October 10, 2017

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Samantha Power cites Richard Thaler

It was a parenthetical remark made by former UN Ambassador Samantha Power during a question and answer session with eminent foreign affairs journalist Robin Wright at a Chicago gathering Monday evening. It involved our susceptibility to buy into declarations that merely support our personal views, like the Fox News channel viewers who watch the network and wind up "very scared of refugees," as Power put it. Or were watching "Trump & Friends" this morning bashing NFL players who kneel for the anthem.

She could have added a variety of other examples. Like MSNBC or CNN viewers who think Donald Trump is the devil or that the First Amendment is in overriding peril or that Las Vegas is proof that new gun control measures must be passed.

She noted in passing how this reflex is an aspect of the work of Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago academic who earlier that day won the Nobel Prize in economics. And, indeed, yes, it may not be a primary reason he won, but Thaler has long underscored the reality of "confirmation bias."

As he put it in an interview last year, "Let’s add some related biases that contribute to overconfidence, like the confirmation bias. One of the reasons we’re overconfident is that we actively seek evidence that supports our views. That’s true of everybody, that’s part of human nature, so that’s one reason we’re overconfident; we’re out there looking for support that we’re right. We rarely go out of our way to seek evidence that would contradict us."

"The idea that you just look for evidence that backs up your already held theory?" said Austan Goolsbee, a Thaler colleague who served as chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, said to me Monday. Yes, he said, Thaler's work also makes that point.

Though the thrust of Power's two Chicago appearances at the kickoff to the month-long Chicago Humanities Festival involved her UN tenure, our place in the world, Trump's foreign policy and women in government, her reference to Thaler served to underscore one of many dilemmas faced by the media these days: How does it deal with the natural impulse of citizens to find information that supports pre-existing views? Amid all the fact-checking that's on the rise, how does the media get people to come to terms with information that contradicts their beliefs?

If you missed it, check a recent New York Times op-ed by Republican Peter Wehner. He wrote, "When I see so many Republicans defend Mr. Trump regardless of his actions — invoking defenses that I am certain would enrage them if champions of a President Hillary Clinton had said the same things on her behalf — I’m convinced we’re seeing a severe case of confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs."

The onetime aide to President George W. Bush then looked into a mirror, of sorts, and conceded he's as guilty as others, thinking his intellectual integrity surpasses that of others. He so dislikes Trump, he has a really hard time assessing him in a disinterested way.

"To say that we all struggle with confirmation bias is not to say that some individuals don’t overcome it better than others or that some aren’t closer to seeing the truth of things better than others. Objective reality exists, truth matters, and we have to pursue them with purpose and without fear. But in our present moment, truth, including truth that unsettles us, has far too often become subordinate to justifying and defending at all costs our own, often unsound, preconceptions. You can see that in others. But can you see it in yourself?"

A self-segregation on the basis of intellectual inclinations is accelerated these days. It leads to what Power calls an insulation from competing perspectives (her husband, renowned Harvard legal academic Cass Sunstein, has collaborated with Nobel winner Thaler). She confronted it in dealing with other nations at the UN.

And every editor and reporter now deals with it in confronting a public that, no matter how open-minded its self-image might be, finds no middle ground over the great story of the day, Donald Trump. Or, as CNN's "New Day" touched upon this morning, Vice President Mike Pence walking out of a pro football game. You either think he's a hero making a great point or a theatrical jerk executing a premeditated political stunt.

Jemele Hill now suspended

The ESPN show co-host, who caused a stir for bashing Trump as a white supremacist but was not docked pay or work, is now suspended for tweets (fairly benign) related to a possible advertiser boycott of the Dallas Cowboys. Deadspin is underwhelmed:

"If ESPN really believes a tweet noting that boycotts work is worth a two-week suspension, they should be ashamed of themselves. Not only was it sent in the context of a much longer discussion about (Cowboys owner Jerry) Jones’s promise to bench any players that are caught 'disrespecting the flag, it’s not even a direct call for a boycott. It’s merely a suggestion that if anyone is truly offended by Jones’ comments, they have the option of voicing their displeasure by not buying products from companies that advertise with the Cowboys. Hill even went out of her way to say she wasn’t directly advocating for any boycott."

