no “meeting in the middle,” no “finding common ground” with such people. For her, I was the enemy – even though it was the least threatening setting imaginable… This person wasn’t interested in debate, or a different perspective, or building bridges, or compromise. She wasn’t even interested in just ignoring politics. The only thing she would have accepted from me was compliance, submission. There was no truce to be had.

4) I am continuously amazed (as in: terrified) by the effectiveness of the rightwing information / propaganda machine. This elderly lady had all her talking points ready; it was like someone had briefed her on what the unified response to the FBI “raid” and the tyrannical Biden legislation was going to be. And she delivered. This wasn’t just some crazy-but-harmless old lady. Republican officials and political commentators … were constantly flooding the discourse with all the same talking points (previous presidents taking furniture!), employing the same strategies of obstruction. Instantaneously, everywhere.

5) Probably the most concerning aspect of all: The depth and extent of the Right’s radicalization. This “Armed IRS is coming for you” message was shared by both fascistic militants and this elderly lady who should have been enjoying her time on the beach. The extremism has fully spread to the “respectable” spheres. That doesn’t mean this lady was herself a member of a violent militia, or that she was about to join the armed revolt. It does mean, however, that she was doing her part to popularize, normalize, legitimize this ideology — the extremism it animates. It also means that we are not dealing with fringe phenomena. This IRS thing appeared more or less simultaneously in far-right circles – and in the well-respected communities of upstanding, educated, affluent senior citizens. No matter where, exactly, such extremist conspiratorial theories originate: They are immediately picked up by the rightwing propaganda machine and transported by leading conservatives and Republican elected officials. While there are different levels and layers of radicalism on the Right, there is no clear line between the T____ian “fringe” and the center of conservative politics and social life. It is, at best, a permeable membrane – as it always has been.

6) Here is the rightwing permission structure on full display. Why do people who may find Marjorie Taylor Greene crass still consider her a valuable ally? Why is it not a dealbreaker for more conservatives that the Proud Boys increasingly act as the GOP’s paramilitary arm? Well, if the other side really were preparing to send out armed IRS hit squads, would there be anything -very much including the use of political violence – *not* justified in the struggle against such despotic forces? Once you have convinced yourself and/or your supporters that the other side is scheming to deprive you of what is rightfully yours, any measure you take, regardless of how radical, is justified as an inevitable act of (preemptive) self-defense.

In the days after the encounter, I kept replaying the conversation in my mind, and I was constantly catching myself trying to figure out what I could have /should have said: better arguments, more evidence, different tone… But that wasn’t just pointless, it was also misleading. The problem is not just that this particular person obviously wasn’t going to be moved by empirical evidence or by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies in what she was claiming – the very idea that the political conflict is ultimately about better arguments is flawed. It’s one of the fallacies of which many liberals / lefties – like me! – apparently can’t fully let go. But a fallacy it remains: There was no persuading that person, not by saying the right thing or in the right tone. Because it’s not a contest of ideas. People like me would love it to be a competition of who has the better arguments. Because that’s the kind of struggle with which we are comfortable, that we believe we can win. But it’s not the kind of conflict in which we find ourselves. Better to accept and grapple with that.

From the Jersey Shore to Congress, from the conspiratorial fringes to the center of Republican power, from MAGA paranoia to the GOP’s legislative priorities. Show me your first piece of legislation and I’ll tell you who you are. McCarthy’s IRS bill is perfect. Combine the hostility to the state and governing institutions (unless they are completely under Republican control) with the conspiratorial chimera of 87,000 agents out to get American patriots – all of it ultimately, and not coincidentally, helping those who are wealthy and have, to put it mildly, no interest in tax enforcement. There it is, today’s Republican Party: Performative populism, white reactionary grievance politics with some conspiratorial rightwing extremism mixed in, hierarchy maintenance at all costs.


You can receive Prof. Zimmer’s periodic emails or see his posts at no cost by subscribing at Democracy Americana.

Problems and Solutions: A Brief Recitation

As 2022 fades away, David Rothkopf, an author and political analyst, presents a few facts to keep hold of in 2023:

Decades of research have conclusively shown that:

–The solution for homelessness is building homes for those who need them

–The solution for poverty is giving money to those who don’t have it

–The solution to our lack of mental health care is providing mental health care for those who need it

–The solution is to the climate crisis to stop using fossil fuels and stop carbon emissions.

I could go on. The point is that very often the solutions are obvious and politics is the art of obscuring them, distracting from them, making those common sense solutions impossible to achieve.

