Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 7, 2018

Ashes of Our Fathers RSS Test 1 – please ignore

Please excuse this test post.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 27, 2018

Is Peace as Deadly as War?

Could peace be as deadly as war?

It seems absurd. War is a bad thing. Peace is a good thing.

But we can get too much of a good thing. Does that apply even to peace?

Exhibit A: Snowflakes Fallen

In 2018, many people become hysterical at the slightest hint of disagreement. They interpret normal conversation as micro-aggression. They complain that classic literature triggers them. They think that seeing a MAGA hat is equivalent to being attacked with a tire iron. They need stuffed animals, hot chocolate, social workers, and diversity commissars — which is pretty good for social workers and diversity commissars, even if not for anyone else.

When I was growing up, I had a privilege that they didn’t: I had a sane, involved father. He knew that facts were facts. He knew that wishing your dog was a cat didn’t make it one. He knew that crying about life’s difficulties was pointless. He knew that we could solve problems only by confronting them.

And as a combat veteran, he knew the difference between real dangers and imaginary ones. He told me:

“When I went to college and medical school, I studied hard, but never spent any time worrying about grades. I had already faced the ultimate issue: whether I was going to live or die. Compared to that — a test in biology? What the hell is that?”

Fred Reed, an ex-Marine with whom I worked as a newspaper reporter in the 1990s, had similar insights. He proposed them for reforming the universities:

“As for higher education, it will actually be higher. To begin with, all applicants to college will be required to go through Marine Corps boot camp, reconstituted to the standards of 1965. This will work miracles. Our pansified little darlings will then know what trouble is and not go all limp over Microaggressions.”

Exhibit B: Prediction Fulfilled

In 1906, the philosopher William James gave a talk at Stanford University that was later published as “The Moral Equivalent of War.”

James observed that in spite of its obvious evils, war is part of our very nature:

“For most of the capacities of human heroism, we have to thank this cruel history … Modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror has no effect upon him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis.”

He warned that “the transition to a ‘pleasure-economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defense against its disintegrative influences.”

And he summarized what many people saw as the utility of war:

“Its horrors are a cheap price to pay for rescue from a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and [animal rights], of consumer’s leagues and associated charities, of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed. No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more! Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet! Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.”

Most college-educated Americans live in a pleasure economy. We see its “disintegrative influences” all around us. Our lives are bureaucratized and regulated. Our heroes are defamed. Our history is erased. Our culture is dissolved. We are coddled, but caged. Most of us wouldn’t know “the strong life” if it bit us on the ankle. And even if it did bite us, we’d sit and whine instead of fighting back.

Exhibit C: Utopia Depopulated

In 1968, scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) wanted to see what would happen to a population that was protected from all hardship and danger. As far back as Thomas Malthus, people expected that its size would increase indefinitely. As long as there was plenty of food, plenty of space, no disease, and no predators, there would be no limit to its growth. But was that really true?

The scientists couldn’t try it with people, so they used mice. They created a 71-square-foot living space, bounded by walls four feet high. The space had all the physical features that mice needed: nesting rooms, tunnels, and common areas. The scientists carefully controlled the temperature and air flow. From another laboratory, they got mice that were guaranteed disease-free. They started the experiment with four pairs of mice (male and female). Nothing much happened until the first litters were born. After that, the population exploded, doubling every 55 days. The graph at the beginning of this article shows the process.

But starting at day 315, a strange thing happened. The growth rate dropped from doubling every 55 days to doubling every 145 days. Many male mice withdrew from interaction with others, becoming sedentary except for occasionally fighting with other withdrawn males. Female mice became more aggressive, attacking other mice or even their own children, which at other times they abandoned.

Young mice, abandoned by male parents and abused or neglected by female parents, failed to socialize normally. They were unable to bond with other mice or to engage in courtship behavior that would have led to mating. Some of the male mice, which scientists dubbed “the beautiful ones,” never attempted normal mating but spent all their time eating, drinking, sleeping, and grooming themselves. By day 560, population growth stopped and the population then started to decline.

