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When it comes to reporting on politics, do you find the media more or less trustworthy than 10 years ago?

That was one of the questions asked in last week’s 2020 Survey (if you haven’t taken it yet you still can, until tomorrow night).

Anyway, 80%—80%!—of you said you find the media less trustworthy.

Just 3% said you find it more trustworthy.

Pretty unsurprising, yes, but the causes and implications are worth discussing.

When I was a trader at Lehman Brothers, I was told not to talk to the media under any circumstances. If a reporter calls, and says, “I’m so-and-so, and I’m from the Wall Street Journal,” you hang up. Click.

There doesn’t seem to be a good relationship between the traders and the reporters who cover them! I wonder why that is?

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We will get to that in a minute.

I had a book come out in 2011. I was very unlucky—it was a book about Wall Street that came out at the same time that Occupy Wall Street started, almost to the day. I did a publicity tour for the book, and got slimed by a reporter, pretty bad. It was unprovoked—I didn’t do anything to this person. The rest of the publicity tour was pretty unpleasant as well.

You might have heard about the incident at the Des Moines Register a month or two ago. A young man went to a football game and held up a sign on camera, asking for money for beer, as a joke. He got $1 million. He donated it—to a children’s hospital.

A reporter at the Des Moines Register decided to do a story on the young man. He dug up some old racist tweets from this guy—the guy that donated $1 million to a children’s hospital—and published them, in an attempt to “cancel” him. The internet responded in fine fashion, and used the same search box to dig up up racist tweets from the reporter.

This was a good opportunity for the management of the Des Moines Register to set the record straight and apologize to the young man for canceling him, but instead they canceled the reporter, firing him.

Can you imagine what kind of psychology it takes to want to ruin a man who donates a million dollars to a children’s hospital? I can’t.

The reporter said that the tweet-digging was part of a routine background check, but he would have had to search for specific words to find those tweets, so it was not routine at all.

This is where we are.

It’s Actually Worse

I don’t get wound up about this much anymore, but do you remember that incident in 2017 where a deranged Bernie Sanders supporter shot up a softball field full of Republicans, almost mortally wounding Steve Scalise?

That night I came home and was watching NBC Nightly News. The internet moves faster than TV, so by this point, we already knew from the shooter’s social media posts what his motivations were. In fact, Bernie had already been out earlier in the day, disavowing his supporter.

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At the end of the NBC News segment, the reporter said: “We may never know what his motives were.”

It is the 80/20 problem. Eighty percent of journalists are curious and empathetic. There are some bad apples. I have journalists who are friends. I also know journalists who are not friends. The ones who are not friends fall into two distinct categories:

  1. They engage in the politics of personal destruction. Lots of journalists make it a mission to “take down” the “rich and powerful.” Except the rich and powerful are people, too.
  1. They are activists, not reporters. My suspicion is that a lot of journalists view their role as “changing the world,” rather than “telling the truth.” They try to shape opinion in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

It’s hard to be critical of the media these days because Trump has poisoned the well. It’s more nuanced than “fake news” or “enemies of the people.” Though Trump has a point, however inartfully he makes it—most of the people who cover him have lost objectivity in one way or another.

How to Consume Information

I try to teach this to my students, or, I did when I was teaching.

When I read an article, I take into account several pieces of information:

What is the media outlet?

  1. Who is the reporter?
  1. What other pieces has the reporter published?
  1. What is the structure of the story?
  1. What is the slant?
  1. What pictures are being used to accompany the story?

Most people do not read news critically—they just read the words, without putting any thought into who wrote them and why. This is what the journalists are counting on.

I will consume left-wing as well as right-wing media. But not uncritically! I always know the source and the motivations. In fact, it is good to see the other side.

Fox News has a reputation for being not all objective, but my experience with Fox News is that they have a wide variety of voices on that network, from Trumpian (Hannity) to champagne populist (Carlson) to libertarian (Timpf) and everyone in between. The opinion shows are dumb, but the news is worthwhile if you view it critically.

Journalism is always most compelling at the extremes. You should know this intuitively, but you might not—by the time the journalists get around to writing a story on something, the trend has already passed. Journalists don’t predict things, they write about the now.

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The bull case is always most compelling at the highs and the bear case is always most compelling at the lows. Remember Chipotle from last year? Exactly.

In my career, I have seen people make investing errors, large and small, because of their biases. I have made some myself.

If you have a particular political bias, which you probably do, you might want to let go of it for investing purposes, if you want to stay solvent.

The conservative gold bugs cleaned up from 2009-2011, but since then, it’s been a liberal indexing/growth trade. Intellectual flexibility is the key.

So much more to say, but we’ll stop here… for now.

Jared Dillian

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Nov. 14, 2019, 5:40 p.m.

Dealing with the press is like sleeping next to an elephant. No matter how friendly it may seem, sooner or later it’s going to roll over on you.

