Inspiring (?) thought of the day: ‘News is a misleading way to understand the world’

Bill Gates’ Tweetstorm is a good read. (Thanks

“News is a misleading way to understand the world.”

On a bit of a losing streak lately, I’ve cast my net for some fresh inspiration, which led me to Bill Gates’ wonderful Tweetstorm for grads, which led me to a Q&A with Steven Pinker, who wrote Gates’ favorite book. And Pinker there offers quite the elegant, dispassionate indictment of my chosen field.

“News is a misleading way to understand the world.”

Well, I’d argue, that is what news has become. What people sorely need is the ability to see events “in context,” and that’s what adults (experienced journalists) are supposed to do. Instead, today, it’s just a steady march of one event on top of another. A firing. A Tweet. An insult.

I crave understanding, perspective, and wisdom. I try to look for it all over. And, hopefully, I’ve supplied some, at least occasionally. It’s hard to trade in understanding right now, however. Here’s just one example out of 1,000 I could choose.

Like many Americans, I am crestfallen by the coverage the Trump administration has received from much of the national media. My reasons might differ from yours; I grew up in New Jersey and I have known for decades that Trump is a bombast whose words mean almost nothing. But I’m aware of my bias against him, and as I’ve written before, I have tried to be open to things Trump could do as president — like pass a much needed $1 trillion infrastructure plan — that a Democratic president probably could not.

But today’s news is often a misleading way to understand Trump.

I am deeply troubled that the news media can’t seem to resist the catnip of daily crap that is doled out in Washington D.C. I’d much rather talk about ideas and real problems, and I can’t for the life of me understand why so many experienced professionals are reporting on Tweets.

As is often true, I found solace in The Economist, which provides longer views on serious topics, and enjoys the luxury of still seeing itself as a magazine. And last week, I thought a piece on Trumponomics was particularly good. It didn’t get distracted by the usual D.C. chatter. It intelligently laid out the case against the new president’s approach to making America great again.

“Trumponomics is a business wishlist,” the Economist wrote. “Mr. Trump has listened to scores of executives, but there are barely any economists in the White House.”

The piece goes on to explain why economic nationalism is mere fast food for a starving economy — it might taste good, but we’ll all pay for it later.

“Trumponomics is a poor recipe for long-term prosperity. America will end up more indebted and more unequal,” it reads. “It will neglect the real issues, such as how to retrain hardworking people whose skills are becoming redundant.”

This is a typical conservative, free trade argument (Trump isn’t conservative), and I have problems with it. To wit: “Retraining” is always something economists say when they have a good job and you don’t. Still, it explains the folly of the policies that are being set while we are all busy re-tweeting.

I’d hoped to jump start a discussion on such issues. And, as I’ve mentioned, there are sides to this argument. Instead, as a response, I received an Obama “meme” (I’m embarrassed I have to write that word) about taxation ending in “Yeah, that should work.” A couple of game readers responded with arguments about things like the velocity of money; the original Obama hater simply re-pasted the meme.

Another writer put his meme to words, writing a word salad that Trump himself might employ: “The problem with these writers who criticize Trump Is they neglect to mention That our President doesn’t think in terms of big government,” he said. “These writers and so called economists always include big and bigger government. Hence there economic guessing and gloom and doom forecasting.”

Regular readers know I am a big fan of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, written by Neil Postman, about the change in humans from a species that reads to a species that watches. With reading, words must be digested; logic followed. TV, on the other hand, is a series of pictures that generate emotions. People, he argued, are losing their ability to follow logic, driven now by feelings stirred by pictures.

Pictures make news, indeed, a misleading way to understand the world. As so do words designed merely to enflame emotions — ad hominem attacks, for example. If I had my way, every journalist who sneered at a response to a question would be suspended for a day. But then, every politician who communicated by first insulting people would be put in time out. Insults, you see, do noting but generate emotion. Just like news stories without context.

If you are still reading, then I suspect you also care about context, and about issues. I know some of you are still left out there.  In fact, Pinker would probably tell me that there’s a lot of you out there.  Social media, certainly, is a good way to misunderstand people.

We need to stick together. I promise, no insult or sneer or fast food is going to rebuild America’s infrastructure or make our workers competitive again.


About Bob Sullivan 1204 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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