Withdrawn males. Aggressive females. Abused or abandoned children. “The beautiful ones.” Declining population. Does any of that sound familiar?

The scientists’ report concludes:

“Autistic-like creatures, capable only of the most simple behaviors compatible with physiological survival, emerge out of this process. Their spirit has died (‘the first death’). They are no longer capable of executing the more complex behaviors compatible with species survival. The species in such settings die.”

If the utopian mice had understood English, they might have agreed with William James’s warning that “a pleasure-economy may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defense against its disintegrative influences.”

Escape from Utopia

We are the mice. That’s clear. But we have one advantage over mice: we can think. Maybe we can think our way out of the lethal “utopia” in which we find ourselves.

William James believed we could find a “moral equivalent of war” that provided all of war’s benefits without its horror and destruction. One need not agree with all of James’s ideas to think that he was on to something:

“We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built … The only thing needed henceforward is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.”

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 19, 2018

Dear Bill Maher

Dear Bill,

Long-time fan, first-time fan letter. I was sure that I remembered seeing you in a funny detective show back in the 1980s, but I didn’t find it in your bio. I had also assumed that the late actor Joseph Maher was your father, but apparently that’s not true, either.

I disagree with a lot of your opinions, but you’re a smart guy and I think you’re pretty honest. For example:

  • You’ve defended the free speech of Alex Jones even though you think he’s an irresponsible loudmouth.
  • You’ve noted that there is more than one cake shop in Colorado.
  • You’ve said negative things about religion, but the details of your viewpoint are more nuanced than the sound bites suggest.

I realize that you’re a comedian who says provocative things for a living. You work in an industry where you can get denounced or blacklisted for even the slightest deviation from the party line.

But it bothers me that you so carelessly throw the T-word at the Trump administration:

“Why can’t we use that word ‘treason’? We’re under attack …”

Of course, by “we,” you probably mean identitarian Democrats and those who, like you, have at least $100 million in the bank. Most of us aren’t like that. And if you’re under attack, you seem to be doing pretty well in spite of it.

Let me tell you, Bill, “we” — that is, middle-class Americans — have been under attack for a long time. We’ve had our language policed, our institutions perverted, our history falsified, and our national symbols disdained. We’ve had our proudest achievements dismissed as ill-gotten results of “privilege.” We’ve been blamed for every misfortune that’s happened to anyone since the beginning of time. As a result, plenty of us have also started throwing the T-word at people who we think are destroying our country.

Justified or not, it’s unhelpful for any of us to start accusing other Americans of treason. That applies especially if it’s not justified, which it usually isn’t.

“Treason” is like a nuclear weapon of political rhetoric. It creates the same no-win scenario as real nuclear weapons: mutually assured destruction. As the military supercomputer W.O.P.R. warned in the 1983 movie “WarGames:”

“The only winning move is not to play.”

How can we ever cooperate or compromise with people who we’ve accused of treason? If we insist on such an extreme position, then either they must destroy us, or we must destroy them. There’s no middle ground. Some people want it that way, but I don’t believe you do. Neither do I.

Unless we want to burn America to ashes, all of us need to dial down the inflammatory accusations. Republican stalwart Pat Buchanan posed the key question this week:

“Can America ever come together again?”

I think that it can, but it will be difficult. Smart, honest people like you can take the lead. We can come together in a rational and peaceful society, but we have to be willing to do the work.

There’s a lot on which we already agree. There will also be points on which we can’t reach agreement. Just as nobody will ever convince the Hollywood crowd that abortion is wrong, nobody will ever convince mainstream Americans that people’s rights depend on the color of their skin. We all must learn how to live and let live, without trying to force our disputed beliefs on other people.

