Predictible Fakers

A Post review of Maliszewski's book Fakers:

Why are we so readily duped? The short answer is that con games confirm what we already want to believe. The made-up news stories and fudged memoirs fit certain "forms," as Maliszewski calls them: "Fictional journalism is essentially a careful imitation of journalistic forms. That is, the articles are convincing because they adhere closely to the unstated conventions, assumptions, and predilections of a particular publication, a particular kind of article, or a particular editor. Journalists who fake are extraordinarily sensitive to the ways in which their stories are a series of sometimes conventional, often routine forms."

Fakers derive their power from our own expectations and prejudices.  Stephen Glass's talent, writes Maliszewski, "lay less in the originality of his imagination than in his solicitous ability to seize on whatever the conventionally wise were chatting about at cocktail parties and repackage it in bright new containers, selling the palaver right back to them. Nobody was the wiser." Studied more closely, though, Glass's "wild inventions form a thin skin stretched over a fairly standard body of accepted truth and mainstream opinion. Glass's imagination is not, in other words, all that original. It is, in fact, crushingly banal. How else to explain his production of so many fabrications that deliver, in story after story, the shared assumptions of the editorial class in new and perhaps slightly surprising forms?" …

Joey Skaggs … adds that "my experience has shown me that most journalists don't want to screw up a good story with reality, and they will talk themselves out of questioning the story to death." As the saying goes, some stories are too good to check.  What fakers do, then, is simplify complexities; they feed our secret prejudices and beliefs. … Fake newspaper articles … tell us the stories we want to hear, rather than the stories that are really out there. As a result, emphasizes Maliszewski, they damage serious work, for "there are articles — real articles, these, about true subjects — that cannot be easily written or are not practical to publish simply because they don't fit one of the accepted forms."

In news, social science, and fiction consumers mainly want more vivid impressive detail to support pre-existing abstract conclusions.  To produce as much as possible, ambitious writers must be as sloppy as they can get away with.  Since news that challenges prior abstract conclusions is scrutinized more carefully, the ambitious prefer to avoid such scrutiny by avoiding abstractly-surprising news, unless it gets enough other rewards, which is rare.  And given this situation, writing about such costly news becomes a sign that you are not ambitious, and should be avoided.  These career pressures probably explain most conformity in such areas; no stronger conformity pressures are needed.

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  • Jonas Kocevar

    Admiration for a quality or an art can be so strong that it deters us from striving to possess it.
    Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Joe

    I so wanted this review to be fake, but alas, the book seems to exist.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    How closely does this book resemble your existing beliefs about the journalism profession?

    Of course, we all already know that The Hated Enemy is fudging the truth, science, etc. in furtherance of his irrational ends, and his followers fall for it because they want to believe lies about us. Amongst those lies are that our side is willfully lying to itself about them.

  • frelkins

    @Zubon

    we all already know that The Hated Enemy is fudging the truth, science, etc. in furtherance of his irrational end

    I’m feeling pretty certain that I’m the only regular here who has ever held a Capitol Hill press pass or been a member of the National Press Club. I appreciate your irony, but the reality seems from my experience to be one of signaling, truly. We all are what we read on they subway, and what news stories we chat about at cocktail parties or the watercooler.

    The editors “know” what they want to hear and they assign stories accordingly. Few journalists are trusted to do their own investigative work – most stories are assigned by the editorial team who have decided already what they will follow, based on the paper’s “outlook,” audience, or to keep up with competitors.

    They don’t have “irrational ends,” but they do have a market position, which they strive to preserve. The editorial staff believes it is the keeper of this position and they also believe themselves to “know” the lay of the land already.

    So as a writer you write the story you are assigned, the editors will edit it to reflect the position and their pre-existing judgment. You don’t ascend in the newsroom unless you are capable of absorbing and reflecting the editorial position, you just don’t.

    The editors and the writers who wish to be promoted as editors share a certain background – newsrooms are hardly diverse – and their exercise is to signal that background among themselves and then out to their readers. It’s all the bien-pensant for the bien-pensant, no matter the supposed political alignment of the paper.

