My Facts, Your Facts

America and the pursuit of willful delusion

Reader comments posted on digital news sites are often heavy on invective, hurled from noms d’Internet that allow people to disregard traditional norms of civil discourse. For many of these anonymous snipers, the reported facts are not facts at all, but the unreliable product of paid liars, incompetents, toadies, and haters who dare to call themselves journalists.

How did we get to this pass? A turning point may have been the messy exit of Jayson Blair, who was shot down by journalists themselves and subsequently became a stinking albatross around the neck of everyone in what used to be called straight news. Many Americans, adrift on a stormy sea of proliferating news outlets, now perceive bias, bias everywhere, but not an honest word of reportage.

Meanwhile, a small industry, of remarkably uneven quality, has arisen over the last few decades to examine the supposed unreliability of journalists. The bias police range from ideological outfits like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left and the Media Research Center on the right to such watchdogs as Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly—not to mention the ombudsmen who now keep an eye on many big-city newspapers (and this magazine).

But while the pack zigs, Farhad Manjoo, until recently the technology columnist for Salon, zags. His first book, True Enough, is a provocative and engaging examination of media bias. Like beauty, argues the author, bias is in the eye of the beholder. So instead of looking at those who report and analyze the news, Manjoo examines their audience. It is a novel and eye-opening approach.

Manjoo argues that “selective perception” is part of the human condition, and that in this era of unlimited news outlets, it is surprisingly easy to get all of your news from places that tell you only what you want to hear—a kind of segregation of the mind. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. That, writes Manjoo, is no longer true. Instead he posits “a fundamental shift in the way Americans are thinking about the news. No longer are we merely holding opinions different from one another; we’re also holding different facts.”

This argument is founded on a paradox. “At the same time that technology and globalization have pushed the world together,” writes Manjoo, “it is driving our minds apart.” Shared facts do not mean shared perceptions of what those facts mean. To illustrate his point, the author cites a study involving a much debated 1951 football game between Dartmouth and Princeton. A star Princeton quarterback was injured, and for observers from his own school, this was evidence of foul play, not bad luck in a violent sport. The Dartmouth quarterback was injured as well, but students there simply condemned the losers as whiners.

How could such divergent views arise from a single event? As Manjoo recounts, a Princeton psychologist and a Dartmouth sociologist showed films of the game to students at both colleges. The Dartmouth students reported roughly equal numbers of transgressions by each team, but characterized more of the Princeton errors as “flagrant.” The Princeton students found more than twice as many errors by the other team, most of them flagrant as well.

The researchers concluded that the students had such disparate observations because they chose not to see actions that conflicted with the way they felt about their own teams. In other words, they fitted their perceptions to their feelings, not to the facts.

Manjoo goes on to discuss All in the Family, the celebrated seventies sitcom in which Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker spouted racial and ethnic slurs and argued endlessly with his long-haired son-in-law. Two psychologists—inspired, as it happens, by the football film study—interviewed Midwest high school students about their reactions to the show. As they discovered, almost all viewers found the show amusing. Yet the bigots drew comfort and reinforcement for their views from Archie’s slurs, while those more inclined to think like his son-in-law saw him in a negative light. “Even when the whole country is watching the same thing, in fact, we aren’t,” Manjoo concludes.

Just about every audience gets taken to task in True Enough. The author scolds both Democrats who wrongly believe that Bush lost in Ohio in 2004, and Republicans who think John Kerry was neither a war hero nor an inventive combat strategist. Widely accepted but crackpot beliefs about the Kennedy assassination, global warming, 9/11, and aids are all examined in terms of how people filter out what they wish to be false and embrace, sometimes rabidly, what they wish to be true, even when empirical evidence shows otherwise.