Here are two important points about which I’m sure we agree:

  • Human judgment is fallible. Mine is. Yours is. We’re not computers or passionless robots. Our emotions, peer groups, and preconceived ideas affect how we see the world. That applies no matter how intelligent or well-educated we are. Therefore, it behooves us to have some intellectual humility. Before we make grave judgments against other people, we should remember that we might be wrong. Let’s not blow up society based on nothing but prejudice and herd mentality.
  • Human emotions cloud our thinking. The more that we scream and call each other names, the harder it is for all of us to think clearly. If we want to solve our problems instead of making them worse, we need to calm down and try to calm other people down. Name-calling and inflammatory accusations do the opposite. They hurt instead of help.

I think that you’re mistaken about some things, but I don’t think you’re a bad person and I certainly don’t think you’re guilty of treason. That’s not tact, it’s just truth. And the same truth applies to most people.

Can you imagine that it applies to me, too, and to other people with whom you disagree? If so, then we can all work together to solve America’s problems.

Let’s give it a try. How about it?

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 15, 2018

The Spanish Inquisition: Back by Popular Demand

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” said Monty Python, the great British comedy troupe that the BBC now dismisses as unwanted “Oxbridge white blokes.”

In his book The Anatomy of Evil, psychiatrist Michael H. Stone reassures us that:

“There are no longer many people who endorse the goals of the Spanish Inquisition, claiming that its victims were the evil ones who got what they deserved.”

So the Oxbridge white blokes were right: Even today, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Unfortunately, plenty of people now endorse its claim that their victims are getting what they deserve.

Trump supporters “don’t deserve our empathy,” says a columnist for Salon.

Read the rest at American Greatness!

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 7, 2018

Neither to Praise Shakespeare Nor to Bury Him

It’s called “kin selection:” Evolution has programmed animals to help and cooperate with their genetic relatives (i.e., their kin).

Conversely, they tend to fight or flee their genetic competitors.

Kin selection applies to people, too. We are biological creatures who tend instinctively to help our genetic relatives and fight our genetic competitors.

But how do we decide who those people are?

We unconsciously look for the same cues as lower animals do: appearance, behavior, familiarity, and location. [1]

Why is it important?

Because it’s a major cause of social conflict, from racial or religious bias to war and mass murder.

We are intelligent beings, but not only that: we are also animals. Both intelligence and animal instincts affect how we feel, how we think, and how we behave.

Animals assume that other members of their species are genetic relatives if they:

  • Look like them,
  • Act like them,
  • Are familiar, or
  • Are in certain locations.

Humans use all of the same cues. Unlike lower animals, however, we also have language, culture, and history. Those affect our appearance and behavior, so they affect how we react to other people.

That came to mind when I recently wrote an article for the American Greatness website. In the article, I wrote:

“I come neither to praise Sarah Jeong nor to bury her.”

Most readers probably didn’t know the origin of that line. But to those who did know, it’s a powerful instinctive cue that they and I are genetic relatives. As a result, we will be inclined to help, trust, and cooperate with each other.

The line comes from William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar.” After a coup has assassinated Caesar — much like the unhinged fantasies of leftists about President Trump — Marc Antony gives a speech at Caesar’s funeral. He begins:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

The line in my article — “I come neither to praise Sarah Jeong nor to bury her” — reminds those readers of Shakespeare’s play, part of our shared literary heritage. In turn, Shakespeare’s play reminds them of the Roman Empire, of our shared Western history and civilization. Those resonate with us both intellectually, at the human level, and instinctively, at the animal level. They help promote social harmony and cooperation among the people who share them.

That’s why schools and universities have so completely failed to help create social peace and a good society.

Instead of teaching our shared heritage and civilization — the things that unite us — they teach crackpot theories of identity politics that sow division and hatred.

Every day, we see the tragic results of our failed educational system.