    This is why the web is so important, altho’ alas it too often copies the more mindless tropes of the mainstream media.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/huono_ekonomi/ Mikko

    frelkins: There are clear incentives for that. Around 80% of revenue of newspapers comes from advertising. Thus, their business is to sell readers to advertisers. Most people can’t handle any first approximation of truth on most issues. If you piss your readers off by writing something they are not willing to accept, you may lose readers and then your customers, the advertisers, will move somewhere else.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    frelkins, thanks for the expert summary.

    Zubon, I included social scientists in the group, and I am one of those.

  • frelkins

    @mikko

    Around 80% of revenue of newspapers comes from advertising

    True, but at most news organizations, the editorial and advertising are quite separate. They are purposely kept that way so news stories don’t favor advertisers. Where I worked the sales folk were actually in a separate building even.

    What the editors are signalling is access to the thinking of a certain elite. You used to buy the NY Times to show that you were a liberal Ivy League type and to be able to raise your own status by talking about what they talked about.

    Note Tina Brown’s new website Daily Beast offers a “Cheat Sheet” so that you know quickly what opinions you’re supposed to have, thus sparing you embarrassment at any upcoming social event!

    There used to be a joke that if you announced a Yale alum cocktail party in Times Sq, half the Times newsroom would empty; if you added in Columbia, only the Harvard men would be left. So while the news industry worries about diversity, it often comes down to how many x-ethnic-Americans who went to Yale do we have?

    I recall this report: “With Harvard, Yale…and upper-middle class recruits, perhaps newsrooms are not representative, [an editor] cautioned.” Now that’s insight! This is the force of Maliszewski’s point about Stephen Glass – note that Glass attended Penn, an Ivy League school.

    Robin is truth-seeking enough to include social scientists in his charge as well, which is admirable.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    My experience is that journalists report on the nearest-cliche algorithm, which is extremely uninformative because there aren’t many cliches, the truth is often quite distant from any cliche, and the only thing you can infer about the actual event was that this was the closest cliche. I should write a separate post on this at some point.

    It is simply not possible to appreciate the sheer awfulness of mainstream media reporting until someone has actually reported on you. It is so much worse than you think.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/huono_ekonomi/ Mikko

    frelkins: My experience from Finland is similar: clear-cut division between advertising and editorial organizations. My point is not that the advertisers directly pressure the newspaper, it is more subtle. I think the incentive of editorial organization is to keep the readers no matter what, so they avoid offending the readers. They do this by writing only from certain worldview.

    This is just another way to say the same thing as you wrote that the editors “know” what they want to hear. I don’t think it is necessarily a conscious decision, but more likely just people with certain worldview end up being selected as editors in certain newspapers. This comes back to your interesting observations about diversity.

    (This idea is stolen from Ellul: Propaganda, which is an interesting book on this subject.)

  • C

    I’m an MSM reporter and need to hide behind the cover of anonymity to write this post.

    I recently shared with my roommate the frustration I was having with a specific editor, who above my protests insisted on re-writing my opening sentence to include both an embellishment and outright invention on his part. When I objected, my editor replied, “I’m sure he [C: my source being quoted in the lede] won’t mind; after all, it makes him look good”. I hotly responded with the obvious, that it’s not enough for me that he wouldn’t protest; I wanted it to be right.

    My editor prevailed. And in one sense, he was right: the source didn’t complain. Yet I was profoundly embarrassed by the whole thing. My name appears next to that article, and if nobody else knows, my source—who trusted me to accurately reflect his story—certainly does know. My roommate, also a writer, reacted to my story with the observation that “there seems a fundamental problem when you can’t offer news without changing it into what you think is news”.

    I’ve only been a daily reporter for a little more than a year, but I’ve learned with absolute certainty that this is the case. In other words, many editors, rather than first seeking absolute precision and accuracy before worrying about presenting the story in an interesting manner, often do the reverse. They seek to make the writing acutely interesting and then hope to make it conform to the facts—but if they can’t, they just settle with getting as close as possible.

    Reporters deserve no sympathy for this: nobody forced us into this job and nobody makes us stay in it. But it kind of sucks that the choice is frequently between quitting or compromising the principles you believed were the foundation on which your profession stood.

    Eliezer is right, but you don’t have to be the subject of a story to see how badly things get screwed up. You can also be the one who did the actual reporting, observing in astonishment how the version of your story that winds up on the page is completely unrecognizable to its own alleged author.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    C, thank you for your comment. I will include the editors into my allocation of blame henceforth.

