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Over the past couple of weeks we witnessed the collapse of Empire star Jussie Smollett’s story that he’d been attacked by two white racist Donald Trump supporters on a Chicago street. Smollett’s allegations swept through Twitter like a wild fire leading media and politicians to lend their own statements of condemnation, with several prominent Democratic presidential candidates terming the alleged attack on Smollett a modern day lynching.
Now that Smollett has been charged with a felony for paying two black Nigerian men — via check! — to “attack” him in an effort to garner higher pay on his show, the narrative arc of this story has changed tremendously. Yet the timeline represents a troubling failure, which seems to be occurring more and more often.
How can we help to make stories like these less common?
Over the past week I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this story in conjunction with another recent viral sensation that turned out to be false — the Covington Catholic High School kids who were labeled racists on social media for having the temerity to wear Make America Great Again hats on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a school field trip.
The connecting fabric here, I believe, is a desire by many on social media — and in the media which increasingly follows social media’s lead — to turn being a Trump supporter, particularly a white male Trump supporter, into a default proxy for racism. That default proxy for racism — some might say even a desire for racism — leads many to surge right past the skepticism that should greet any allegation of wrongdoing, no matter who the alleged perpetrator is.
So over the past week I drafted a list of ten commandments for media and politicians in a modern social media age. I did this on what counts as a social media vacation for me, while I was in Mexico with my family.
I’m not doing this as some sort of jeremiad against social media. I have been on Twitter for almost ten years now and it has been incredibly valuable for my career advancement and personal exposure to a wide variety of stories and people I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.
Ten years ago when I opened my Twitter account in June of 2009 I was about to release my second book, “On Rocky Top.” At the time I was making $25,000 a year writing columns for FanHouse.com. I was thirty years old and I’d been in sports media for five years, advancing from writing articles for free to making six figures as an editor of Deadspin. But when I left Deadspin the only writing job I could find in 2009 would pay me $25,000 a year.
When I opened my Twitter account in June of 2009 I was unsure whether or not I’d be able to ever make a living in sports media and I was on pace to make much less than my wife who worked full time as a guidance counselor at a public school.
Indeed, with a young baby at home, law school loans and a mortgage hanging over my head, the perception of my success — he’s written two books! — far exceeded my actual financial success.
I took to Twitter instantly, immediately recognizing that it lowered my distribution costs when it came to sharing my opinions far and wide. Indeed, I wrote a euphoric piece about Twitter’s potential for sports media members in 20 and much of what I wrote there has proven to be true.
What’s more, Twitter has been incredibly valuable for my own career advancement. Without Twitter I don’t know that I would have ever founded this website, become a local and then national radio voice, and grown to do daily television as well.
Twitter exposed my opinions to large segments of the population who might not otherwise have known I existed. It also made me friends with people I’d have never known otherwise. (I met Todd Fuhrman, who I now do a daily TV show with, on Twitter in 2011 when he slid into my DMs to say he liked Dixieland Delight, my first book).
I am “good” at Twitter.
But being good at Twitter comes with a price.
Namely, it takes a lot of time.
I didn’t really know how much time until I started paying attention to my iPhone’s screen time component early in 2019. The results have been eye opening.
I spend an average of eight hours a day on my phone and the vast majority of that time is spent on Twitter. (And that’s probably less than I was spending in 2018 when I decided to stop reading most of my mentions because they’d become impossible to keep up with.)
And that’s just time spent on my phone.
It doesn’t count the amount of time I spend online on a laptop, such as right now while I’m writing this column or last year while I was writing a book, that eight hours just represents time I spent on my phone.
Adding up the three daily hours of radio I do — 15 hours total — and the five daily hours of live television, not to mention the half hour daily I do on Periscope and Facebook and the live radio hits I do weekly around the country and I’m spending eighty hours a week immersed in live media every single day.
While my daily and weekly media immersion may be more than most, I don’t think it’s atypical for people working in media — or certainly politics today.
Twitter is our drug of choice, a minute by minute shot directly into our veins.
Much has been written about bad actors on social media — bots and foreign governments, for instance — but what about the native failures in the Jussie Smollett and Covington Catholic stories?
Could these failures have been avoided? And if so, how?
Here’s my answer — my ten commandments of 2019 social media in an age of Trump.
Let’s dive in:
1. Don’t treat allegations as facts.
Especially when, and this is key, the person alleging something stands to gain personally based on making the allegation.
