The Media very rarely lies

Sunday, January 1st, 2023

The Media very rarely lies, Scott Alexander argues:

With a title like that, obviously I will be making a nitpicky technical point. I’ll start by making the point, then explain why I think it matters.

The point is: the media rarely lies explicitly and directly. Reporters rarely say specific things they know to be false. When the media misinforms people, it does so by misinterpreting things, excluding context, or signal-boosting some events while ignoring others, not by participating in some bright-line category called “misinformation”.


So Infowars often provides accurate data, but interprets it incorrectly, without necessary context. They’re not alone in this; it’s much like how the New York Times reports on real child EEG data but interprets it incorrectly, or how Scientific American reports real data on women in STEM but interprets it incorrectly, etc. This doesn’t mean these establishment papers are exactly as bad as Infowars; just that when they do err, it’s by committing a more venial version of the same sin Infowars commits.


Okay, that’s my nitpicky point. Who cares? Obviously all of this kind of stuff is more than deceptive enough to in fact leave a bunch of people misinformed. So why do I care if it misinforms them by lying, or by misinterpreting things and taking them out of context?

I care because there’s a lazy argument for censorship which goes: don’t worry, we’re not going to censor honest disagreement. We just want to do you a favor by getting rid of misinformation, liars saying completely false things. Once everybody has been given the true facts — which we can do in a totally objective, unbiased way — then we can freely debate how to interpret those facts.

But people — including the very worst perpetrators of misinformation — very rarely say false facts. Instead, they say true things without enough context. But nobody will ever agree what context is necessary and which context is redundant.


But lots of people seem to think that Infowars deserves to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse vaccine data claim, but NYT doesn’t deserve to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse police shooting claim. I don’t see a huge difference in the level of deceptiveness here. Maybe you disagree and do think that one is worse than the other. But I would argue this is honest disagreement — exactly the sort of disagreement that needs to be resolved by the marketplace of ideas, rather than by there being some easy objective definition of “enough context” which a censor can interpret mechanically in some fair, value-neutral way.

Nobody will ever be able to provide 100% of relevant context for any story. It’s an editorial decision which caveats to include and how many possible objections to address. But that means there isn’t a bright-line distinction between “misinformation” (stories that don’t include enough context) and “good information” (stories that do include enough context). Censorship — even the “safe” kind of censorship that just blocks “fake news” — will always involve a judgment call by a person in power enforcing their values.

After a week of looking over people’s objections, he concluded, sorry, I still think I am right about the Media very rarely lying:

I think all of us — not just censors — want to maintain the comforting illusion that the bad people are doing something fundamentally different than the good people, something that marks them as Obviously Bad in bright neon paint. If conspiracy theories only happen when someone literally makes up a total lie, then we — who avoid doing this, and always double-check our sources — know we are of the Elect, who never have to worry about this. But if wrong people (even the most wrong people) are just trying to reason under uncertainty and evaluate the relative strength of different sources of evidence — well, that’s the same thing we’re doing! Seems bad!

I think a lot of people will interrupt at this point and say “No, those people are biased and using motivated reasoning, not just failing honestly!” But Confirmation Bias Is Just A Misfire Of Normal Bayesian Reasoning, and Motivated Reasoning Is Just Mis-Applied Reinforcement Learning. It’s all just gears turning in the brain, sometimes smoothly, sometimes getting jammed up, but gears nonetheless. People want so much for one of the gears to be clearly labeled BE DUMB AND EVIL, and if they just avoid that gear they’re always fine. They want this so, so hard, and it will never happen.


  1. Bruce says:

    Experienced liars agree with Flashman. Suppressio Veri is a useful servant, Suggestio Falsi is a perilous master. Doesn’t mean lies of omission aren’t lies. That’s why courts make you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    Scott is smart and loyal to the D party. D party media is all about suppressing news on crime and politics. Pretending lies of omission aren’t lies shows Scott’s loyalty to the Party.

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    Scott Alexander is allegedly a psychiatrist. ‘nough said.

  3. Jim says:

    It is 2023, anno Domini, and the best defense that Scott Alexander can muster in favor of the New York Times is (the false claim) that it’s about on par with Infowars, but Niccolo Soldo maintains that the United States isn’t in the throes of full-spectrum illegitimation, disintegration, and collapse.

  4. Jim says:

    (For some value of “United States”.)


  5. Harry Jones says:

    Do what you can get away with shall be the whole of the law. It’s not a lie if you can plausibly deny deceitful intent.

    Everybody telling us what to think and how to feel is a conniving weasel.

    Brainwashing works mainly by selective omission.

  6. Altitude Zero says:

    And of course, Scott Alexander provides the classic example of the process he is describing. Scott likes to think of himself as an honest person, but he always knows exactly where not to look, so that he doesn’t see what he doesn’t want to see, IMHO.

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