Most troubling for journalists is Manjoo’s evidence that even-handed and neutral reports are the most vulnerable to being discredited. He chalks up much of this problem to naïve realism—the psychological shorthand by which we assume the world is as we observe it. “We all think our views are essentially objective and when people disagree with us, we’re apt to decide that they’re not being reasonable,” he writes. “They’re being unfair.” In other words, when people with strongly held views read about, say, the Israelis and the Palestinians, a truly fair and balanced article will be perceived as biased—because to a zealot, even-handedness is bias.

Much of what Manjoo explores is captured in a single word: truthiness. The satirist Stephen Colbert reinvigorated that hoary term during the premiere of his television show in 2005. America, he said, is a nation divided between those who “think with their head” and those who “know with their heart.” Colbert was going after some of the principal PR techniques of the Bush administration, but the problem with things that are just true enough to be believed is far more pervasive.

Manjoo reminds us of how Oprah Winfrey reacted when a memoir she had chosen for her book club, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, turned out to be a fraud. At first, Winfrey stood up for the serial fibber—until Frank Rich, who had done yeoman work exposing official truthiness and outright lies, took her to the woodshed. To her credit, Winfrey saw the problem she had created for herself, and invited Frey back onto her show for a national display of contrition. (Also worth noting: even after Frey conceded his fabrications to an irate Winfrey, his book continued to sell many thousands of copies per week.)

Purveyors of truthiness often pander to viewers on issues they know little about. Make up stories about the price of gasoline, says Manjoo, and the easy availability of pricing information will unmask you. But make stuff up about economic policy or the war in Iraq or other “grand, sprawling topics where information is difficult to come by, hard to make sense of, and given to competing explanations and interpretations,” and you can get away with Swift Boating and its spawn.

Here lies the core of Manjoo’s argument: the vast majority of people want their beliefs to be reinforced, not challenged by inconvenient facts. To show the power of desire to warp perception, he focuses on the work of three Stanford University researchers, Lee Ross, Mark Lepper, and Charles Lord. In a 1979 study, the trio asked people with strong views for and against capital punishment to read materials that made substantial arguments for both sides. Then the subjects were asked to discuss their beliefs.

“This led to a funny result,” recounts Manjoo. “People in the study became polarized. Taken together, the two reports they’d been given suggested that it was hard to know whether or not capital punishment deterred crime; after looking at the research, a truly dispassionate person should have moderated his or her extreme position. But people moved the other way instead.”

Surely this is a troubling outcome for journalists who believe in empirical facts as the basis of reality. But for Manjoo, truthiness is only part of the problem. He cites the transformation of CNN’s Lou Dobbs: a man who once revered Big Business is now one of its great detractors, even as he conducts a one-man crusade against illegal immigrants. “When you investigate the roots of bias in the media,” Manjoo writes, “Lou Dobbs’s personal motivations begin to appear less important than the system in which he operates.” And according to the logic of that system, viewers will invariably consider stories on controversial topics “slanted away from their own views.” So why not throw in their collective lot with Dobbs (and Glenn Beck and Olbermann and O’Reilly)? The bottom line: in contemporary media, “objectivity doesn’t pay as well as taking a strong, mad-as-hell stance.”

Dobbs has shifted his approach, says the author, because audiences have bought into the notion that news is not, and cannot be, objective. If viewers outside Dobbs’s target demographic find many of his reports bizarre, so what? Attacks by critics may actually reinforce the broadcaster’s ties to his audience. “Dobbs is not a raving idiot,” Manjoo assures us. “He just plays one on TV. Given the circumstances, he’d be a fool not to.”

How, then, can the profession fight back? Just as sunlight is the best disinfectant for rotten government, so is skepticism the best and most reliable friend of journalists who care about truth and not just stories that are “true enough.” The old adage is more essential than ever: if your mother says she loves you, check it out. Repeated trips to the factual well remain the best way to distill reality and guard against hype. Check, cross check, and check again. Truth may be getting its shoes on while a lie reaches half way around the world, as Mark Twain observed. But truth still matters, and in the long run, it will prevail so long as a decent number of people push for it.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.