Which Came First: Political Personality or News?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 19, 2016

My wife Susan found this infographic on Facebook. It was created by Vanessa Otero and distributed on her Twitter feed. You can click on the image to see a larger version.

Vanessa Otero News Graph 2016

My news sources are NBC, CBS, PBS, The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, Vox, and sometimes The Economist and The Wall Street Journal when I get free links. In other words, I stay close to the center of things, and by Otero’s reckoning, use sources of high standards, that can be analytical and complex.

Do I have the kind of personality that is drawn to those news sources, or did those news sources create my political personality? If you grow up reading news from sources on the lower left or right of the graphic, do you program your personality by them? In recent years I’ve met a number of people who watch Fox News all day long. These people have different personal personalities, but they often feel like they have the same political personality. They are usually paranoid about the government, believe in various kinds of conspiracies, are passionately anti-taxes, and hate when people get money from the government without working.

Do people in childhood develop particular beliefs and then migrate to news outlets that promote those beliefs, or do they get hooked on various news sources and adopt the beliefs of the news programs they watch?

Would people who watch Fox News morph into new political personalities if they switched to watching PBS news programs? If I started watch Fox News all the time, would I become conservative? I remember favoring JFK back in 1960, when I was in the third grade, and that was well before I watched the news. I’ve never liked any Republican candidate – is that because of my innate programming, or because of how I acquired my news?

When I did start watching the news, it was the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, probably around 1962-63. In 1960 when we moved from New Jersey to Mississippi, I learned I didn’t like racists. As a shy kid, I was always afraid of people with strong emotions, and the racists scared the crap out of me with their raging anger. I had no idea what they were talking about. They were for Nixon. Maybe that influenced my political development. I remember getting into a playground fight with a kid who was pro-Nixon. Did that experience lean me towards the left?

When I went to tech school for computers in 1971, they taught us a phrase, GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). That implies the news we consume does change us. But then, I’ve read books like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker that counter that philosophy. I’ve also read books like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman that explain how our consciousness minds aren’t too swift when it comes to making decisions. I’m almost finished with The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis that profiles Daniel Kahneman, and his colleague Amos Tversky. They were two Israeli psychologists that made careers studying how we make poor choices and misunderstand reality because our gut reactions are usually wrong.


I’m Switching From NBC Nightly News To PBS NewsHour

James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 3, 2015

I’ve been a faithful follower of NBC Nightly News for decades now. But last night’s report, with the entire show covering the mass shooting in San Bernardino, convinced me I’m not being well informed by my news source. Mass shootings are horrible, but they can’t be the only news. Neither can storms, fires, earthquakes, floods and other natural catastrophes. Nor can crime, war and politics dominate our awareness of what’s going on around the world. The NBC Nightly News has become so obsessed by sensational stories that I feel they are the only news events happening in the world each day.

NBC Nightly News

I learned far more about the San Bernardino shootings this morning by five minutes of reading The New York Times, than the 30 minutes spent watching The NBC Nightly News. Last night’s time was wasted on speculation, or watching police carefully inspect a SUV, shown from a camera above the scene. Sometimes we get the news too fast. Watching it as it happens might be exciting, but it’s often deceptive, and full of incorrect information. Network news gives us a 20 minute summary of world events, but are those stories the best ones to spend my 20 minutes of news watching? I could cover more stories by reading.

I’ve routinely watched The NBC Nightly News because it was slickly produced and I like Lester Holt and the NBC reporters. Last night I was particularly disappointed by not hearing about the climate change summit in Paris. It should be big news if more world leaders met there than anytime ever before in history. What happened in San Bernardino was horrible, and an important news story, but the climate conference deals with the fate of the world. Does NBC assume we’re not interested, or think it’s too subtle for us to understand? Or that mass shooters scare us more than a worldwide universal threat?

For now I’ve deleted The NBC Nightly News from my TiVo and added The PBS NewsHour. In the past I’ve tried to switch to just getting my news online, but for some reason I enjoy how television conveniently packages the news. So I’ll try PBS for a while. In the long run, I might need to give up on television. I’ve always avoided local news because I find it so damn depressing, but I’m wondering if I wouldn’t be better citizen if I took more interest in my own city. Then just read about the rest of the world on the Internet.

