Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune
Sept. 27, 2019
The Future of Facts: Searching for Truth in the 21st Century
It says, “Please do not adjust the microphone.” And of course the first thing I did was adjust the microphone. Sorry about that. General Myers - President Myers thank you for that very generous - probably too generous - introduction. I have to say being part of the Landon Lecture Series is quite an honor. A little bit intimidating.
When I look at the list of past speakers I see many of my personal heroes going back to Robert Kennedy, Jerry Ford, Bob Dole, Sandra Day O'Connor, Paul Volcker, Bill Bradley, of course President Myers. And my favorite Senator Kassebaum who gave it twice - you must have connections. So my wife Lori was Senator Kassebaum’s National Security Adviser for almost a decade. And I have to tell you watching Senator Kassebaum work was one of the great honors of my life. Because you could see when a difficult issue came up in the Senate she would actually think about it and research it and try and figure out what the right thing to do was.
Now you might think that's what Senators do. You might think that's what the job is about. But I can tell you that has become increasingly - increasingly rare. That so often Senators do what they do based on immediate partisan alliance, or because of demands from the states. And so that's something we need a lot more of. And that's my sense of what the Landon tradition and the tradition of this lecture is about - putting public service above party or partisan identification. And certainly this series over the years has had the very best of that breed of public servant and I wish they were all still around. And I'm very honored to be added to the series. So thank you for that.
We were talking earlier. The last time I was in Kansas it was actually at Senator Kassebaum's invitation. It was about a decade ago and she asked if I would go to Lindsborg where they were having a Chess for Peace celebration among chess students. And she asked if I would interview the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev over a game of chess. And I said, “I can't really do that.” And she said, “Why not?” I said, “I don't play chess.” And in her way Senator Kassebaum said, “Oh you'll be fine. Don't worry about it everything will be okay. You'll be fine.”
So I was I was a nervous wreck. I went out and bought Chess for Dummies and I sort of studied up and tried to get myself ready for this. Because we were sitting on a stage like this and there were about 500 chess students in the audience. And Mikhail Gorbachev and I on this giant chess board with very large pieces so everybody could see everything we were doing. And the idea was we were going to make a move and then talk a little bit and then make another move. And I really had no idea what I was doing. And what saved me was that it turned out Mikhail Gorbachev also doesn't play chess.
And so on the third move he made a completely illegal move with one of his bishops. And everybody in the audience laughed and we didn't have to play chess anymore and we just had a conversation. So it all worked out okay. I'm not sure who's going to save me from embarrassment today. But that time it worked out all right.
So as President Meyer said, I've been a journalist literally my whole life. When I was nine years old in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, I actually started a newspaper. I would walk up and down – I lived on a street called Outlook Drive - and I'd walk up and down and Outlook Drive and I'd knock on doors and, you know, ask people about their lost cat, or their visiting grandmother, or, you know, the swim meet that they had participated in and I'd write it all up.
And then my mother - this was before the days of printing machines or really even omnipresent Xerox machines - and so the way I did it my mother would type it out using a special kind of carbon paper. And I had this jelly sheet mimeograph machine and if I put that carbon copy on the jelly sheet the ink would stick and I could run off about 30 copies of the newspaper. And I sold them for a nickel around the neighborhood. I called it The Outlook Outlook. I thought that was pretty clever.
It actually worked out very well because my father who worked for Westinghouse - who was a KU graduate by the way I'm sorry about that. No one did a thorough investigation before inviting me here today. But he was transferred to Tennessee and we ended up living on Lookout Mountain. So the Outlook Outlook became the Lookout Outlook which all worked out very easily.
So my mother saved all those papers not because there's anything very remarkable about them but because that's what mothers do. So I have them and when I look back at them today I realize it was pretty mundane stuff. Just facts about what was going on in the neighborhood. There wasn't any opinion. There wasn't any investigation. There wasn't any deep analysis. But the facts were pretty good. Probably better than the gossip that happened over the fence in the backyards. And people in the neighborhood seemed to like to have neighborhood facts about what was going on. And so it became part of the social fabric of those little neighborhoods that I lived in.
