Warren Buffett realized something he never told anyone before. He has spent more time talking to journalists than any CEO in America. The reason he says is partially because he’s in his 80’s, and the other part is that he likes journalists. As everyone knows who follows the “Oracle of Omaha,” they like him right back.
Which may explain my surprise when he pointed a wagging finger at journalists during our interview. According to Buffett, even the good ones have a blind spot called confirmation bias:
“The biggest sin in journalism is a journalist has to start with a working hypothesis but they don’t always give that up when the facts prove otherwise.”
Since the days of Henry Luce, the iconic editor in chief and founder of Time Life Inc., a journalist had to work hard to create a happy marriage between the editorial and business sides. The healthy tension balanced the journalist’s natural elitism with the need to appeal to the masses. Soon, a nationwide market grew, as opposed to the coastal elite media market today. With it came the responsibility to be more than a cash register at the end of a printing press. Yet, the scope of its reach did ring up huge profits, which paid for higher quality, and brought huge influence. All was right with the media world.
And now, today, 82% of people say they distrust the media, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer. What went wrong?
The digital revolution shoved journalism aside like a salt and pepper shaker. The new platforms, Google and Facebook, overwhelmed a very soft corporate culture and the ecosystem had no time to adjust from the days of the “Tiffany Network,” as CBS was called. Like all species threatened with extinction, it mutated — into a zombie monster, part news, gossip, and schmaltz, and prone to spiteful rage. Then journalism was given a catchy name, digital media.
Even an enfant terrible deserves a loving parent. In the case of digital, adult supervision came in the form of an editorial brewmaster who knew how to manipulate words to drive clicks, yawningly called a chief content officer. The new title made editors believe they were a player, part of a larger corporate strategy and with a real corporate salary, as well. The message was, “Now that you are with the big boys, get off the editorial quality soapbox.”
It took one decade to for the message to sink in: media went from a guarantor of the First Amendment to an app on your iPhone, one that would hardly be used, but allowed it to survive. It was a new world alright, only not very brave.
Journalists with algorithmic DNA, who are rightly called ‘content creators’, aren’t interested in thoughtful viewers. Instead, they seek sharers that come through the social side door of Facebook, but never read the actual story. So anyone who can write disembodied headlines obsessed with subjects that offend and frighten can now make a solid living as a digital journalist. The tone of the articles is even more ridiculous, generally close to how we describe life in the Middle Ages, “nasty, brutish, and short.”
To complete the transformation, the algorithm junkies asked for a favor. Simplistic narratives are best. So above all, be viciously, reflexively anti-mainstream. Because the new Pulitzer Prize goes to whomever gets the most shares (and likes), which begets the most search results. Anyone following our nation’s cultural shift knows that meant turning ordinary into extremism and extreme into ordinary.
Which helps explain why, as Buffett told me, a business story starts out with a reporter’s bias or it may be the editor’s bias, that a faceless chief executive somewhere, somehow messed up unforgivably. So the object of scorn is described as they wish it to be, not as it actually is, a definition of confirmation bias, according to Nobel Prize psychologist Danny Kahneman.
The incentives are abundantly clear, the contemptuous angle gets the views. Then, fact checkers at headquarters demand a few reliable sources to support the thrashing. After Gawker, no one wants to be caught with their libel protection expired.
Buffett calls it ‘quote shopping.” Reporters reach out to get his name in the first paragraph (helps their search results), and will talk for as long as an hour, he says. When the story is published, they quote the one comment that may only be mildly supportive, while ignoring the other 59 minutes that disputed their theory.
Alternatively, journalists will use plain vanilla consultants as sources, but the motive isn’t their expertise, it is dependability. The ones most eager to sell their services turn out to be well-disguised enemies of the company who want to do a hatchet job.
“People who have a vested interest are feeding the journalist confirmatory material all along the line.”
True industry experts like to teach journalists, not applaud them. This is the clue that the sources aren’t real, they are activists, plaintiff lawyers, and even competitors. The personal enmity towards the company or the CEO is couched in holier-than-thou regulatory jargon, and the reader is never wise to the concealment.
Will a good PR strategy help? Turning around the Queen Mary is a well worn punch line about the difficulty of changing course once it is set. Buffett poses a similar question, have you ever tried to turn a journalist around?
“There is great momentum behind a bad story.”
After putting in all that hard work, the journalist isn’t very likely to walk into the editor’s office and say “oops, turns out the CEO is actually doing a better job.”
So the story runs with its faults, biases, and sour temperament. Few will know it was a hatchet job held together by errant sources, a deadline that eliminated self doubt, and an avalanche of social media, which became the real story, after all.
And journalists wonder why Facebook makes all the money?
It gets worse. Because the journalism community marches in lockstep, even recycling the same biased sources, you’re going to see the story again and again. For example, if you haven’t read much positive press about Wells Fargo or Uber lately, it isn’t that they haven’t done anything worthwhile. The media is having too much chewing on old bones and passing them around.
Editorial objectivity is a sentimental tale Walter Cronkite might tell over a martini at the Pen and Pencil bar in New York, if he were alive today. The cost of a fair and balanced editorial policy, one that gets close enough to the action to call the fouls, is now an unaffordable luxury. Media chose a seat high up in the bleachers, surrounded by throngs of ignorant fans, where all of them could cheer for the home team.
The downside isn’t merely for business, either. When a company gets trashed due to journalistic bias, the intention is to damage the CEO. But the widows and orphans we call shareholders, with savings in pension accounts and 401(k)s set aside for retirement or to see them through an illness, are wiped out as well.
As the Oracle of Omaha says, it is the biggest sin in journalism.