This brings up two interesting questions. First, how much time should we spend each day on the news? We all need to be well informed citizens, so how much daily time does staying informed take? Second, which topics are the most important to follow? A surprising amount of reporting are on topics that are forgettable. For example, what do we learn about the world from film clips of forest fires? Quite often NBC spends a nightly ten minutes on forest fires, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, but they are so common that all forest fire reports look the same. And why are all the stories about fighting fires. Why not stories about managing forests to prevent fires, or how people rebuild after fires, or where do all the wild animals go in a fire? Political reporting is becoming monotonous too, usually just telling us what stupid thing Donald Trump said today.

When I think about it, I wonder if the news is packaged to pander to a specific psychological addiction in us. It’s become entertainment, not education. I’ve watched PBS NewsHour off and on, but it takes more time to consume. Let’s see if I feel better informed.

Essay #985 – Table of Contents

If We Don’t Need Newspapers, Do We Need the Network Nightly News?

To stay informed I watch NBC Nightly News, catch a documentary now and then, read several magazine articles each week, and surf the web daily.  This is fairly time consuming, but I like to keep up on what’s going down.  Some of my friends use other sources, like radio, newspapers and podcasts, which I don’t.  None of us want to be considered ignorant, ill-informed or out-of-the-loop.  With so many news sources, what’s the best method to track reality, and become well informed citizens?


For months I’ve been hearing reports on NBC Nightly News about the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  NBC gave me a few minutes here and there.  The other night PBS Frontline presented “Ebola Outbreak” that in 27 minutes was many times more informative than anything NBC had presented all summer.  Then I read this piece in Vanity Fair, “Hell in the Hot Zone” that  concisely summed up the history of the recent outbreak in about 15 minutes of reading.  NBC spent most of its Ebola reporting time in the last few weeks on the plight of American doctors who had been infected with Ebola, which actually told me little about Ebola and the outbreak.

In terms of massive impact on my brain, the PBS Frontline piece made the deepest emotional impression, and probably a lasting impression.  However, the Vanity Fair piece was more informative and educational.  Why were these two sources better than the NBC Nightly News?

The network  nightly news – ABC, CBS, NBC – has always been a convenient way to stay inform in thirty minutes.  If you remove the commercials, that’s really 20 minutes of content.  Most stories are just sound bites, and often viewers spend more time looking at the reporters than we do at film clips.  If you watch the film clip I linked above, and read the article link, you’ll notice no commercials or reporters.  By far, the Vanity Fair piece is the most information dense of each kind of reporting, but the documentary, with its shocking video is more impactful.  We tend to be addicted to nightly news because we love to see things happening.  The real appeal of TV news are the visuals.  These shows are good for rubbernecking at reality.  It’s fun, but is it educational?

In the course of a month I might see 300 news stories by watching the nightly news, and I might remember some of them to talk about with friends in the next twenty-four hours.  After a day I tend to forget what I’ve seen.  Generally, I only remember stuff long term when I’ve seen a longer news story, for example, like something on 60 Minutes or Frontline.  When is news empty calories, and when is news something that’s mentally nutritious and healthy?  I believe the real goal of staying informed is to become better educated about the world at large.  A diet of mesmerizing videos and sound bites might be informative but not educational.  News needs to be more than talking heads and film clips.  As an older person I’ve stuck with television news, but I think younger people have already moved on.

I’m not advocating giving up watching network news shows, or even predicting their extinction.  What I’m asking is if there’s a more efficient ways to stay informed?  I’m also asking why those ways might be more effective and educational.  One theory I have is network news stories are too short.  That we don’t get enough data about any one subject to make it memorable.  I’m wondering if we read or watch more focused and longer pieces if we’re actually learn and remember more?

I think my habit of watching television news, and a similar habit of grazing the web for news, is wasting my time.  By exploring the same news through different news sources I’m discovering a difference in how I learn and remember.


Reading long essays versus short news items is showing me something important.  There is a movement called long form journalism.  Does spending twenty minutes reading one essay make you more informed than spending the same time on 10-20 smaller pieces?  I read Zite and News360 every day, and most links take me to very short news items.  Like watching the network news, I forget 99.9% of everything I read by the next day or two.  I don’t think I’ll be able to recall the exact facts from the Vanity Fair piece on Ebola, but I think I’ll know a year from now how it started, spread, and is usually contained. (It might not this time.)

