Not so Random Matter?


By Mike Cronin

I started out thinking I had several disparate items for this week’s post, but they all seemed to tie together:

It’s science-project season at my son’s school.  He brought home an information/instruction packet.  He had to get a parent to sign the first page – which is a letter to parents explaining that the kid has to do the science work on his own, but parents can help with the non-process portions of the project (e.g. helping the kid get materials) etc., etc. On the reverse of the first page is a progress tracker.  The kid has to get his parents to sign each time he hits a milestone on the project.  My son got dinged on the first milestone because I didn’t sign it.   The first milestone is to have a parent sign the letter to parents.  Yes, that’s right: The purveyors of the science project’s hand-out material failed to notice they are requiring a parent sign the back of a form in order to certify that the parent signed the front of the form…and they make the kid take the hit if the parent doesn’t jump through the hoop.  On a science project. You know, Science?  The subject where they teach kids logic, critical thinking, precision, peer review, attention to detail, right? Little things like that.

Speaking of science, I work in a small office with five other people. All five are scientists and/or engineers. Our office serves as a kind of internal think-tank. We do quantitative and qualitative analysis, among other things. I am the only one in the office who does not have a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).  My colleagues can run rings around me on any kind of math-based reasoning or problems.  On the other hand, I usually get the better of them when it comes to verbal expression.  I like to tease them that they are all experts at qualitative reasoning, while I am the quality. At any rate, our work sometimes involves (mathematical) models and simulations. Someone in the field once quipped that “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

Given the public’s current fascination with the phenomena of “fake news,” I think an adaptation of the “models” aphorism is apropos as a guidepost for judging the efficacy of anything in the media: “All news is fake, but some news is useful.” Two cases in point:

Some right-wing media sources are reporting that Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, as much as revealed that the UN’s plans to combat climate change are really a set of blinders to hide the real agenda: the destruction of capitalism. While the UN is no friend of capitalism, context matters, as does the thing that is not being said.  Figueres undeniably advocates for the alteration of the global economy when she says:

“This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution,”

Note that she stops short of stating that the current global economic development model that must be changed is capitalism (it isn’t, by the way – it’s a mix of capitalism and controls), or describing what model should obtain.  I would not be surprised to learn that Figueres is indeed anti-capitalist, nor would I be surprised to learn that UN efforts to combat global warming are indeed a smokescreen to hide the destruction of capitalism, but Figueres’s statements fall short of being a smoking gun – more like an eyebrow-raiser. The subject bears watching.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the fake news spectrum, we have the New York Times’ headlines for Friday’s attack at the Louvre in Paris by a “lone wolf” Islamic jihadist. Their first headline read: “Louvre Museum Evacuated after French Soldier Opens Fire.” At best, this headline leads you to believe the incident revolved around the actions of a French soldier. At worst, it leads you to believe a French soldier went nuts and started shooting up the Louvre.  A few hours later, the headline had changed to read: “Assailant Near Louvre Is Shot by French Soldier” Again, the French soldier’s actions seem to be the focus.  As mentioned previously, context matters, and what is not being said matters. What the vaunted New York Times neglected, or purposely refused to highlight in their headlines, was that a man shouting “allahu ackbar!” (i.e. “God is great” in Arabic) and wielding knives attacked some French soldiers and was shot by one of them in response.

It would not do to depart from The Narrative by highlighting yet another attack by a Muslim against Western targets, even as the militant arm of the “tolerant” left is convulsing over President Trumps’ recent “anti-Muslim” immigration restrictions, now would it? Instead, the “Newspaper of Record” felt it must mislead readers with deceptive headlines. I’m not suggesting the Times should have gone with “Islamo-Fascist Nut-Job Takes Knives to a Gun Fight in Paris; Wins Darwin Award Nomination,” but something like “Assailant Shouting in Arabic Shot by Soldier At Louvre” might have hit the right balance between not jumping to conclusions about the attacker’s religion, intentions, and connections, and the response of the soldiers.  All news is fake, some news is useful.