And that became my life's calling. I edited my high school newspaper. I edited my college newspaper. I worked for the hometown newspaper in Tennessee for a while before I went to the Wall Street Journal. And I spent many years there always collecting facts, checking to make sure they were accurate, assembling them into stories, using them as the basis for analysis. I'm not saying I never made mistakes - I did make mistakes - but I learned and was trained in the importance of facts.
President Myers mentioned that I spent a while as the chief content officer for Time Inc. I loved the job because it got me out of my wheelhouse. Time Inc. had 24 magazines, thebiggest of which was People magazine. And I used to get a real kick out of walking into grocery stores. You know you go into the grocery store and you see all those magazines and they're like, “Aliens Landing from Mars,” and “Jen and Brad are Getting Back Together,” and “Jen is Rumored Pregnant for the 25th time”. You just see all this crap that's there.
And the one magazine in that stack that you can count on is People magazine. They don't print it until they get it confirmed. I'm not saying they’ve never made a mistake but probably have a 98 - 99 percent accuracy while the others are batting somewhere around 50 percent. And I was always very proud of that. I asked the editor one time, Jess Cagle, I said, “You know isn't it hard? I mean when other people are doing rumors of pregnancies and you have to wait until it gets confirmed. I mean don't you worry that there's going to be some big story and you're gonna be late?” And he said, “Yeah I worry about it a little bit.” But he said, “You know the good thing?” He says, “If we wait until the pregnancy is confirmed then we get the baby pictures.” So there is a little self-interest in it as well. But it was the right thing to do and I was proud of that.
I’ve built my life on a deep belief in facts as important building blocks of successful society. The discovery of facts is the first step in our legal process. A common understanding of facts is critical to our democratic process. A common basis of factual knowledge is the key to our ability to work together in communities and to work together as a nation. We always will have disagreements. People are always going to fight. People are always going to work to get advantages over each other in one way or another. But if we start with just the facts ma'am - that's a Joe Friday reference. How many people in this – oh there are a few people in this audience who recognize the Joe Friday reference - just the facts ma'am. If we can start with the facts we have a good chance of working things out.
Well unfortunately today that simple, fundamental, bedrock belief in the power and the importance - and even the existence - of facts is crumbling. It's somehow been called into question. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who also gave the Landon Lecture - I mean you've had everybody here over the years - he had a saying, “You're entitled to your own opinion but you're not entitled to your own facts.” Well these days I think many people think they are entitled to their own facts. And the great churning mill of social media is pretty much willing to give them the facts that they want. You can find them one place or another. Some people have even said we're in a post-truth or a post-fact society. And that's what I really want to talk about today. Because I can't think of a more dangerous idea for the future of our society than the notion that facts don't exist, or facts don't matter, or that everyone is entitled to choose their own facts.
Now let me stop and pause here for a second and tell you right up front this is not going to be a speech about the President. I don't do politics. That's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm happy to answer your questions. I do find it remarkable that in a country where the founding myth about our founding father was that he could not tell a lie - he didn't chop down that cherry tree - and by the way historians will tell you there's some question about the factual accuracy about story. But we'll leave that aside, right? In a country where the founding myth about our founding father was he could not tell a lie, that we have a President in office today who clearly doesn't care that much about the accuracy of his statements. I mean the fact checkers will argue over certain ones but five or ten times a day he'll put out a piece of information that isn't correct and doesn't seem to care about it. And I'll get back to that in a minute. But he's also obscured the very real problem of fake news by using the term fake news as a weapon to basically attack any news he doesn't like. But I don't think the problem we have today started with President Trump. I don't think it's going to end with President Trump. And I don't really want to spend a lot of time talking about President Trump. What I'd like to do is talk a little bit about how we got here and how we might we might get out of here. Happy to answer any questions at the end.