There are several web sites devoted to promoting long form journalism.  These curated sites link to the best long form essays on the web and I’m wondering if they might be a replacement for the network news show.  On the other hand, there are many who attack the concept.  I think you’ll have to create your own tests to see which kind of news is the most valuable to you.  Personally, my tests favor long form.  I believe we’re addicted to short news stories because it takes less work and we’re lazy.  Read an annual volume of Best American Essays or Best American Science and Nature Writing and tell me you don’t feel more enlightened than watching a whole year of television news.

It’s interesting that long form reading seems to have coincided with the development of the tablet computer.  Fans like to create their own customize magazines with Twitter and RSS feeds.  Mobile devices allow users to read anywhere, and more comfortably, and that might explain why more people are willing to read longer essays. 

Some people will claim today’s citizens don’t have the attention span for longer articles, or that our fast pace world demands quick reading, or that the busy productive person needs to get to the facts fast.  But I’m asking:  Is quickly gobbled down data worth much?  I’m considering switching from reading Zite and News360 and just browsing several of the long form curated sites.  Will reading longer articles actually tell me about everything that was in the shorter pieces?

I wished that Google would tell us how many words are in the articles they cite in a search result.  I waste a lot of time going to articles that have little value, and all too often the pages seem full of click-bait traps.  But will I miss all the glitz, gossip and sexiness of news grazing?  Reading only long articles ignores all the filler.  Maybe filler has it’s own value, and I’ll learn that too? 

Long Form Curated Sites:

Essays about Long Form Content:

JWH – 9/12/14

Is The Daily Newspaper Dying?

I often find myself lamenting the passing of institutions I assumed would always be permanent fixtures in my life.

My parents, who grew up during the heyday of radio, long before television, lived in a world of two daily newspapers, The Miami Herald in the morning, and The Miami News in the evening.  I was even a paperboy for the News back in 1965, but it died a long time ago.  During my life I saw many cities close their afternoon papers.  Now, all over the country, morning papers are hurting, and some are even disappearing.  I’m wondering if morning papers are going the way of the buggy whip.

Newspaper sections 

My wife and I quit getting the newspaper years ago.  We kept subscribing for years because it was a lifelong habit, but seldom read it.  But we finally realized that most often our daily issues went directly to the recycle bin, and so we stopped taking The Commercial Appeal.  I see fewer people bringing the paper to work, and I assume there are college kids at the university where I worked that never got into the habit of reading the paper with breakfast.

This is sad.  Months ago I bought an issue of The New York Times to read the old fashion way, but I couldn’t. I love reading The New York Times online, but I no longer had the patience to read a printed paper, which involves a lot of flipping, folding, jumping from section to section, and getting ink on my fingers.  My old eyes find it painful to read the paper’s small print.  Susan and I aren’t alone in giving up on our hometown paper, there’s even a web site, Newspaper Death Watch, devoted to the passing of this very old tradition.  Should we all go back to subscribing to save this fading technology?  Are there things newspaper publishers could do to revitalize their product?

I read books and listen to music on electronic devices, so why don’t I read my local paper on my iPad?  On the new miniseries Under the Dome, a newspaper reporter talks to an older woman who tells her she doesn’t take the paper, but gets her news from the Internet like everyone else.  Ouch. 

We have to think about why people were so devoted to newspapers in the past.  For many pre-Internet citizens, reading the paper was the only form of reading they did.  The paper offered news, gossip, social media, advertisements, job want ads, for sale listings, sports scores, stock and bond quotes, cartoons, horoscopes, movies times, recipes, letters to the editor, wedding announcements, photos, etc.  Newspapers packed a lot of entertainment value.  And from this list we can see the answer to why papers are losing subscribers.  The Internet provides the same content, but faster, better, cheaper, and it’s highly customized.  In fact, smartphones, pulling content from the Internet, provides people exactly what they got from newspapers and more, but in a much handier delivery and reading system.  Progress marches on.  It’s cruel, but so it goes.

Newspapers were a delivery system for communication and content – pretty much a printed internet.  I feel sad that all those reporters, editors, linotype operators, pressmen, truckers, delivery people have lost their jobs, but I hope they got jobs at new Internet businesses.  I’d hate to think that local people lost their jobs to out-of-town companies. 

Long before the Internet, many reporters had moved to TV, and we have far more TV stations with news programs than we ever had papers.  So what I’m lamenting isn’t a lack of reporting, but the system in which the news was reported.   If you’re interested, you might find the Newspaper Death Watch interesting to read, it’s subtitle is “Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism.”