One Woman on Women

Men and women are alike and different. Some are more alike and some are more different than others. That’s my 2 cents before quoting from “On Women”, an article the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg wrote for Mercurio magazine in 1948 (The NY Review of Books has the whole thing and more behind a mini-paywall):

…. women have the bad habit, now and then, of falling into a well, of letting themselves be gripped by a terrible melancholy and drown in it, and then floundering to get back to the surface—this is the real trouble with women. Women are often embarrassed that they have this problem and pretend they have no cares at all and are free and full of energy, and they walk with bold steps down the street with large hats and beautiful dresses and painted lips and a contemptuous and strong-willed air about them. But I’ve never met a woman without soon discovering in her something painful and pitiful that doesn’t exist in men—a constant danger of falling into a deep, dark well, a danger that comes precisely from the female temperament or maybe from an age-old condition of subjugation and servitude that won’t be so easy to overcome….

I’ve met a lot of women, calm women and women who are not calm, but the calm women also fall into the well: they all fall into the well now and then. I’ve met women who think they are very ugly and women who think they are very beautiful, women who travel and women who can’t, women who, now and then, have a headache and women who never have a headache, women who wash their necks and women who don’t wash their necks, women who have a large number of white linen handkerchiefs and women who never have a handkerchief or, if they do, they lose it, women who wear hats and women who don’t wear hats, women who worry they are too fat and women who worry they are too thin, women who toil all day long in a field and women who break wood over their knee and light the fire and make polenta and rock the baby and nurse him and women who are bored to death and take a class in the history of religion and women who are bored to death and take the dog for a walk and women who are bored to death and torment whoever is at hand, their husbands or children or the maid, and women who go out in the morning their hands purple with cold and a little scarf around their necks and women who go out in the morning swaying their hips and looking at their reflection in shop windows and women who’ve lost their jobs and sit on a bench in the garden at the station to eat a sandwich and women who’ve been dumped by a man and sit on a bench in the garden at the station and dab a little powder on their faces.

I’ve met so many women I am now certain I’ll soon discover in each of them something to commiserate—a large or small concern, kept more or less secret: the tendency to fall into the well and find in it the possibility of boundless suffering that men don’t know….

PS: I also posted this on Post.News, a new site that may replace might end up being “Twitter for Reasonable People”. You have to apply to open an account. There’s a waiting list but when I applied, the wait wasn’t very long.

Guarding the Gates

We old people remember (and can’t stop talking about) the golden age when there were only three TV networks in America and the only question at 7pm (6pm Central) was whether to watch the national news on CBS (Cronkite), NBC (Huntley & Brinkley) or ABC (somebody else). Then, in 1975, PBS added a fourth possibility (MacNeil & Lehrer). We were so well-informed! And un-confused!

The age isn’t so golden today. Lawyer and journalist Asha Rangappa has some thoughts on the matter, with which I don’t totally agree:

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones filed for bankruptcy on Friday, after being ordered to pay over $1.5 billion to several parents of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut who had sued him for defamation. On his radio program and website, Jones had repeatedly accused the parents of being “crisis actors” who were lying about their children dying and claimed the entire event was a “false flag” operation. The lawsuits and the awards demonstrate that increasingly, the court system may be the only institution left that can adequately police the line between truth and lies — which is not a good sign for our democracy.

She then shows a diagram with three categories: a Sphere of Consensus containing things about which all reasonable people agree; a Sphere of Controversy that contains ideas about which reasonable people can disagree and which can be reasonably debated; and a Sphere of Deviance, where ideas like Jones’s “crisis actors” resides. They’re the deviant ideas that aren’t worthy of debate. In other words, Crazy Town.

As [NYU professor Jay] Rosen has observed, traditionally journalists have defined and guarded the boundaries of these spheres — they were the gatekeepers of what was newsworthy, what deserved “two sides” coverage, and what was not given a platform. He notes that journalists were able to maintain this role because viewers and readers were, as he calls them, “atomized” — that is, disconnected from each other and vertically connected to sources of information….

The emergence of the internet and social media [preceded by the arrival of cable TV], [erased] this atomization, allowing views and readers to connect horizontally — which means that these spheres are no longer determined by journalists. Since people are no longer a captive audience and can share information among and with each other, they can redefine what can enter into the spheres of consensus and legitimate controversy.