[1]: If you want details, see “Kinship and Altruism” in the book Behaviour and Evolution edited by P.J.B. Slater, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 4, 2018

Why Sarah Jeong Hates White People

Sarah Jeong, newly-hired member of The New York Times’s editorial board, hates white people.

And Christians.

And police officers.

And heterosexuals.

And men.

May God have mercy on any white, heterosexual, Christian male police officer who falls under the gaze of The New York Times. Because Sarah certainly won’t.

The fact of her obsessive hatred seems clear. The reasons for it are less clear.

I come neither to praise Sarah nor to bury her.

My goal is merely to explain her and the thousands of other angry, half-educated social climbers like her.

Sarah is not consciously evil. That requires intellectual and moral depth that she lacks. She is merely confused, self-interested, and insecure. She needs to see herself as a member of an “intellectual elite” because she doubts her own ability and personal worth. She hates white people because it’s the fashionable thing to do. If it were fashionable to hate black people or midgets, she’d do that instead.

The pleasure of hating

The root cause of Sarah’s hatred for white people isn’t new, trendy, or postmodernist. It’s been around as long as humanity. British social critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) summarized it in his essay “On the Pleasure of Hating:”

Read the rest at American Greatness!

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 29, 2018

How Does This End?

“How does this end?”

You need to ask that question.

Whether you’re a Trump-hater or Trump-lover, leftist or “Deplorable,” you need to ask it right now.

Because you’re hurting the very people and principles about which you claim to care.

If you’re a leftist

Leftists go first, but don’t worry. We’ll get to conservatives.

If you’re a leftist, you claim to care about the welfare of blacks, gays, women, and various “genders” too numerous to list.

Let’s talk about blacks. Compared to other ethnic groups, African-American unemployment is high and average wages are low. What do you think happens to American blacks when you bring in millions of Hispanics who compete for the same jobs? An increase in the supply of labor tends to decrease wages. More people competing for the same jobs means more black people will be unemployed, and even those who have jobs will make less money. You get a cheap nanny. Blacks get hurt.

What about gays? On average, American gays have slightly higher incomes and slightly higher IQs than straight white Americans. Gays are celebrated on television, in movies, and in news media. Anti-gay bias (real or imagined) is a career-ender in America. Do you know what they do to gays in Islamic countries? They terrorize them while they’re alive, and then they execute them. They throw them off the tops of tall buildings. They do the same to the gender-confused. And you want to bring more of those attitudes into the United States?

American women? They have more freedom than any other women in history. They drive. They vote. They hold political office. They’re welcome to do any job for which they have the ability. STEM fields are begging for more female applicants because not enough women are interested. And if any man hits a woman, everyone considers him a lowlife and a criminal.

Islamic countries think that feminism is insane and immoral. As left-leaning neuroscientist Sam Harris observed in Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, “under Islam, the central message is that women are second-class citizens and the property of the men in their lives.” And you want to bring more of those attitudes into the United States?

What about your own rights? America’s culture and legal system, at least what’s left of them, come mainly from the Western European Enlightenment and the British common law. If you were accused of a crime, would you like a right to trial by jury, and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty? Do you think you have rights that government shouldn’t violate? Do you think you should be able to criticize government officials without going to prison?

Then why are you determined to drown America under a tidal wave of people who don’t believe those things, from regions where they’ve grown accustomed to despotism? Where if a woman is raped and reports it, she is the one who gets punished? Why do you relentlessly slander America’s history, Founders, Constitution, morality, institutions, and legal traditions as a nonstop parade of horrors — when it’s those very things that gave you the freedom to do so?

If you’re a conservative

And you high-principled conservatives: Don’t sit there feeling smug. Now it’s your turn.

You claim to believe that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Relevant opinion polls are scarce, but it’s clear that a large number of people either no longer consent or never consented to the American form of government:

  • They do not consent to accept the results of elections unless their side wins.
  • They do not consent to law that applies equally to everyone regardless of race, sex, nationality, or religion.
  • They do not consent to tolerate opinions that disagree with their own.
  • They do not consent to any public expression of the Judeo-Christian tradition on which the country was founded.