To be honest, I’ve never been happy with television journalism, so I wonder if there isn’t something potentially better than the printed newspaper and local TV news show?  More and more papers are working with paywalls to create online newspapers, that include print, photos, sound and video.  The New York Times is excellent, except for their pricing, but if everyone subscribed to it, where would we get local, state and regional news?  Can local news sites make a go of providing news that can compete with TV and national web sites?  Is it possible to make hometown news site?

Anyone can collect their favorite links to a bunch of sites and recreate much of the content people used to get from their local newspaper.  Can a newspaper publisher, with their editors, reporters, and staff create a central site that essentially recreates the old features of a newspaper?  How many people would give up their favorite news, weather, TV listing, movie listing, Craigslist apps to use a centralized service?  Has the App-ization of the world killed off a general purpose tool like the newspaper?  Probably.

I shouldn’t mourn the victims of progress, but I do, even though my buying habits are killing what I miss.  I recently bought my local paper for nostalgia’s sake.  I didn’t like it.  I was like that baby on the YouTube video trying to use a magazine after playing with an iPad.  It just didn’t feel right.  I guess I’m dumb.  I keep buying vinyl records, even though they’re a pain in-the-ass to play.  And I still buy books even though my eyes love my Kindle.  And I keep writing crying-in-my-beer blog posts about the old ways disappearing.  When will I learn?

JWH – 6/30/13

News Processing on the iPad with Flipboard

There is too much goddamn information in this world – but what can we do about it?

First off, we could ignore it.  Take up reading  Sci-Fi novels or watching reality TV and just tune out the world.  Well, that doesn’t work for me.  I’m a little like that robot in Short Circuit, Johnny 5, who craves more input.  Johnny 5 can read an encyclopedia in a matter of minutes and begs for more, but I can’t.  I don’t want to be like God and know about every dang sparrow that falls from a tree, but I do want a rough idea of what’s going on around this old reality each day.

What I crave is a good steady flow of knowledge about this world and the cosmos.  I like learning new things, but I also need time to ponder fresh data and digest it.  Like most people I want to be up on current events, and not too out of touch with popular culture.  I’m not quite ready for the youngsters to be laughing at me for not knowing the current crop of glitterati of the moment, although I really don’t care, either about being laughed at or who is currently grabbing their 15 minutes of fame.

The trouble is we live in world overflowing with information.  If facts were water droplets there would be no land on this planet.

Keeping up with the news used to mean reading the newspaper or maybe a couple of magazines. Then came television which really made being nosey addictive.  Now with the world wide web we have access to countless newspapers, magazines, television stations, web sites, blogs all coming to us at once.  It’s a wise man who knows what he doesn’t want to know.

For some people getting their daily dose of reality is as simple as watching the NBC Nightly News 30 minutes a day.  But this is baby food news, predigested bites served from little jars and spoon fed to those who are still in the crawling stage of exploring reality.  The next step up for toddlers is the PBS NewsHour.  But then we run into the issue of facts per hour barrier.  How many people really want to spend more than a hour a day getting the news when most of it is repetitive and overly verbose.

What if you could read reports, study graphs and photos and see video clips at your own pace – tailored just your informational curiosity?  That’s what I’m trying to do with my iPad

A tablet computer can nicely format text for reading, show video clips in bright clarity, and display photos that look better than a slick magazine with the extra feature that you can zoom in on them for close study.  It’s outdoes the newspaper, magazine and competes well against the television and the web.

The trick is to get just the right words, videos and photos to view on the tablet.  And it’s a very hard trick.

Enter Flipboard for the iPad.  It does several things, but not perfectly – yet.

  • RSS feed reader
  • Twitter client
  • Facebook client
  • Digests many popular magazines, newspapers and websites

I already like taking in Facebook and Twitter content better on the iPad and Flipboard because Flipboard formats this web content to look like a elegantly laid out magazine.  It’s far more eye catching, but then Facebook is a homely looking website, so it’s not that hard to beat.

It’s also nicer to read RSS content on Flipboard than Google Reader, although there are some big limitations.  RSS feeds come through in two styles.  Some sites send the whole page, and others send just a teaser and a link back to the original web page.  They want you to come look at their ads.  Falling out of Flipboard into its browser mode is unpleasant.  I don’t like reading web pages on the tablet even with the magic of spreading and pinching pages to make them readable.  If I’m going to read the web I’d rather be sitting at my 22” desktop screen. 