We have created a society where victims become wealthy based on their victimization. (This is one of the great flaws of our society and probably deserves its own book.) But the key here is alleging that you’re a victim often leads to great personal enrichment.
That is, there’s a clear personal motive for stories to be faked in our modern era and it’s the motive that very often has characterized misbehavior throughout history — money.
When the Jossie Smollett story first emerged, my initial first thought upon hearing his allegations that he’d been a victim based on his race and gender was, “Wow, this is the best thing that could ever happen to his career.”
Now maybe I’m a cynic and I certainly am a skeptic, but I swear that was my very first thought.
If two racists had truly attacked him on the street, put a noose over his head, poured bleach on him, and denigrated his race and sexuality, he’d stand to make millions and millions of dollars more as a famous victim.
Now that doesn’t mean what Smollett didn’t happen, but if you hear a story that sounds unbelievable and it stands to make someone much more wealthy, shouldn’t we all be skeptical?
Put it this way, if your buddy called you up and said, “Hey, guess what, I went to Subway late last night to get a sandwich and on the way home I ended up having a threesome with two Victoria’s Secret supermodels. They just saw me walking on the street and said, “We have to have sex with you right now because you are so hot! And then it happened and now they are going to give me a million dollars because they said I was so good at sex!”
Would you be like, “Congrats! That’s so awesome!”
Or would you assume he was lying and that the single best thing that could have happened to him — maybe I’m telling on myself here by assuming the greatest thing that could happen to someone would be getting paid a million dollars to have a threesome with two supermodels, but just play along — didn’t just happen while he was walking down the street coming back from Subway in the middle of the night?
Smollett’s story wasn’t just absurd and ridiculous, it was so absurd and ridiculous that anyone with a scintilla of intelligence should have hit the pause button.
But that didn’t happen.
The media just ran with it because — and this will be discussed below — they wanted it to be true because it confirmed their worldview.
While Jussie Smollett’s planning of this crime seems incredibly dumb — he paid his “attackers” via personal check and turned over his cell phone records to police with phone calls made to his “attackers” marked out allowing police to focus on these numbers when they obtained his phone records from the cell phone company via warrant — he was intelligent enough to understand that manufacturing a hate crime was beneficial to his career and that the media would believe him when he made those allegations. He intentionally exploited a media bias that would favor him — a gay black man — at the expense of two white male Trump supporters he made up.
That’s why he did it twice — first writing a threatening letter to himself — which he was disappointed didn’t receive enough media attention — and then staging the attack.
In other words, this racial and homophobic attack was so good for his career, he attacked himself twice!
All media, and politicians, should be skeptical of all allegations and never, and I mean ever, move from an allegation being made to assuming that allegation is true and discussing the implications of the allegation before we ever know if something happened at all.
But, and this is where Smollett played the media like a fiddle, there’s so much air time to fill on television that allegations are being embraced as truth all day long every day on television networks across the country.
Just watch this Smollett coverage compilation.
Montage of mainstream media spreading fake news that #JussieSmollett was attacked by white men in MAGA hats. pic.twitter.com/1RV7YFtIQt
— Mark Dice (@MarkDice) February 17, 2019
Yes, Brooke Baldwin, the same woman who got me banned from CNN for saying I like boobs and the first amendment, not surprisingly, is one of the flagrant failures in this clip.
So my first commandment would be this — never allow an allegation to become accepted as a fact.
2. Don’t use race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity as evidence of truthfulness.
Jussie Smollett knew that being gay and black gave him two checkmarks on the pyramid of victimization. The more checkmarks on the pyramid of victimization you have, the less likely the mainstream media is to question your story in the modern era. Why? Because if you question someone too high on the pyramid of victimization then you get accused of racism or sexism or homophobia, which can end your media career.
The media should treat everyone the same, but that doesn’t actually happen.
Imagine this scenario, what if Sean Hannity had said as he walked home from a late night trip to Subway that two black men in Obama hats attacked him, threw bleach on him, put a chain around his neck to symbolize hundreds of years of oppression and screamed, “This is still Obama’s America you straight white man!”
Would anyone in the media have believed Hannity if he called police and they showed up to question him while he was still wearing a heavy chain around his neck and was covered in scratches and bruises?
Furthermore, I don’t even think Hannity would stand to gain much from this attack because white men don’t rank high enough on the pyramid of victimization. In fact, if this actually happened to him and he wasn’t seriously injured, I’d be inclined to tell Hannity just to say nothing about the attack because it would only hurt his career because many would immediately accuse him of racism for saying he’d been attacked by two black men, even if it happened.
