Too Bad to Be False

Too Bad to Be False

Alterman is off, Reed dispenses on bad-news muffins.


Greeting Altercators, Reed here. Eric’s off today for Rosh Hashanah, but his latest column for The Nation on Obama’s by now all too familiar willingness to abandon liberal principles (at his own electoral peril), can be found here.

Too Bad to be False
by Reed Richardson

Psychologists have long identified a human phenomenon known as the negativity bias. Broadly defined, it essentially means that we humans are intrinsically hard-wired to give more credence to negative rather than positive information. (Although, as we age, this bias does seem to subside.) One constant result of this bias, psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo notes in his book “The Watercooler Effect,” is that we will always suffer from a larger universe of negative rather than positive—what he labels “dread” and “wish”—rumors floating around us.

This past week was nothing if not further proof that this negativity bias also impacts the all too human practitioners within our “objective” press, and distorts our political discourse in the process. For Exhibit A, look no further than the media tempest kicked up by the $16 muffin myth. The latest in a long line of allegedly outrageous examples of wasteful government spending, this story was little more than a case of imprecise invoicing and, once it was actually examined for veracity, it fell apart faster than dry cornbread.

That, from the beginning, the story sounded dubious didn’t really matter. Spurred on by our innate bias toward bad news, the supposed luxury-priced muffins’ unmistakable symbolism perfectly dovetailed with a popular (conservative) meme and so the story, along with the predictable bloviating from right-wing pundits and Republican politicians, rapidly propagated itself across the airwaves and headlines. The truth finally did get out, but as Mark Twain noted, it will never catch up. And in the interim, these muffins got served up often enough that their tale no doubt burrowed into the subconscious of plenty of unemployed and poverty-stricken Americans who are already none too happy with a federal government that can’t seem address the real problems plaguing the country.

Granted, this story wasn’t some anonymously sourced backroom whisper—the anecdote did, after all, come out of this report from the Justice Department’s own Inspector General’s office. But since when has the press been so willing to abdicate its role as skeptical critic of claims by the government, whether they be good or bad? OK, dumb question. But the accretion of sloppy news reporting like this erodes the public’s confidence in both the press and in government. In this case, the press gets pilloried, and rightly so, for once again hyping a story that turns out to be grossly exaggerated and, even worse, easily identified as such. But the target of this negative story doesn’t get off scot-free either. That’s because of another psychological phenomenon that DiFonzo discusses in his book:

This tendency to interpret things according to the ideas that are currently active in the mind is called the law of cognitive structure activation. Cognitive structures are ideas, stereotypes, or mental frameworks. They are ‘activated’ by simply bringing them to mind.




In a similar way, hearing a negative rumor can activate a generally negative framework—despite disbelief in the rumor. That is, a negative rumor can lead us to appraise the target of a rumor more negatively—regardless of how believable we think the rumor is.


So, even if this tale about the Justice Dept.’s $16 muffins had its detractors from the outset, it will have “activated” a certain “government spending is out of control” mindset in many Americans. And no amount of after-the-fact or on-air corrections will ever compensate for the press’s unfortunate credulity. What’s more, when such an uproar gets ignited smack dab in the middle of a protracted political fight about the direction of the federal budget, it’s not hard to see which side of the debate gains an advantage from such cognitive prompting.

That the rabidly anti-government right-wing benefits from this particular incident is no mere coincidence, of course. Take a step back and examine the whole pantheon of inaccurate reporting and unsourced rumors that this President and his policies have had to overcome in the past several years and the pattern of fabrications and smears becomes all too clear. Rhetorical whoppers like the Obamacare death panels lie, the Birther conspiracy spinoffs, and many other similarly-sized myths may never convince majorities of Americans that they are true, but they aren’t supposed to. Instead, their over-the-top, Grand Guignol nature gives politicians, the press, and the public easy intellectual cover. It lets them pointedly dismiss wild, conspiracy theories only to then embrace less fantastic, but no less false, claims like the stimulus created no jobs or Obama isn’t really a Christian. When coupled with human nature’s aforementioned negativity bias, this constant, bewildering barrage of bullshit acts to delegitimize the White House even if the most outrageous allegations don’t weave their way into reasonable-people-disagree-type conventional wisdom. These big lies still work, in other words, because they make the small ones that much more believable by comparison.

How the media can avoid falling into this trap isn’t that difficult to figure out, though it requires real editorial endurance to make it happen. It starts, of course, by being less credulous in reporting, taking the time to independently verify stories and confirm their details, especially if they seem too good to be true.

Outright falsehoods that even the media recognize pose a different problem, however, and, as such, necessitate more of a concerted effort to counter them. That’s because the age-old journalism workaround of disingenuously bringing up a rampant rumor or common misconception in order to debunk it often backfires. Such a strategy, particularly when executed in the timid, euphemistic tone found in most objective journalism, can inadvertently validate rather than repudiate the claim in question. Of course, if a patently untrue claim continues to be pushed by a “reputable” figure, say, there are times when it will inevitably make it on air or in print. In those cases, the press must be both unabashed and diligent about calling out the lie each and every time it appears, as it most spectacularly did not with the Obamacare death panels claim.

Sadly, as the recent health care reform coverage showed, a full-throated dedication to calling out the truth (or its opposite) is in short supply in the newsrooms of today. No doubt this is no accident, as the idea of ceaselessly labeling a demonstrably false claim as such would be tantamount to violating the press’s chaste vow of objectivity in the eyes of many top editors and producers. But, of course, members of the press are biased, just not in a way that they seem to acknowledge. And that is precisely the point. Until the media owns up to its inherently flawed nature and starts to change its underlying philosophy from one of rigid objectivity to one of transparent fairness, the public will continue to believe the worst about it, and, in this case, they would be right.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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