So let me start by talking about what I know best which is the media. When I was starting my career there was a pretty small group of people who controlled the information that we all got. Since you knew Joe Friday how many people watched Leave It to Beaver? Wow. This is my crowd. So if you remember in Leave It to Beaver, the Beaver’s father, Ward Cleaver, was always seen at the breakfast table reading the morning newspaper. In fact that's pretty much all he did. I watched the show quite a lot. I'm not sure he had a job. He was just sitting at the breakfast table reading the morning newspaper. And you realized that if you wanted to get information to the Cleaver family it had to go through that newspaper. Now every community had its own newspaper but most of the news was coming through a couple of wire services – UPI, Associated Press - or maybe from one of the big newspapers that had a global reporting staff - The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune. Really a pretty small group of people who were responsible for getting that news to Ward Cleaver and everybody else.
Now those people a lot of them were in Washington, a lot of them were in New York. They probably spent too much time hanging out together, having lunch together you know? Did they have biases? I'm sure. They were human beings, they had biases. Were they more liberal than the average American? I think there's no question about that. You know for the students here when you reach that point in school or after you get out of school and you're making this decision about geez do I want to be a banker, or a lawyer, or a data analyst and have a pretty solid chance of getting a job, and a good income, and supporting my family? Or do I want to be a journalist? There's something about the nature of that decision that says something about your political leanings. So no question that the people who end up in journalism tend to be more likely to be liberal than the average population.
So yeah it was a pretty small group of people. They had their biases. They probably talked together too much. There was a mainstream media in those days that controlled the information that was getting to get to people. But here's the other thing. They also had standards. They were the standards that I learned growing up in the profession. You know you didn't just take a single source and take it to print. You would find other sources to corroborate your facts. If you were writing something that was negative about someone you had an obligation to try and reach out and contact that person or contact that organization to make sure you heard their side of the story. You would look to see if the person who was giving you information had an obvious axe to grind. Were they being paid or have some sort of personal interest in giving you that information? There was a pretty strong set of standards. They weren't perfect. They didn't prevent mistakes from ever happening. But there was a fair amount of institutional support that helped you more often than not get to the facts and base your stories on truth. Because all of them agreed that at the end of the day facts mattered.
But then when the day came that Ward Cleaver lost his newspaper and it was all done over the Internet that opened up the world. It became possible for pretty much anyone to participate in journalism. Setting up a blog and starting a blog was the easiest thing in the world to do and anybody could do it. You know a couple of years ago Lori and I met a young kid named Gabe Fleisher who was publishing a political blog out of his bedroom before he went to high school each day. And like me he had started at nine. But unlike me he wasn't limited by the limitations of the jelly sheet duplicating machine. He would get up, you know, check the news, gather facts, do his summary of political news, and he had something like - at the time we met - something like 70,000 followers.
So it just makes the point of with technology how much easier it was for people to reach large groups of people. And that was great. I mean that was liberating. Man anybody could have a voice. But it also meant those standards that had been shared by the people who were controlling the flow of information pretty much went away.
I mean I had a shocking example myself of this when I was at the Wall Street Journal. We started doing video webcasting over the website and I had a small team putting it together. And one day the Gawker news site runs a story saying, hey the Wall Street Journal is doing like eight hours a day of live webcasting over their site. But typical old media, they've hired 60 people to do it. And you know I looked around and counted my staff. I said, “Well twelve is the number I get not 60.” So I called up this reporter and I said, “Hey you said we have 60 people we only have twelve people. It's a pretty spare staff.” And he said, “Oh okay. Thank you for calling. I'll go post that right now.” I said, “Well wait a minute. I mean I've been here all week. I answer my phone. Why didn’t you call me before you wrote it? Why are you saying you'll go post it right now? And this kid said, “Oh this is the way it works. We get some information, we post it. You give us new information, we post that.” I said, “Really? This is the way it works? You have no obligation to try and see if the information somebody gave you is correct? You have no obligation to go to the organization that you're slamming in your story to hear their side of the story?” But this was a legitimate reporter for a news organization who thought this is the way it worked.