This, of course, has benefits. Consider, for example, Black Lives Matter, which brought attention to a pervasive pattern of police brutality against Black Americans. The ability to share videos across social media platforms shined a spotlight on a side of America that had largely been excluded by traditional media and of which many Americans were unaware. The same could be said for the #MeToo movement, which allowed victims of sexual harassment and misconduct to connect with each other and bring to light an issue which had, in some instances, been rejected from coverage by major news networks. Things that may have been (wrongly) relegated to the “sphere of deviance” in the traditional model have found a place in today’s information space, democratizing the voices that can be heard and bringing these issues into the sphere of controversy, if not consensus.

As Rosen notes, however, there is a dark side to this horizontal connection. There are now no gatekeepers at all, so the divisions between the three spheres aren’t just blurred, they basically don’t exist. Just look at the last week — it’s 2022 and Kanye West has a platform to profess his admiration for Hitler (incidentally, on Alex Jones’ show). What was once unquestionably in the sphere of deviance has (apparently) become a topic of debate. From the other direction, concepts that used to be unquestioned — like basic science and epidemiology — are now challenged or dismissed entirely. If I had to draw a diagram of where we are today, it would be just one big sphere of controversy.

Here, Rangappa is exaggerating. It’s more accurate to say the Sphere of Consensus has shrunk. There are residents of Crazy Town who think the 2020 election was stolen, but most of them accept that Joe Biden is living in the White House (only some of them are convinced the white-haired guy is an impostor).

Which is where Alex Jones comes in. Jones helped spread the Pizzagate theory — this was the rumor that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor … — and, more recently, the “Stop the Steal” disinformation campaign…. The only gatekeepers who might restrain him are social media platforms [and cable networks] if they choose to self police. Even then, their efforts might slow down the spread of his conspiracy theories, but wouldn’t stop the millions of readers who visit his website each month from consuming his “news” directly.

Enter the courts. The judicial system is one of the few … institutions left where truth actually matters, and can be enforced. We saw this most clearly in the dozens of lawsuits … filed after the 2020 election alleging widespread voter fraud — sixty three cases were dismissed, mainly for lack of proof. This is because in a courtroom, we have rules about truth. Facts have to exist in order to be presented as evidence. Judges determine what issues are in dispute, and what is irrelevant. Juries can’t make up their own evidence; they have to weigh and evaluate what is presented to them. In a defamation case, the only defense is to demonstrate that your statements true — and even Jones had to concede on the witness stand that Sandy Hook was real.

These are welcome outcomes, but leaving courts to arbitrate what is true and what is not is not a great development for democracy overall. For one thing, most of the disinformation narratives we must contend with won’t end up being litigated, leaving them to cause chaos and harm, as Jones has. More importantly, an increase in litigation is a symptom of deterioration of social trust, a key indicator of societal health. Robert Putnam [in his book Bowling Alone] notes that when a society has a high level of generalized trust — basically, when we follow the Golden Rule and act in ways that benefit our collective self interest, like behaving honestly — it is healthier and more efficient….As he writes:

“When each of us can relax her guard a little, what economists term ‘transaction costs’ — the costs of the everyday business of life, as well as the costs of commercial transaction — are reduced. This is no doubt why, as economists have recently discovered, trusting communities, all other things being equal, have a measurable economic advantage. The almost imperceptible background stress of daily ‘transaction costs’ — from worrying about whether you got the right change back from the clerk to double-checking that you locked the car door — may also help explain why students of public health find that life expectancy itself is enhanced in more trustful communities. A society that relies on generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. Honesty and trust lubricate the inevitable frictions of social life.”

When that generalized trust breaks down, it is replaced by “cool trust” — formal rules and enforcement mechanisms that force people to uphold their civic and social obligations to society. Putnam continues:

“[O]ne alternative to generalized reciprocity and socially embedded honesty is the rule of law — formal contracts, courts, litigation, adjudication, and enforcement by the state. Thus, if the lubricant of thin trust is evaporating from society, we might expect to find a greater reliance on the law as a basis of cooperation. If the handshake is no longer binding and reassuring, perhaps the notarized contract, the deposition, and the subpoena will work almost as well.”

Having courts police our basic obligations to each other — like telling the truth about actual events — is a good stopgap, but isn’t sustainable for a healthy democracy. We need to have mechanisms outside the judicial system to resurrect some boundaries between agreed upon facts, legitimate controversies, and ideas that are not worthy of debate. Until we can recalibrate those three spheres, perhaps the only people who will make out ahead are the lawyers.


I’ll add that journalists and the legal system aren’t the only gatekeepers. We’re all responsible for pushing back on crazy ideas when we encounter them in public or private life. In particular, politicians and everybody else who has a public platform should act as gatekeepers, doing what they can to keep a lid on the insanity. The same applies to corporations and wealthy individuals. With power comes responsibility.