However, many websites do send the full pages in their feeds and these look wonderful on the iPad because Flipboard makes their content look like it was published in an issue of National Geographic.

To make up for this limitation of RSS feeds Flipboard has contracted with publishers like Condé Nast to stream their content into Flipboard’s beautiful formatting.  These do come with original ads or even extra ads, but they look like they do in magazines, and not like web pages.  However, these pages are handled different from the RSS content.  Instead of scrolling up to read a long article, they are formatted into pages that you have to flip.  Here’s what Flipboard looks like:

After configuring Flipboard with my accounts at Facebook, Twitter and Google Reader I opened Flipboard and started flipping.  Fantastic first impression, and then I noticed, gee, there’s a lot of damn pages to read here.  Now that’s the essential key to using Flipboard, cutting down your input.

I’m leaving Facebook as it is, but I’m thinking of cutting out a lot of “friends.”  On Twitter, which was already minimally used, I cut out very active feeds.  Then I went to Google Reader and deleted RSS subscriptions to any feed that used the teaser method of providing content.  I only want complete articles sent to me.  I also deleted feeds that sent articles by the hundreds.

What I want is my own personalized digital magazine that I can flip through each day and keep up with what I’m interested in.  It’s going to take awhile to customize Flipboard to get things just the way I like things.  It will  take a few more revisions of the program too.

Flipboard opens on the Favorites section.  The first page has 9 photo squares that each equal a content source.  With the More feature you can add 12 more squares on the next page, each a new content source.

Through the More feature – content from professional publishers like Time, Wired, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Salon, Huffington Post, Elle, Rolling Stone, etc. can be added to the Favorites squares.  Flipboard can expand your magazine to cover endless varieties of news.  This canned list of content that Flipboard has arranged with publishers is ever growing.  They sort this content by twelve categories but that will probably expand too.   You can use these many sources to build new Favorites sections. These pages look like actual magazine pages with ads, and they might be direct copies from printed pages, or facsimiles.

What Flipboard is doing is trying to be the best RSS feed reader possible, but it’s going beyond the RSS feed with contractual agreements with magazines, newspapers and television shows to provide custom Flipboard feeds not based on the RSS standard.

Now this is all wonderful, and it does reduce the hurricane of data from the Internet into merely a fire hose of magazine pages, but it’s still too much.

What’s needed is artificial intelligence to monitor my reading tastes and further customize the content flow to just stuff I want to read.  I want Flipboard to be much more than what it is.  Which brings me to Instapaper – a web service that allows web readers to save content to read later.  Flipboard can be configured so if you tap an icon at the bottom of the page and select Read Later the article is saved at Instapaper so you can read it later.  But you have to read it at Instapaper web or quit Flipboard on the iPad and launch the Instapaper app.  What would be neat is if Flipboard saved the read later articles in it’s own app – so one of my Favorites squares would be Read Later.  And of course, Flipboard would need to create a browser add-on to mark pages like Instapaper.

Now, I have figured out how create a workaround for this.  I can just Tweet everything I see on the web that I want to read later.  But this isn’t exactly what I want.  What I want is for a Flipboard AI to know what I want to read and have it ready like the President’s assistants with his morning briefing of the news.

The whole key to all of this is reducing the flow of things to read.  Flipboard can’t do this – yet.  Maybe not ever.  It might take another app invention to do what I want.  What might be needed is a social network of very like minded readers.  Digg, Reddit and StubleUpon are much too broad.  Essentially I want a 30 minute briefing on reality each day, with the option to read one long article that might take 15-30 minutes more reading time if I have it.  I don’t want to spend 30 minutes a day trying to find the news that I want.

It might be possible to hook me up with the right 100 people who like to read the same exact content as I  do.  Then each of us would have to spend 5-10 minutes a day looking at Flipboard or the web and mark the best articles for our daily custom reading, which would be a cross tabulated to find the most popular for all of us to read.

Another way would be to allow readers to list specific topics they are interested in and the amount of words they want on these topics.  For example, I might say I want Cosmology articles that run from 500-1,500 words.  Anything shorter or longer is excluded.

Right now the iPad is another big time waster like TV and the web.  I know a lot of people who like to watch their TV shows and movies on their iPad.  The iPod made music listening very private, now tablet computers are making TV watching very private.  Apps like Flipboard could also manage my TV shows too – that’s another issue.

JWH – 8/16/11

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