Friday, March 23, 2018

No convivial socializing, no institutional memory

A few days ago I pointed out the hypocrisy of the New York Times in their contrasting reporting of the Obama campaign and Trump campaign for the same action - scraping data from Facebook. Studies in revealed preference - Masterminds versus exploiters.

This article explores the same theme but goes way beyond the headline, comparing the body of the respective reports. How Facebook Went From ‘Ideal Way’ to Reach Voters to Being ‘Weaponized’ by Elizabeth Harrington. Indeed.

If your reporting is determined by your politics, you are not much use. Find them both objectionable or find them both impressive, but at least maintain some honesty, integrity and consistency. Otherwise it is unreliable noise.

But reading that second article prompted a different line of thinking.

I have often argued that part of the challenge for the mainstream media is that they do not look like America. Effectively, they are all college educated, often from elite institutions. They are all from middle or upper middle class backgrounds. They all have middle or upper middle income careers. They are all registered Democrats. They disproportionately donate to political parties and the party to which they overwhelmingly give are the Democrats. They have no work experience other than in media. They live in one of half a dozen cities, unlike 80-90% of their fellow Americans. Those cities are single-party cities (Democrats) and have been for half a century of more. Those cities, in general, have higher crimes rates than anywhere else in America. Those cities have the highest levels of inequality. Those cities are demographically dissimilar to the rest of the nation. Those cities are disproportionately foreign immigrants. Those cities are substantially non-religious. Those cities are almost exclusively service sector with no agriculture, little manufacturing, etc.

If you are isolated in that tiny ideological and experiential bubble, it is no wonder that your reporting becomes distorted.

I think those are all true factors.

The new thought is a supplement and has more to do with the evolving history of the news media.

From the nineteen hundreds up until perhaps 1990, news media was a license to print money. There were originally a great plethora of papers, they made healthy profits, there were foreign bureaus, there were layers and layers of fact checkers and editors. With the internet, all that is gone. 85% of news comes from 5 organizations which are concentrated in a few cities. Advertising revenue has migrated online. Papers have consolidated and slimmed down and reduced their reporting. They have gotten rid of the fact checkers and the editors.

I am speculating about the following though. I would guess that the news media is like much of the rest of the economy. With the information superhighway, I am guessing that you no longer have the great bull pens of reporters. I am guessing that there is a greater reliance on cheap interns. That there are a lot more stringers. More employee churn. More people doing their reporting from the field or from home.

One of the old characterizations of Fleet Street in Britain and reporters in general worldwide, is that they were convivial and with a high degree of conviviality. You read memoirs of writers who worked at one time as reporters and there is a great prominence of pubs and bars and out-of-office socializing. My sense is that that has passed. With ad revenue collapsing, there is no capacity for such indulgences.

If all that is true, then there is a change in work structure that might also have an epistemic impact.

When you see an instance of a paper reporting the 2012 Obama campaign scraping Facebook data as brilliant and the 2016 Trump campaign doing the same thing as exploitive, it is easy to conclude that they are hypocrites. They are deliberately manipulating their readers. And to some degree that is probably true. They are seeing the world as they want it to be, not as how it is.

But perhaps something else has been happening in the past ten years that might be an additional cause? Perhaps they simply forgot that they had four years earlier reported it the other way.

Without the layers of fact-checkers, without the layers of editors, without the alcohol-facilitated loquacious socializing, without the peer network of longtime colleagues, perhaps they no longer have the mechanism to maintain some semblance of an institutional memory.

Organizations, any organizations, are complex information processing systems constituted ultimately of human relationships. Yes, there are information systems and reporting hierarchies but much of the cognitive heavy lifting depends on the affiliative networks of people. If you lose those networks, as I would argue has likely happened with news media, you lose creativity and memory.

So, perhaps, part of what looks like hypocrisy is simply a function of the loss of cognitive processing arising from changed work practices.


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