Think about this for a moment, if what Jussie Smollett alleged happened to Sean Hannity, except the races were reversed, and he reported it, even if it was all true, it would probably hurt Hannity’s career.
Because do you know what many in the media would say? Well, Hannity’s show and Trump’s America left these black men feeling that their only option was to lash out at a powerful white man.
Seriously, you know this is true.
Hell, if Jussie Smollett had been a gay, transgender, Muslim, black man/woman, he probably would have been awarded an ESPY for courage even if his story was 100% made up.
Why would he get the ESPY for courage?
Because while Jussie wasn’t actually a victim, his made up story let us know that someone who was gay and black could, at some point in time, have been a victim of a crime based on the fact that he was gay and black, and we shouldn’t overlook that fact.
Again, the key lesson here is straightforward — don’t treat an allegation differently based on the race, sex, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity of the accuser.
And if you have trouble doing this, just imagine the media person you hate the most had made the same allegation. What would your reaction be then?
Believing someone based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity isn’t justice at all.
In fact, this is the exact same thing as not believing someone is telling the truth because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
A bias in favor of someone based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity is still a bias and it’s just as likely to lead to a failure in news as a bias against someone based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
Progressives love to argue they’re on the right side of history, but when they argue in favor of someone based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity, they’re exhibiting the same bias that led to Emmett Till’s lynching, just in reverse.
I’m pretty sure this means they’re actually on the wrong side of history.
3. Spend less time on social media and don’t allow social media to direct your stories.
I spend eight hours a day on my phone.
My goal by the end of 2019 is to spend four hours a day on my phone.
That would free up an extra 28 hours a week for me.
That’s a personal goal, but a larger goal I think that should be followed is this — don’t allow social media to dictate your news decisions.
It used to be newspaper editors and television network heads trusted their own instincts when it came to news. Then, amazingly, they allowed whatever is trending on Twitter to drive their coverage. But Twitter is a small subset of the overall population and its obsessions often don’t reflect real life.
Most normal people aren’t obsessed with Twitter, but the media and politicians are because as a group we’re all narcissists and the more people talk about us the more we love it, even if what is being said is often venal, mean spirited and flat our wrong.
This is also, no surprise, why Donald Trump, our narcissist in chief, loves the medium as well.
Read this great piece from a Democratic member of governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration about New York City losing 25,000 jobs. It’s a phenomenal read and there are many great and important lines in here, but this one looms large given what I’m writing today:
“They were all for it (Amazon bringing 25,000 jobs to New York City) before Twitter convinced them to be against it.”
A tiny minority of vocal activists, many of them paid to do so, managed to scuttle the biggest and best deal for job creation in the history of New York City even though 70% of the public supported the deal.
Then comes this devastating over the top statement:
“The polls showing seventy percent of New Yorkers supported Amazon provided false comfort that the political process would act responsibly and on behalf of all of their constituents, not just the vocal minority. We underestimated the effect of the opposition’s distortions and overestimated the intelligence and integrity of local elected officials.”
Again, I don’t see this as particularly partisan, Twitter often makes things worse, not better. That’s because Twitter runs on feelings, not facts.
I’m a Twitter shareholder, but if all of us spent less time on the medium, there is becoming increasing evidence that we’d all be better off.
4. Assume most people aren’t evil, even white men who support Donald Trump.
If the Covington Catholic kid in the viral video — the one now suing the Washington Post for $250 million based on what he says was their false and inaccurate reporting — had been black and wearing a Barack Obama hat when the Native American drummer approached him as the kids did school chants, would this video story have ever taken off on social media?
Of course not.
The reason why the Covington Catholic story existed is because the kid was white and wearing a Make America Great Again Hat.
That’s the entire basis for why that story went viral.
The story was predicated on the belief that this high school kid was an evil racist because of what he looked like, which is the very essence of stereotyping and racism.
In fact, the same “progressive” people screaming this white high school kid was evil and racist, would be aghast if a video of a black kid in high school was selectively edited to make he and his classmates all look bad.
So if it would be racist to do this to a black high school kid, how is it not racist to do it to a white high school kid?
The only way this story happens is because of a racist stereotype, this time with a white kid as the villain.
Which is why I’ve got a crazy idea, what if we worked from the assumption that everyone in every thirty second viral video isn’t evil and racist?
Don’t you think that’s likely to lead to better journalism? If the story just so happens to confirm every world view you have, maybe, just possibly, you should be skeptical of it?