The reasons are irrelevant. Some people are merely ignorant. Some have been brainwashed by universities to hate their own country and to believe that everything about it is evil. Some are migrants from barbaric regions who have never lived in freedom and don’t believe in it. And some are “Stalin’s grandchildren,” the biological or intellectual progeny of Marxists who have worked tirelessly since the 1930s to divide and weaken America from within. Ironically, they’re now doing it in the service of a Soviet empire that no longer exists.

I’ll tell you about a little experiment I did as an undergraduate student. I printed the U.S. Constitution’s first 10 Amendments (the Bill of Rights) and The Communist Manifesto’s 10 measures to transform a country’s economic and political system to Communism. Without identifying the sources, I polled other students about each list. More of them agreed with The Communist Manifesto than with the Bill of Rights.

Things are even worse now, as the rot in academia has eroded Americans’ knowledge of their own history and political ideals. And it’s not just knowledge: It’s our national character.

Conservatives claim to believe in the vision of the American Founders. De Montesquieu, whose book The Spirit of Laws influenced the Founders, observed that a nation’s government should be appropriate for its people. But is the American government appropriate for today’s population?

The American government and political system were designed for people who were self-reliant and proudly independent. Who took responsibility for their lives instead of blaming others. Who wanted an equal chance, not a guaranteed outcome. Who accepted life’s inevitable risks instead of trading their freedom for the false promise of a risk-free world. Who respected themselves and their history. Who despite their religious differences, accepted the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition as their shared foundation of life, morality, and government.

Those people still exist, but they’re no longer a majority. Too many people now believe that nothing is their fault. Instead, they blame racism, the patriarchy, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, arachnophobia, or cacomorphobia:

  • They believe that whatever they want is a Constitutional right, and that government should pay for it with other people’s money.
  • They believe that the purpose of government is to help them and hurt anyone they dislike.
  • They believe that “justice is the interest of the stronger party.”
  • They believe that words are violence and that physical violence is a legitimate response to disagreement.

Like it or not, a Constitutional American government is not appropriate for them.

The facts are what they are. In the short run, they’re not going to change. America can survive, but only confronting the truth instead of taking refuge in wishful thinking.

So how does this end?

Buckle up. There’s a rough road ahead.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 3, 2018

Why I Love America

I love America for two of the same reasons I love my father.

That fits, since the word “patriotism” comes from the Greek pátrios, meaning “of one’s father.”

The United States is definitely the country of my father. He fought for it in war and lived for it in peace. He was a physician, educator, writer, lecturer, and civic leader. He would have run as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, but my mother wisely refused to allow it. He was too honest to be a politician, and too frank to get elected in the first place.

But he wasn’t a perfect person. That leads to the second reason I love him — and America.

Like all people, including you and I, my father had flaws. He was a child of his time. He absorbed its prejudices. He sometimes made mistakes.

But I don’t love him for his flaws. I love him for what he did about his flaws.

If he thought that he’d been unfair or had done something wrong, he would move Heaven and Earth to correct the situation. Just like our country does.

America and Americans aren’t perfect. We have flaws. But when we think we’ve been unfair or have done something wrong, we start working to correct it.

That’s the true greatness of America. In spite of our flaws, we are a humble, conscientious, and generous people who try to do the right thing. We’re not perfect — that’s impossible — but we’re always trying to do better. Sometimes, we get played for suckers. But we don’t give up. We keep trying to do better.

Compared to an impossible standard of utopian perfection, you can find all kinds of things wrong with America. And lots of people do.

Compared to other real countries that suffer injustice Americans can’t even imagine, the United States always has been and still is one of the greatest countries in human history.

We don’t always get it right the first time. But if we don’t get it right, we fix it. And we move forward.

