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?
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- Who is the reporter?
- What other pieces has the reporter published?
- What is the structure of the story?
- What is the slant?
- 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.
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.
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