5. Consider this thesis, even if it challenges your worldview: the demand for overt white racism against black people exceeds the supply of overt white racism against black people.
In sports Michael Bennett made up racist allegations against the Las Vegas police and I believe LeBron James or someone in his camp of employees made up an allegation that a racial slur had been scrawled on his home as well. (It’ s been nearly two years since LeBron’s racist graffiti story. The Los Angeles police quietly closed the story, finding no evidence it had ever occurred, making LeBron’s story a much less public version of Smollett’s lies.)
Jussie Smollett clearly made up his story of white racism.
A recent viral story in Houston about a white man shooting a young black girl collapsed when it turned out the shooter was actually black. (Sadly, as soon as a perpetrator of black violence is determined to be black, the story disappears because black on black violence is so commonplace).
Social media is desperate to find white racist villains and innocent black victims.
That’s the only racism that’s covered in this country. Every other form of racism that exists — Hispanic on black, black on white, Asian on Hispanic, you name it in our polyglot society — all of it is ignored in favor of this tried and true historical racism.
Yet, and this is a credit to the country rather than a condemnation, the number of instances of white racists perpetrating crimes against innocent black victims is infinitesimally tiny and becoming smaller every year. From a statistical perspective innocent white people are much more likely to be victims of black people than vice versa.
I’m not saying white on black racism doesn’t exist — it still occurs, rarely, but it still occurs — but I’m saying the media demand for that type of racism is far higher than it’s occurrence, the demand far exceeds the supply.
So why is there a demand for it?
Three reasons: a. because being a victim pays well b. it gets click, which means it pays well for both the media and the victim c. it gives other white people a chance to condemn white people, which is basically the national past time of media elites in this country.
6. Stop making “statements of condemnation” a storyline in media and politics.
People do bad things all the time in this country.
That’s unfortunate. I wish there was no crime, but it’s important to note that from a historical basis, we are far safer in 2019 America than we were in 1959 or 1969 or 1989 or 1999 America.
Do most people understand that fact?
I don’t think so because the media focuses so much on negativity that we miss the positivity. Something going wrong is a lead story, something going right isn’t. Intermittent social progress requires a million steps in the right direction, one bad actor stepping in the wrong direction requires just a single step. We cover the outlier, not the trend.
Demanding politicians immediately comment on every viral allegation of bad things that happens in this country sets the precedent that politicians and media figures need to weigh in on stories before we know all the facts.
Many people then assume that when an important figure condemns an act it means that act actually happened, conflating the distinction between an allegation and a criminal act.
This is made even worse when media stories focus on the fact that a particular figure, media or political, hasn’t issued a statement of condemnation yet.
Do we really need politicians to condemn bad acts? Shouldn’t we be smart enough to assume our leaders aren’t rooting for awful things to happen to innocent people?
Rather than feel compelled to call the Jossie Smollett case a “modern day lynching” wouldn’t it have been far more preferable if our politicians had simply said. “That’s a serious allegation which demands a serious investigation, but rather than comment on this case I’m going to wait for the facts.”
That used to be commonplace in our society, a willingness to wait for all the facts before we rendered judgment.
Social media has made this much less common.
Rather than denigrate a politician for “not acting” or “not commenting” on an allegation, the media should abandon this line of storytelling completely when allegations of criminality are made.
And if they are asked, even if its tempting to believe them, every politician should say a version of what I said above.
This isn’t just a hectoring for politicians either. All of us, myself included, can do a better job of not leaping to conclusions based on allegations.
7. Spend less time on “gotcha” journalism.
There’s a strong argument, I believe, that Watergate set an awful precedent for journalists in our country — the idea that the president was a conniving liar and we needed journalists to be crusading heroes intent on bringing down powerful figures.
As a result of Watergate, every journalist’s wet dream is that they get the story that topples a president.
But is that really healthy for American democracy? Should journalists really be dreaming of overturning the verdicts of hundreds of millions of voters?
Journalists have covered presidents for hundreds of years and we’ve had one president toppled by scandal in our nation’s history.
As a general rule elections should decide presidents, not media investigations into presidents. (A reasoned voter should certainly consider these stories in a vote, but I don’t believe an unelected journalist should dream of tearing down an elected president).
In a post-Watergate era we’ve appended the word -gate to every presidential scandal for the past forty years and in doing so I think we’ve driven many good and decent people from political service. And have any of these scandal stories really mattered in the grand scheme of things? All that seems to have occurred, to me, is we’ve torn down respect for the press and the president, creating a mutual antipathy that has further degraded trust in everything in American society.