And in television things changed as well. You know the big three networks pretty much controlled the flow of information until 1980s. But then technology again. Cable news came along and really opened it up. At first there was CNN. Then in the mid-1990s Fox News came along. And Roger Ailes was a very clever man and saw there was an opportunity because of the reasons I've already talked about. That most of the mainstream news was tilted to the left and he said, “I can make a business here by having something that appeals to people on the right.” But what was different was it wasn't just a leaning to the right. I mean Roger Ailes was not a newsman. Roger Ailes was a political communicator. And what he did was create a news organization where he came in everyday and he told them, “This is what we're going to say today.” It was pushed to the right from the top because he was in the business of political persuasion, not in the business of informing.
And this is a really important point - I want to just take a second on this. You know, language has different uses. In the kind of journalistic setting I grew up in - or the kind of academic setting that many of you are in - we use language to try and discover truth, to try and get to the facts. That's what I've been talking about here. But in many other settings language is used as a tool of power, as a tool of persuasion, as a way to make things happen. I have a friend at the University of North Carolina who told me the story. Said you've got to - he's a philosopher - he said, “Think about it this way.” He said, “You're walking down the street and an angry pit bull accosts you. You know, hi teeth blaring What do you say? If you're like most people you say, ‘Good dog. Good dog.’”
Now that is not using language to uncover the dog's essential character. It's not a good dog, right? If this were a journalistic effort the adjective would be cut out of that sentence. If this were an academic effort you'd probably fail - you've really kind of missed the point here. That's not a good dog. Somebody somewhere might say you were lying by calling that dog a good dog. But I don't think lying is the right word. You're trying to influence the dog's behavior. You don't want to be bit so you say, “Good dog.” And I think that's what we're now seeing more and more in the journalistic environment. It's not about uncovering facts, it's not about uncovering the truth, it's about political persuasion. And you know we can thank Roger Ailes for setting us down that course, but now it's just as prevalent on MSNBC as it is on Fox News. And it's a profound change from the kind of journalism that I grew up grew up with.
For what it's worth the Israeli historian Yuval Harare says that that sort of manipulative use of language is actually the much more natural use for human beings. Let me read you what he said. He said, “A cursory look at history revealed that propaganda and disinformation are nothing new. In fact you might say humans have always lived in the age of post truth. Homo sapiens is a post truth species who conquered the planet thanks above all to their unique human ability to create and spread fiction. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them.” Now I think there's something to that argument. But I also think civilization is frequently about how do we construct something that holds into check our most basic nature. And I think the search for facts is an important part of that.
But all of that is just the warm-up to what was really the big event in this story. And that is in 2004 - in a Harvard dorm room - Mark Zuckerberg creates Facebook. And even though it happened on a university, the creation of Facebook was not about the search for truth or facts. It was about the search for connection, for engagement. And they became very, very good at making those connection and engaging people. That's what the Facebook algorithm does. It makes it almost addictive. You love going there, and clicking, and connecting. But here's the thing - President Meyer pointed out that I was at the Pew Research Center for a couple of years, which is another organization dedicated to facts. In fact at Pew we called ourselves a fact tank instead of a think tank. And we did the research that showed then - this would have been 2013 - 50 percent of Americans were getting their news from Facebook. 50 percent. So Facebook had become even then - and it's more so now - had become by far the biggest source of news - biggest single source of news - in American society. Far more important than any newspaper you can think of or than the evening news. This was how people were getting their information.