The Fake News Furor


By Mike Cronin

The comentariat would now like us to believe that Trump won the election due to fake news promulgated on social media, mainly Facebook.  To be sure, there is plenty of fake news to go around.

There are entire sites that publish nothing but fake or exaggerated news.  They craft lurid headlines that allege massive conspiracies, celebrity deaths, and imminent global crises.  They are the internet equivalent of check-out lane tabloids.  They are click-bait.

But what are we to make of the elite media machines, such as the New York Times or CNN, when they fake the news?

Sometimes, the culprit is a single reporter, such as the plagiarist Jayson Blair at the New York Times, or the embellisher Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News.

Other times, a piece of bad journalism corrupts an entire reporting team, up to and including a star anchor, such as the CBS debacle over unverified Air National Guard memos regarding then-presidential candidate George W. Bush’s background, which ultimately led to Dan Rather’s ignominious departure, or NBC’s  fabricated 1992 story about Chevy pick-up trucks that catch fire in a side impact (when the have been appropriately rigged to do so at the behest of the news crew).

Occasionally, a network reports accurate facts of a story, but gets caught creating phony drama and “atmospherics” for no discernible journalistic purpose, as when CNN was covering the Jodi Arias trial. Reporter/commentators Asleigh Banfield and Nancy Grace were televised conferring on a split-screen as if they were linked by satellite across the continent…when they were in fact mere yards apart in the same Phoenix parking lot.

Most recently, CNN “contributor” Donna Brazile introduced a new wrinkle to the fake news follies by trying to ensure a story would unfold the way it had been pre-ordained by giving debate questions to the Clinton campaign in order to help cement Hillary’s election as the first female president.

More often, though, the main-stream media is not so brazen as to completely fake the news or plagiarize stories. Yet they are still not the “fair and balanced” purveyors of fact they would have us believe. More often than they would like us to know, they are just guilty of not digging into things, or of regurgitating proffered talking points, or of going with the flow.  Why do more work than you have to?

You do so because sometimes peoples’ reputations, or even their lives, are at stake.  The Duke Lacrosse players.  The Rolling Stone – U. Va false rape case. Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, MO Police Dept. Geraldo Rivera’s antics in Iraq.

Even when others’ lives aren’t at stake, the media have to know that their own credibility is.

Is Your News Real?


Image comparison: L: actual image. R: “Photoshopped” image published by Reuters in 2006.

By Mike Cronin

No matter how hard you try with diets, make-up, and exercises, you will never look as good as a celebrity or model in a magazine.  That’s because they don’t even look that good in real life! It takes professional make-up artists, photographers, and designers to produce such photos, but it doesn’t end there. Photoshop is used to alter almost all celebrity/model photographs:

Likewise, if you run the propaganda department for your local dictator, Photoshop is your best friend…if you can use it without botching the job:

The motive for “Photoshopping” in the above cases is s clear: To improve on reality. In this next case, the motive for faking reality is not so clear. Several CNN and HLN reporters are in Phoenix covering the Jody Arias trial. Four of them are in the same place covering the same story. Two of them are in the same parking lot, a few yards apart.  So why do they conduct split-screen “satellite” interviews with each other as if they were on opposite sides of the country?  Perhaps because, while it does nothing for the story itself, it does pump up the visual “action” level:

While Photoshoping and adding “drama” with split screens may improve on reality, sometimes the “news” is just outright faked: In Nov of 1992, NBC Dateline ran a story about the alleged propensity of Chevrolet/GMC pick-ups to catch fire in a side-impact collision due to the placement of the fuel tanks. The video in the story included two “test” accidents. During one of the tests, flames did indeed erupt from one of the pick-ups. GM conducted its own investigation into the story and found that the contractors NBC had hired to set up the test accidents had rigged the trucks with model rocket motors to ensure there would be a fire if fuel leaked.  NBC aired an apology in February 1993, and several of the journalists involved in the story were fired or resigned:

The morals of the story:

1. Don’t base your self-image on a comparison against celebrities or models enhanced by professional image-makers.

2. Even the “news” is sometimes rigged to present you with a filtered and scrubbed reality. Watch skeptically.