Yeah but … She 'd received a reprimand in the first place. She might have stayed away from social media just a bit longer. If you're management, the sense was that your hand was being tested. It takes two to tango here.

Facebook gets help

"Facebook has hired two crisis PR firms, and it plans to bring on as many as 1,000 people to screen ads," Bloomberg notes. "Top executives, including chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, are phoning members of Congress directly. The company reported spending more than $3.2 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2017, a company record. Google spent almost $6 million in the second quarter for its own record. Both companies, with Twitter, are working together to deal with issues related to the Russian ads."

On the movie beat

From Slate: "The newest trailer for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" was released Monday, and it looks like director Rian Johnson (who also wrote the screenplay) and cinematographer Steve Yedlin have crafted some of the most striking images in the Star Wars universe since the AT-AT walkers attacked Hoth."

Weinstein and the Clintons

The many examples of relative or actual silence over the Harvey Weinstein debacle include Hillary and Bill Clinton, longtime Weinstein buds and beneficiaries of his contributor largess. I asked Amie Parnes, a reporter for the Hill and a Hillary Clinton biographer, and she agreed that there wasn't much coming from Team Clinton.

Journalists will have a tough time extracting much from them, she said. They would appear to be in a tough spot, in no small measure thanks to Bill's notoriously wandering eye. They're sort of damned if they do, damned if they don't. That may not justify silence but it helps understand it

Meanwhile, here's an obvious story idea: Does Georgina Chapman stand by her man, Harvey? If so, add to her a long list of public figures who've done the same. Clinton, Abedin, Spitzer, Cosby, etc.

Hitting the "start" button again at Tronc

"The Los Angeles Times has tapped Forbes Media’s Lewis D'Vorkin as its new editor-in-chief and veteran entertainment executive Mickie Rosen as its president. D’Vorkin and Rosen will report to Los Angeles Times Media Group CEO and publisher Ross Levinsohn."

Whew. This is the latest in a series of changes at Tronc, formerly Tribune, by Chicago tech mini-mogul Michael Ferro. He's been in charge 18 months, a lengthy time as advertising plummets in the industry, and even some close aides concede that little of great positive substance has taken place.

Industry analyst Ken Doctor tries to dumb it down for me:

"Ross Levinsohn, the guy hired to replace publisher/editor Davan Maharaj in the August top editor purge, now effectively leads the digital business transformation for Tronc overall. Last year the stars of the notorious 'introducing Tronc' (video for employees) — Malcolm CasSelle  and Anne Vasquez — were anointed as the digital transformation leaders. Their stars fell over the year. In February, Tronc hired Tim Knight (ex of Tribune and briefly of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer) to head Tronc X, its name for its digital division. Most newspaper publishers, other than the Times, also have reported to him. Now Levinsohn assumes authority for digital content, marketing, product and technology/engineering (other than IT) at all of the Tronc papers, including the recently bought NYDN (New York Daily News). This is a big change."

"So what will Levinsohn do in that corporate role? His view is that of a digital industry veteran. Focus on high-value topical areas — headed by entertainment, with food, fashion, and fitness included. The idea: Use a content edge that the Times may have in these areas and build on strong 'verticals' that become popular with readers and enjoy good ad sponsorship support."

"Abstractly, it's a sensible strategy, but it's a late to the market one. Many such verticals exist, and it's extremely tough to create a good enough product that changes mass numbers of readers' habits. We see the ascendance of that topical strategy in his naming of former protege Mickie Rosen as LAT president and Lewis D'Vorkin as EIC. Both are product people. There is value to that; too many newspaper people don't understand the difference between content and the product that it offers to its customers."