The natural outgrowth of Watergate is the war between Donald Trump and the media, which is the primary motif, I believe, more than any other, that has characterized Trump’s presidency.
This war between president and press, unsurprisingly, plays out on Twitter, which is the preferred medium of both the president and the people who cover him, all of whom are narcissists seeking the constant approval of strangers.
Journalists love to trumpet Donald Trump’s approval ratings as president, but what they neglect is their own approval ratings, which have tanked even worse than the president’s.
Maybe assuming that everyone is awful actually just guarantees that most of the American public think you’re both awful instead.
Finally, on this point, I do think the Virginia governor story is actually a fascinating one and I’m glad the Democrat didn’t resign from office when an offensive high school yearbook photo emerged because, and I think this probably deserves a full column on its own, we have to stop allowing one bad moment to erase decades of good moments.
We are all much more than our worst moment.
The entire premise of “gotcha” journalism is that we should all be held hostage by our worst moments. Worse than that, the entire premise is predicated on the idea that you are perpetually frozen in amber, the same person you were who did whatever bad act is being replayed over and over again.
And it’s not just politicians either!
Whether you’re “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn, Roseanne, or Kevin Hart, there’s a perpetual quest to find a flaw in someone’s past that disqualifies them from doing what they do now.
I just fundamentally reject the entire premise of gotcha journalism, and I think the majority of the American public is coming to agree with me as well.
Gotcha journalism is broken and it no longer works for our country.
8. Precedent matters in politics and media.
Yet there is very little coverage of precedent in journalism, media, and politics.
I think that’s unfortunate because I believe precedent is the single most valuable asset a public figure like me has in American public life. We should expect our elected officials and our prominent media figures to treat like situations in a like manner.
Otherwise how can we predict how they will respond in the future?
I believe the best way to predict future behavior is by using past actions a guide.
This is, not surprisingly, the entire basis for the American justice system, the concept of using past rulings, aka precedents, to set forth expected outcomes in the future.
When I state an opinion on this website or on my radio show, I’m trying to maintain a set of guiding principles. I want the logic of one opinion to apply to the logic of future opinions. I want, in other words, for precedent to matter when I talk to my audience.
What I’m trying to share with my audience every day is my perspective on the issues in the country, sports, politics, media, business, on anything under the sun. If I fail to follow the precedents of my prior opinions, how could I expect you to trust my opinions? Even worse, how could I trust my own opinions?
I spend lots of time thinking about this.
And, no, I’m not talking about who wins a game in sports or whether a dynasty is dead or not, I’m talking about big issues that actually matter in the country.
I want my precedents to fit together and make logical sense and I’m confident, for the most part, that they do. If someone went back and read the millions of words I’ve written on the Internet, I think they’d find a logical and coherent series of opinions I’ve produced.
I’d like for the politicians I vote for and the media I watch to do the same.
Yet the media, which loves to hold public figures to account, spends almost no time actually doing this.
Let me give you an example, the precedent the Democrats set during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing was this one — if a woman makes a single accusation of sexual impropriety, even absent a single corroborating fact and even if that allegation is from decades ago when the man was a minor, then a man isn’t entitled to hold a prominent job in this country as an adult.
I disagreed with that precedent because I don’t believe allegations are facts.
Yet the scary precedent the Democrats adopted in the Brett Kavanaugh case would hold otherwise.
Well now the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Justin Fairfax, has been accused of sexual assault by two women and Democrats aren’t removing him from office. Why aren’t they removing him from office? Because they are saying these are just allegations.
Well, do you believe all women or not? Because when Brett Kavanaugh was accused of groping a woman at a high school party when he was a minor — something that wouldn’t have been a crime then or now — you said that should disqualify him from being a Supreme Court justice nearly forty years later, but when a black man was accused of actual sexual assault by multiple black women — two different crimes — you abandoned your Kavanaugh precedent.
What’s happened here is the pyramid of victimization is in play in the media. The black lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, is accused of sexual assault against two black women. So who is more oppressed here, the high-ranking black man whose sexual history is being challenged or the black women who are being victimized by a powerful man? Democrats have no idea how to respond here. Their entire world view is predicated on white men as oppressors. When a white man isn’t an oppressor, their precedent collapses.
Shouldn’t every politician who believed Kavanaugh’s accuser and now is willing to allow Fairfax to remain in office despite more serious allegations have this hypocrisy exposed? Yet why isn’t that occurring? Because the media isn’t doing its job.
The precedent should matter here.