Jim Gargano
Nov. 14, 2019, 5:30 p.m.

Wait you can ask for beer money at a football game and get 1 million dollars? I have signs to make!!!

Philip Michaels
Nov. 14, 2019, 5:12 p.m.

This article, Journalisming, is one of your best.  Excellent insights and for me in tune with my own intuition regarding the subject of journalists.  I worry about the “bad” journalists overriding the “good” journalists in regards to their careers and opportunity to be published.
Nov. 14, 2019, 1:51 p.m.

“It is the 80/20 problem. Eighty percent of journalists are curious and empathetic. There are some bad apples”

You are being awfully kind. I think its most likely the reverse. 20% actually care about the fact-finding and verification of the facts and 80% want to be first and the most salacious knowing there is no repercussion
Nov. 14, 2019, 1:46 p.m.

Journalists—take it from a retired one (Phila. Inquirer, Buffalo News, many others)—like college professors, tend to have relatively high intellectual IQs and relatively low emotional IQs. As with many other kinds of writers, many are still wrestling with childhood traumas, etc., through adult life. In other words, many never grow up. I know I’m generalizing, but I’ve spend a lot of time in newsrooms. Journalists tend to see the world as “good guys and bad guys” and lose a lot of the nuance. Many have the basic Marxist perspective of seeing people as members of groups rather than as individuals—even though strong evidence of individual quirks tends to be all around them, especially in newsrooms! (But the quirks don’t encompass ideology—most journalists are left of center.) Most of them are reasonably good writers (although many could never get along without copy editors, and the worst writers despise copy editors the most), but very few of them really know and understand what they’re writing about. They’re generalists who tend to bring very strong biases to whatever story they’re covering. That’s why they tend to put all news into the form of narratives—good vs. bad, racism and other “isms” vs. minorities and women, capitalists vs. the environment, etc. They particularly despise finance and financial news and see “science” as useful only as it advances narratives such as “We’re killing the planet.” They love government because they perceive it as having the power the right all wrongs. Having worked in the belly of the beast for many years, I now tend to avoid most of the bias, sententiousness and agenda masquerading as “news.” As for the New York Times, it has sadly become one of the worst offenders and should change its motto to “All the slant that fits.” The Washington Post also has gone very precipitously down hill under Bezos. The “mainstream” networks are generally worse than useless, and many of their journalists wouldn’t recognize actual news—as opposed to stupid narratives and facile memes—if it bit them in the ass. Trump’s criticisms are typically blunt and inchoate, but essentially true. Very sad, because what good is “freedom of the press” when the press pretty much all on one side?

Donald Moore 55870146
Nov. 14, 2019, 1:02 p.m.

“It’s hard to be critical of the media these days because Trump has poisoned the well.”  I’ve been critical of the media most of my adult life, long before Trump.  The media has, as long as I can recall, participated in personal destruction and activism. We may perceive it to be worse now than the good old days. But in the good old days we didn’t have the access and news traveled much slower. Yes I believe that it is worse now but the abundance of outlets, voices and the speed at which it moves is amplifying that belief.  Saying Trump poisoned the well is like closing the barn door after the horses have run off.  The well has been poisoned for quite some time.  And now that the media (whatever % you want to put on it) has been participating in personal destruction and activism against him and his family nearly every day since before he was elected and he has chosen to not stand by this is considered poisoning the well and making it hard to criticize the media?  I guess i’m just not a critical enough news reader. I’ll need to work on that ;-).  Thanks for the thought provoking articles!!  Always a good read.

Mickey Lee 39784354
Nov. 14, 2019, 11:49 a.m.

Excellent article, Jared
You put into words many of the things I’ve been struggling to say myself.  Everyone thinks THEY are objective.  But none of us are.  Only those that are aware of their biases, and constantly on search and destroy mission to flush out more, can even approach it.

Well done.

jack goldman
Nov. 14, 2019, 11:43 a.m.

Read Loserthink by Scott Adams. Addresses this topic specifically.

Robert Brent
Nov. 14, 2019, 10:51 a.m.

Truthfulness in media depends greatly on which newspaper or reporter one reads or listens to. The New York Times for example largely reports accurately but has opinion pages to debate about. As a long retired intelligence officer, I can attest that it requires a good education to assess accuracy in media, and unfortunately much of the US population lacks that, which leads to the inability to assess accuracy.
Robert Brent
Nov. 14, 2019, 10:45 a.m.

Bias and narrative are important factors in what constitutes news, news that will sell commercials. Reporters ‘spin’ every story with bias and narrative in mind. To find objectivity, one might consider the observation that the Iowa Electronic Markets predict outcomes more accurately than do opinion polls. One concludes that people show their TRUE opinions when they have to put some skin into the game, and when they can make a monetary profit if they predict correctly. Another win for the free market!

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