Meanwhile, in Philly

A new nonprofit ownership  structure doesn't change macro economic realities in Philadelphia.

"Philadelphia Media Network, owner of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com, is seeking to eliminate 30 to 35 newsroom positions through buyouts and warned that it could lay off employees if it fails to reach that target. At the same time, the company is hiring 10 employees with digital-related skills, such as a newsletter editor and search optimization editor, and said it would continue to hire in specific areas to modernize the newsroom and expand its audience on Philly.com."

'When will we decide it's enough?'

The Washington Post has editorialized lots of times on gun control and, now, it offers members of its editorial board in a video making all the right points in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting. It ends asking, "When will we decide it's enough?" as the screen runs through the depressing details and victims of lots of recent mass shootings.

When will we decide? Surely, not for a good, long time, as the paper's Aaron Blake underscored last week in assessing why the latest mini-legislative push is in vain.

Meanwhile, in homicide capital Chicago, the Sun-Times, Chicago Public Radio and the new ProPublica Illinois collaborated on "How Chicago Gets Its Guns." It vividly underscores the not entirely new point of how huge numbers come via Indiana and other states with lax laws, and were purchased legally and arrived not through organized trafficking rings but small-time solo operators or small groups. It restates an important and vexing overarching reality.

Nancy Pelosi, Jemele Hill, whipping girls

"Trump & Friends" opened with bashing Nancy Pelosi for not being as receptive to an immigration/wall plan as it felt she should be toward its hero. And Jemele Hill, too. Throw in Rev. Al Sharpton for backing her. Yes, the most important thing in the world this morning appeared to be Hill. And then it quoted ad nauseam Luddite former Bears coach Mike Ditka — still dining off a Super Bowl win more than 30 years ago with a team that then under-performed under him — and highlighted this Nobel-like social-cultural insight: "I don't care who you are, how much money you make. If you don't respect our country, then you shouldn't be in this country playing football. Go to another country and play football.If you can't respect this flag and the country, then you don't respect what this is all about. So I would say, adios."

"Remember when ESPN used to have sports on it?" asked co-host Steve Doocy in a rhetorical query to his colleagues. Yes, they agreed. So as you woke up your kids, or poured your first cup of coffee, you got your heaping sunrise helping of confirmation bias.

More on frats

The Atlantic is receiving lots of attention for Caitlin Flanagan's look at a death at a Penn State fraternity. It also has Bloomberg editor John Hechinger's look at how frats "often wield powerful political connections and financial support in battles over their misbehavior."

Reassuring news from National Geographic

"New Clues to How Neanderthal Genes Affect Your Health — A genome from a female found in Croatia shows how conditions from schizophrenia to arthritis are influenced by our ancient human cousins."

Orwell and Catalonia

"Homage to Catalonia" was George Orwell's personal account of the Spanish Civil War. Let's now dust off the title for the thrust of this Bloomberg opus that reminds how there's lucre to be generated even when countries are cracking up:

"When financial markets opened Oct. 2, Spanish equities were down, sovereign yields were up, and the euro weakened significantly against the dollar, as investors worried that the push for secession in Catalonia could lead to a breakup of Spain. The concern is justified, but the crisis may also be overblown and could offer investment opportunities."

"Catalonia accounts for about 16 percent of the country’s population, and more than 20 percent of gross domestic product. About a quarter of Spanish exports are Catalan products, and about the same proportion of inward foreign investments to Spain is destined to the region. Barcelona, the regional capital, is a major European city and remains an important tourist draw."

Lost in the news fray

"A poll taken after Vice President Mike Pence made headlines on Sunday with an abrupt early departure reveals that a broad majority of Americans hope that Donald Trump follows Pence’s example and leaves early, as well."

"In a striking result, the poll shows that Trump’s early exit would be approximately a thousand times more popular than the one Pence participated in on Sunday."

Thanks to indefatigable Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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