Eric, do you absorb the news differently than I do because of your job?
Many of my friends and students ask me if I process the news differently from how they do because I make my living in crisis management and constantly battle disinformation.
The answer is “yes” — and way more skeptically. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m always right.
After the Will Smith slap flap a few weeks ago, I was instinctively skeptical when I read Jada Pinkett’s claim she had alopecia, a condition causing hair loss. To be clear, Pinkett very likely does have alopecia; however, this misses the point of the question posed to me: I was cynically processing a news tidbit based upon my exposure to the Hollywood phenomenon whereby publicists dream up plausible afflictions as news pegs to get their clients attention for being unique and interesting. Here, my own experiences informed my knee-jerk (and likely wrong) reaction.
Similarly, in the past few years, I have read about several celebrities who claim to be on the autism “spectrum.”* Having known people who are genuinely on this spectrum, causing great distress to their families and themselves, I had a visceral reaction that these stars (who shall not be named) were trivializing something serious for self-promotion — and who exhibit little of the behaviors that I see so clearly in those who suffer from forms of autism. (I wasn’t the only one following this: Larry David had a bit about it on Curb Your Enthusiasm)
My skepticism of the news is most intense when I see how corporations respond to controversies. When faced with a serious allegation, almost every company dodges the core question. Rather they release a statement that inevitably begins, “At Nostril Industries, we are committed to safety as our top priority…” Such a statement is designed to accomplish three things: First, to make the people who wrote it feel better about themselves. Second, to avoid answering an uncomfortable and often complicated question, and third, to anesthetize their audience so they move on.
I know — as do you — that a corporation’s top priority is to make money. Surely, it is in their best interest that their products are safe, but the current trend is to respond to serious charges with highly pasteurized bullshit. The enemy of the truth is not lies. It is treacle. You can always disprove lies. But you can’t disprove treacle; it just makes you want to nap, which is the whole idea behind any statement that includes the check-the-box invocation of how much so-and-so loves “transparency.” I will repeat what I’ve often said: Whenever someone brings up transparency, the next thing you hear from them will probably be a lie.
I am most skeptical of the news when I see a headline reading “____ Sparks Outrage.” Simply put, there is an algorithm that knows that the phrase “sparks outrage” will get clicks. In all likelihood, the only outrage that was actually sparked was sparked by the post lying about how the outrage was sparked! In reality, nobody cared.
An example of this (if somebody wanted to be a real jerk) would be a post that said “Substack Writer Sparks Outrage by Saying Jada Pinkett Doesn’t Really Have Alopecia” when I said nothing of the kind. But such a post would surely get clicks. And here’s the thing: Absolutely no one would pay any price for this falsehood because the lie would be more rewarding than the boring truth of what I actually said.
As we all wrestle with disinformation and news bias, the best we can do is make a note of our own experiential baggage. After my last post, a few of my more left-leaning friends pointed out that I revealed a right-of-center bias by briefly mentioning news coverage reports of homelessness being more intense during Republican administrations. I accepted the possibility that my belief in mainstream media bias could inform what I write about. However, I also reminded these same friends that they overlooked that I twice cited the right-wing hoax of “birtherism” in this same post.
We all have work to do.
*Yes, I recognize that a spectrum is, in fact, a spectrum and that not all cases manifest the same way.