    I’d thought it was mostly about reporters having to pump out a certain number of column inches every day, and this leaving no time for anything but writing the nearest cliche. I hadn’t realized that such distortion was also required or even directly added by editors.

  • http://www.embraceunity.com Edward

    All of this is discussed in the book Manufacturing Consent. The term manufacturing consent comes from Walter Lippman. There were people such as Lippman and Edward Bernays who made no bones about what the media’s function was. It was for men of a “specialized class” to “manufacture” the consent of the unruly masses who had been given electoral power.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacturing_Consent

    It isn’t that there is explicit censorship in the media. It is just that everyone knows that it is out of the question to go against the views of the readership, the sponsors, or the parent company. It is only natural that one would receive a warped viewpoint from media which is mainly targeted towards a readership of a certain class, seeking revenue from a large corporate sponsors, and owned by one of a handful of conglomerates (mainly Viacom, News Corp, Disney, Time-Warner, and GE).

    Here is a quote from Lippman, one of America’s most famous 20th century journalists, on the media:
    http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6456

    “That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no
    one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is
    certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and
    the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the
    process are plain enough.

    The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which
    was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it
    has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic,
    because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And
    so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern
    means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner.
    A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any
    shifting of economic power.”

    Bernays, being a cousin of Sigmund Freud, was among the first to apply a scientific mindset toward the manufacture of consent (to the chagrin of Freud). Here is a quote from the beginning of Bernays’s book Propaganda:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_(book)

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

  • Thanatos Savehn

    The news media has a product to sell. That product is the facts of the day shaped into a narrative that its customers want to buy.

    A defective product is one that causes cognitive dissonance.

  • http://www.killtenrats.com Zubon

    Robin, frelkins, and anyone else,
    Not that I object to what you have said, but I treat “The Hated Enemy” as a universal term, rather than only about journalists, editors, social scientists, etc. The example that came to mind was intelligent design, where both sides have accused the other of engaging in less-than-honest science that plays to the prejudices of its supporters; I thought it might derail the thread in unfortunate ways. Politics is much the same, with writers and researchers from the two major teams, but we will avoid the mindkiller.

    So, avoiding subtlety, my point is that the bias is general. For whatever you believe about whatever you are talking about, you are likely to accept facile stories that support you, believe that The Hated Enemy accepts facile stories that support him or oppose you, and believe that The Hated Enemy erroneously believes that you accept facile stories that support you or oppose him. (I am not now pondering the frequent OB case of no opposition, just an easy “weird” story.) You see it with political parties, college sports, anime fandom, computer operating systems, and the local PTA. We are to monitor ourselves for this, so my hobby is asking, “Are you biased in your assessments of how biased you and others are?” (for all values of you)

  • frelkins

    @Zubon

    “The Hated Enemy”

    I don’t think anyone has expressed hatred or inimical feelings towards journalists here; strong skepticism, yes, but that is different. Maliszewski’s point is that we are deceived most roundly by our own “friends.”

    accepts facile stories

    But this is exactly the point of the Stephen Glass case and even the famed Jayson Blair case. Facile stories from “one of us” are accepted by “us.” It has nothing to do with what our out-groups believe. It is how we allow ourselves to be duped by our in-group members – because our vanity tells us that our in-group is honest and objective and wouldn’t lie to us. We need to be more skeptical of ourselves.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/cphoenix/ Chris Phoenix

    Even if the reporters and advertisers are separate, someone is putting things together. A few months ago, I saw the following on page 2 or 3 of the New York Times:

    An article about an Asian country
    Above it, a photograph of a building in a different Asian country
    To the right of a photograph, an ad for jewelry, with a very similar look to the building.

    And then there are the people who write the headlines. There was an article online in (IIRC) New Scientist. The article explained very clearly that the previous year might or might not have been the hottest on record, but that the question didn’t really matter because a near-future year would surely have been hotter. The headline? Something on the order of, “The controversy over global warming, and why it doesn’t matter.”

    If I wanted to manufacture consent, I’d let the reporters get all the ethical training they wanted, and focus people’s attention on whether the reporters were 95% or 98% ethical, and whether that was good enough. Meanwhile, I’d place a few partisan interns where they’d graduate to writing headlines and doing layout.

    Chris