That’s America.That’s my father. And that’s why I love both of them.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 30, 2018

Unorthodox Wisdom from John Stuart Mill

For my website, I need a document file of Globalization and Culture, which was my 2001 Ph.D. dissertation in economics. I couldn’t find the original file, so I’m laboriously re-entering the text from my printed copy.

A quote from John Stuart Mill was inadequately footnoted, so I went looking for the source in his Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848. I had better luck that time. The book was right where I expected on my bookshelf.

Mill (1806-1873) is best known as the author of On Liberty (1859). He was also one of the great “classical” economists, along with Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and — yes, reallyKarl Marx. Some of Marx’s political and philosophical ideas were nuts, but his economic analysis was credible for its era. Brilliant, in fact. Whether or not it was true is a different question.

One of the central tenets of classical economics was the labor theory of value. It held that the prices of goods were determined mainly by how much labor it took to produce them. Supply and demand also affected prices, but mainly in the short run. A thing’s long-run “natural price” was determined by the quantity of labor required to make it.

Interestingly, contemporary (“neoclassical”) economics has a mirror image of the classical view. Instead of price being determined mainly by labor requirements but also affected by supply and demand, neoclassical economics argues that price is determined mainly by supply and demand, but can be affected by labor requirements. Instead of calling it the natural price like classical economists, they call it the equilibrium price. It’s kind of a “you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to” dispute.

The last of the 19th-century classical economists wasn’t Mill, however. It was John E. Cairnes (1823-1875), whose book Some Leading Principles of Political Economy (1874) is still worth reading.

But I digress.

While paging through Mill’s Principles of Political Economy to correct my footnote, I found a passage that’s strikingly relevant to the present day.

Our social orthodoxy seems to change every few months. Viewpoints considered mainstream last year can suddenly become hateful, bigoted, and forbidden this year. Orthodoxy changed more slowly before the Internet era, but as described by Mill, it changed in pretty much the same ways:

“It often happens that the universal belief of one age of mankind — a belief from which no one was, nor without an extraordinary effort of genius and courage, could at that time be free — becomes to a subsequent age so palpable an absurdity, that the only difficulty is to imagine how such a thing can ever have appeared credible.”

I won’t mention any current absurdities (:: cough :: gender :: cough ::), lest I be consigned to the outer darkness with Milo Yiannopoulos. But there are plenty of them. John Stuart Mill would probably find them amusing.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | February 4, 2018

When News Media Aren’t Exactly Corrupt

News-media

Are the news media corrupt?

Most people say “yes.”

Leftists point to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. Conservatives point to CNN and The New York Times.

They believe that such news outlets distort the facts and even lie about them.

Sometimes, that’s true. But there’s more to the story.

In the 1990s, I was a young newspaper reporter in Washington, DC. I was an accredited member of the U.S. House and Senate Press Galleries, covering Capitol Hill and several federal agencies. I saw from the inside how the news business works.

News versus opinion

Most people fail to make an important distinction. Editorial writers, columnists, and televised political commentators don’t report unbiased news. Usually, they don’t even pretend to do it. They’re arguing for their side of a debate.

If you read the editorial and op-ed pages of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, then you either know what you’re getting or you’re very naive. The same applies if you watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. You know that they’re “on your side” of the debate. You want to learn things that reinforce what you already believe. Facts are okay, but you’re mainly looking for reassurance that you’re right.

As a result, there’s nothing dishonest about editorials or commentators arguing their case — as long as they don’t flat-out lie and as long as the other side is free to argue its case. None of it is straight news.

News reporting is different

News reporting is held to a higher standard.

Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize is named, said that the three most important qualities of any news article were “accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy.”

My proudest claim as a reporter was this: That from reading my news articles, no one could discern what I personally believed about the subjects of the articles. I usually had opinions, but I kept them out of news writing. If I really wanted to argue a case, I wrote an opinion column.

