Are you as sick of the “news” as I am?
I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that most of us have become pretty skeptical towards journalists, and journalism in general. In fact, as I wrote that, I had to resist the urge to write the word journalism in quotes—that’s how snarky I’ve become.
I feel like I’ve developed a pretty good ability to almost subconsciously weed through biases and half-truths in order to get to the meat and potatoes of a news story—to sift out the pertinent information without really seeing all the partisan junk. But even in spite of how much we all know about the serious decline in honest journalism there are still things that take me off guard and just shock me at how blatantly bad the media has become at being impartial and honest.
Case in point: this article from The Atlantic that named “anonymous sources” in a story about President Trump supposedly saying terrible things about service members who had served and died in combat.
When President Donald Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, he blamed rain for the last-minute decision, saying that “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. Neither claim was true.
Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.
Look, I’m not saying that Trump did or didn’t say these things, and I don’t think it would be entirely out of the realm of possibility for him to want to protect his hair from an unflattering gust of wind. But this is the sitting president of the United States, and these are pretty awful things that he’s being accused of saying and doing—you would think that in order for this story to get air time there would be at least some validation of the claims being leveled?
Are we really just at a place now where major magazines can say whatever they want so long as they attach “according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day…” somewhere? It also struck me as weird that the whole thing supposedly happened four years ago. The article really just seems like a totally unsubstantiated hit piece, slapped together with the sole purpose being to make Trump look really terrible.
The thing is—it worked! This story got plastered everywhere, and nothing anyone could say would change people’s minds about it.
Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist or anything, but the great Pelosi “Maskless Salon Setup” sure disappeared quick when this “story” broke.
In another example of totally lax standards, we’ve got this article—which got a ton of playtime from everyone from Fox News to MSNBC—blaming the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, SD last month for “super-spreading” the COVID-19 virus to as many as 266,796 people. The headline is shocking and makes the claim that the 450,000 bikers who attended the ten-day event are directly responsible for over a quarter of a million COVID cases and up to $12 billion in healthcare costs.
Those are stunning numbers! Until you actually look at the study (which the article says is unclear if it has been peer reviewed or not—whatever that means) and learn that the whole thing is just based on worst-case-scenario modeling relying heavily on “could” and “might” and cell phone tower pings. And not much more.
Modeling that paints a worst-case-scenario without actual scientific backing—now where have we seen that before? It seems so familiar.
Thankfully, some smart folks over at Reason decided to do some fact-checking and put out a counter piece to the Sturgis story. They drew some pretty important conclusions, but first they addressed the claims made by various networks and publications:
“Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was a ‘superspreading event’ that cost public health $12.2 billion,” tweeted The Hill.
“The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held in South Dakota last month may have caused 250,000 new coronavirus cases,” said NBC News.
“The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally represents a situation where many of the ‘worst-case scenarios’ for superspreading occurred simultaneously,” the researchers write in the new paper, titled “The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19.
“Indeed, these types of headlines ran everywhere, and unfortunately, most people didn’t get too far past the headlines before assuming that those “selfish” bikers had literally caused harm to hundreds of thousands of people because of their flagrant disregard for public health and their responsibility to “do their part” in keeping “us” safe.
But when you look at what the study actually found, things look a lot different:
To get to the astronomical number of cases allegedly spread because of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the researchers analyzed “anonymized cellphone data to track the smartphone pings from non-residents and movement of those before and after the event,” notes Newsweek. “The study then linked those who attended and traveled back to their home states, and compared changes in coronavirus trends after the rally’s conclusion.”
Essentially, the researchers assumed that new spikes in cases in areas where people went post-rally must have been caused by those rally attendees, despite there being no particular evidence that this was the case. The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, failed to account for simultaneous happenings—like schools in South Dakota reopening, among other things—that could have contributed to coronavirus spread in some of the studied areas.
The researchers also assumed a $46,000 price tag for each person infected to calculate the $12.2 billion public health cost of the event—but this figure would only make sense if every person had a severe case requiring hospitalization.
South Dakota resident and epidemiologist Joshua Clayton said that, the results of the IZA paper “do not align with what we know,” and what we know looks more like this:
According to South Dakota health officials, 124 new cases in the state—including one fatal case—were directly linked to the rally. Overall, COVID-19 cases linked to the Sturgis rally were reported in 11 states as of September 2, to a tune of at least 260 new cases, according to The Washington Post.
Now, it can be argued that even one death is too many deaths. It can also be argued that people should be free to choose to move about the country and live their lives assuming risk as they see fit. There are also about a thousand arguments in between, and I have no doubt they are being made in forums and threads all over the country as I type.
But the example in both of these stories—Trump’s remarks about war-dead, and the alleged Sturgis rally super-spread—of lax standards of truth, with a seeming panache for the dramatic and scandalous, is something I find pretty unsettling. I have seen first-hand how successful the media and politicians have been in manipulating young people into believing things about the world that simply aren’t true.
See the shocking rise in the popularity of socialism and communism as an example.
When we can’t count on journalists to tell the truth, or scientists to operate scientifically, what can we do to help keep our kids from being manipulated and used by the power-hungry elites and their seemingly endless mechanisms of propaganda?
I think the simplest answer also happens to be the most likely to prove hugely successful. We can teach them to think for themselves.
One of the things I hear a lot about the Tuttle Twins books is that people find it a little unbelievable that Ethan and Emily are allowed to make such important decisions and handle as many of their problems on their own as they are. Some people think it’s a little crazy to trust kids to figure things out to the extent that Mr. and Mrs. Tuttle trust theirs, but I don’t think it’s crazy or unbelievable at all! I believe that kids are capable of understanding and solving really complex problems, and that often all they need is the ability to discern for themselves truth from fiction and to trust their own moral compass.
Our books teach kids that they need to learn the way the world works for themselves and that they should never just blindly follow what someone else says or does. I think if we can arm the next generation with a healthy distrust of government, and an equally healthy spirit of self-reliance, then they will have in their arsenal powerful tools to protect them from the lies and manipulations of those in positions of authority and influence.
I don’t think media is going to become any more trustworthy or honest than it is now—in fact I suspect it will just continue to get worse—but I think that our kids can do a lot better than previous generations at learning to spot propaganda and rejecting it before it can be used to stoke fear, limit freedom, or cause them to see their fellowman as an enemy.
All they need from us is encouragement to trust themselves to know what’s right, and what’s wrong, and to question things and reason them out for themselves.
And maybe reading a dozen or so Tuttle Twins books can help, too 😉