All precedents matter because they give all of us — regardless of our race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity — an equal understanding of the expectations of the law.
For those who are new readers, I don’t believe Kavanaugh or Fairfax should be disqualified from holding an office based on allegations, but the soundness of my opinion is buttressed by thinking about how that same opinion might look in a future where I’m forced to apply the same precedents over and over again.
It isn’t influenced by the facts of a particular case or a particular accused, it applies evenly across the board, regardless of the identity of the accuser or the accused.
Anyone who demanded that Kavanaugh shouldn’t be a supreme court justice should be losing his or her mind over Fairfax remaining a lieutenant governor, yet that doesn’t seem to be happening. And worse the media seems fine with that not happening. (Anyone who argued Kavanaugh should be a supreme court justice and Fairfax shouldn’t be a lieutenant governor should also be criticized, but I haven’t seen anyone making that argument).
Shouldn’t we expect the most prominent members of our society to uphold their same precedents no matter the circumstances of one’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity?
If the media wants to adopt an antagonistic posture, this is where that antagonism should come into play.
9. Distinguish more clearly between facts and opinion.
For a long time facts paid more than opinion in news, now opinion pays far more than facts.
This is a fundamental shift in the media business which has been accelerated by social media. Think back to when you were younger, who had the news story first mattered a great deal. If you broke a news story in your paper and someone else didn’t have it, you were rewarded with a higher salary and your paper was rewarded with more readership and ad dollars.
Now what matters isn’t who breaks a story — Twitter and Facebook immediately commodify all news making the value much less substantial — it’s who has the most interesting analysis about what that news means.
Sports journalism is almost entirely opinion-based now.
That is, we all know what happened in the games because most of us have seen the games or the highlights, very little time is spent explaining what happened in a game or just giving scores.
It’s almost all opinion about what happened in the games.
We can use facts from those games — yards passing, points scored — to support our opinions, but the foundation of any opinion has to be facts. Sports opinions, by and large, don’t matter that much, but fans are able, I believe, to distinguish between the two fairly easily.
I don’t give my opinion on who won the Super Bowl — who won the Super Bowl is a fact — I give my opinion on why the team that won did win.
But, and this is key, news has come to mirror sports — almost all of our “news” at least that which rates very highly, isn’t actually news, it’s opinions about the news.
That’s fine, but most of the public doesn’t understand that distinction.
It’s become increasingly hard to tell what is factual and what is opinion.
And that becomes truly troublesome when news conflates with opinion, as we saw in the Jussie Smollett and Covington Catholic cases. Many believed the case was settled long before it was. (To be fair the case won’t be truly settled until the trial, but most of the facts of the case appear to be public now, allowing reasonable consumers of the news to have fairly valid opinions on what took place).
Which leads us into my final commandment.
10. Don’t turn individual stories into evidence that supports your worldview.
We all respond to stories better than we do a dry recitation of facts.
But we need to make sure that our stories aren’t crazy outliers, disconnected from underlying facts and not representative of larger dangers.
For instance, let me give you an example, last year opioids killed over 70,000 people in this country. Telling the story of one opioid death to help elucidate the larger issue of opioid deaths in this country is a great way to jump into a larger context story.
When 70,000 people die, it’s hard for us to process that kind of number, so sharing us one particular story makes it vivid.
But that type of anecdotal storytelling — using one instance to demonstrate a larger issue doesn’t work when something is already statistically improbable.
Let me give you an example.
Sharks killed five people worldwide in 2018.
Yet I bet you all heard about these five deaths. That’s fine, a shark attack death is a story, but it isn’t a story reflecting a representative danger for all of society.
Writing about a shark death is fine, using that shark death to argue that all of us are going to die from shark attacks, isn’t.
When you consider that a billion people, at least, probably entered the oceans in 2018, your chances of being killed by a shark were very nearly zero.
In fact, only one person was killed by a shark in America last year.
What Smollett and Covington Catholic have in common, I believe, is an attempt to justify a world view no matter what the facts reflect.
In both cases the opinion — white male Trump supporters are often awful racists — was used as evidence to support the allegations before there were any actual facts to support the allegation.
When the media looks for evidence to support the opinions that the media already has — to confirm the biases of an existing worldview — you have created the recipe for an absolute reporting disaster — a scary place where facts don’t matter at all and bias can be exploited on a seismic basis.
What kind of place is that?
It’s social media in 2019.
If you liked this column, you’ll probably like my most recent book, “Republicans Buy Sneakers Too,” which you can buy here.