It might surprise you to learn that a lot of other reporters felt the same way about their own work. They often agonized about how to present the news fairly and without bias. I attended several conferences about how to report the news professionally but truthfully. It’s not as easy as you might think.

News reporting vs. human nature

A big problem is that news reporters aren’t passionless robots. They’re fallible human beings. Despite their best efforts, human nature sometimes leads them astray.

One week when I was a reporter, there were rumors of a scandal at a certain federal department. In our daily staff meeting, the news editor asked if anyone could find out about it. I didn’t normally cover that department, but I had a friend who worked there. I volunteered to call him and ask about it.

When I called, he didn’t know anything about the rumors but he agreed to ask around. He later called back to explain that the “scandal” was just an acrimonious disagreement between two groups in the department. What he told me was “not for attribution,” which meant that I could quote him but not identify him by name.

We weren’t close friends, but I knew him fairly well. I knew his wife and children. He was a decent and honest guy. His explanation sounded reasonable, and I wanted to believe it. I checked around a little more, but I didn’t have any other good sources and I thought that I already knew the truth. So that’s what I reported in a news article.

It turned out that I was wrong. I misinformed my readers: unintentionally, to be sure, but I did.

After I called him, my friend probably went to his own boss to ask about the rumors. In turn, the boss probably asked his boss, who asked his boss, and they all agreed on what to tell the news media. That’s what they told my friend, and he relayed it to me.

The most dangerous media corruption

The most dangerous kind of media corruption doesn’t involve bribery, Russian hookers, or anything like that. It’s dangerous precisely because its origin is innocent. We want to believe in our friends. We want to believe that what’s good for them is also what’s true. We usually see the world in about the same way as they do: similar assumptions, moral beliefs, and feelings about political issues.

Now that news has become largely infotainment, there are plenty of dishonest reporters. Some less-experienced reporters probably have no idea of what “straight news” even is.

However, I’d bet that at least half of today’s biased news has a more innocent but equally harmful cause: Reporters are people. They know the people in the fields they cover. They believe their friends and they don’t want to hurt them. Even with the best intentions in the world, some biased reporting is impossible to avoid.

Getting a balanced perspective

As with buying sandwiches from street vendors, “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) is a good motto for reading the news.

If you want to know the truth and not just reinforce what you already believe:

  • Look at a variety of news outlets to get different perspectives. If you read Breitbart all the time, make a point of reading The New York Times. If you watch MSNBC, force yourself to watch some Fox News. Each will tell you things that the others omitted and will give you a different slant on the news. If you combine the opposing slants, they cancel each other out so you get a more accurate picture of what’s happening.
  • Don’t read only the headlines. The reporter doesn’t write the headline under which the article is published. Often, headlines give a misleading impression about what the articles say. Sometimes, they even contradict what the articles say.
  • Watch out for weasel words such as “alleged,” “might,” “possibly,” and “could.” Those are red flags, indicating a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. Anyone can “allege” anything, but that doesn’t make it true.
  • Watch out for anonymous sources. Sometimes, anonymous sources tell the truth. Other times, they lie under the cloak of anonymity. Treat all anonymous statements with skepticism, even — or especially — if they support “your side” of an argument.
  • Read the last few paragraphs. Biased reporters often “bury” inconvenient facts at the ends of articles. That way, people who only read the first few paragraphs get a false impression about what happened. Occasionally, less-biased reporters do it as well. If a scrupulous reporter knows that the editor is biased and won’t allow the mention of certain facts, he or she might bury them at the end, hoping that the editor won’t notice them. I’ve seen several articles like that in The New York Times.
  • Beware of accusations phrased as questions. Neither the question “Did Obama order illegal spying on the Trump campaign?” nor “Has Trump sided with Nazis?” tells you anything. They’re questions. But if you’re not paying much attention, your mind will convert them into beliefs that “Obama did” and “Trump has.” That’s why they work as propaganda. You’ll often see that trick used in headlines at the bottom of the screen on cable news shows.

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