But Facebook itself continued to insist, “We're not a news organization. We're not a media organization.” And they took little or no responsibility for the quality of information they were giving you. They had become your front page. But unlike the historic front page editor they didn't make any effort to see if what they were putting on your personal home page was accurate, was fair, had any of the standards that I talked about a minute ago. Did somebody check to see if the information was correct? Did they go to the people they're criticizing to get the other side of the story? Do they make corrections? That's a - by the way - a really important signal of the credibility of a news organization: are they willing to admit mistakes when they make them? Facebook wouldn't do any of that. Mostly because they didn't want have to take the liability for the stuff that was crossing over their platform.
And by the way the U.S. Congress had given them permission to avoid responsibility even before Facebook was created. In 1996 - when people were at sort of the height of enthusiasm about the Internet, and the Internet was still pretty young, no one could really imagine the sort of impact that Facebook and Google were going to have on our society. Congress passed a clause in a telecommunications bill in 1996 that explicitly said these new technology platforms can't be held liable for the stuff that goes across the platform. Dramatically different than the rules that existed for the newspapers that had preceded them. Now the scandals of the last few years have forced Facebook to back off a little bit but I think it's been too little too late. And it's been one of the really unfortunate things that's happened in the search for truth and facts over a lifetime.
So where does that leave us? Well everyone knows the story of Russian influence in the last election. I don't need to go into that. But it's important to understand that that's just a small part of a much bigger global story. As President Meyer said I've just got back from Hong Kong where protests are - sort of every weekend now you have kids on the street protesting. And that whole effort has been caught up in a lot of intentional misinformation. So Twitter took down about 900 accounts - which it believes were coming from the Chinese government - spreading myths misinformation about the protests. The protesters themselves have been fed misinformation. One of the most damaging was a report that at the end of August six people were killed by the Hong Kong police during one of the mass protests. Not true - not a speck of truth to it. But that's been a powerful myth that drove the protesters for many weeks. There was another one that Chinese army officers were dressing up as Hong Kong police and participating in the riot control. Again no credible evidence that that's true. But it's been a powerful myth spread by social media. Another one was the chief executive Carrie Lam was taking a weeklong holiday in the midst of the protests. Again not true.
But all of this is just indication of the degree to which facts and information are under siege. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, wrote a column last week where he said correctly that last year was the most dangerous year on record to be a journalist. Dozens of journalists were killed, hundreds were imprisoned, thousands were harassed.
The story of Jamal Khashoggi of courses is well-known. He walked into an embassy and came out dismembered and dead.
Maxim Borodin in Russia fell to his death after he wrote stories revealing critical details about the Saudi operation in Syria.
In Hungary and Serbia the government has snuffed out critical journalism and concentrated media ownership in the hands of its allies.
In Austria the leader of the right wing Freedom Party - which until recently was part of the ruling coalition - was caught on video trying to collude with Russians to purchase the largest national newspaper and infuse its coverage with partisan bias.
In Israel - one of the few democracies in the Middle East - Prime Minister Netanyahu has not only repeatedly excoriated investigative reporters, but now faces corruption charges for allegedly offering regulatory favors to two major media firms in exchange for positive coverage.
In India government-affiliated thugs have raided the homes and offices of journalists critical of the Modi government.
Some of the most disturbing reports have come out of Myanmar, where we're on the verge of what looks an awful lot like the beginnings of genocide. The Facebook platform was used to spread hate messages about the Rohingya minority. Facebook had monitors in the country but it turns out the monitors did not speak the language, did not catch the spread of hate messages. And now the reporters who were trying to uncover this thing are subject to huge harassment. There were two reporters from Reuters who spent 500 days in prison because of some of their reporting on this.
Let me let me just read you a segment from a report that the Freedom House put out recently. It says, “Many governments are enforcing criminal penalties for the publication of what they deemed false news. In 2018, thirteen countries prosecuted citizens for spreading false information. Rwandan blogger Joseph Nkusi was sentenced to ten years in prison for incitement to civil disobedience for practicing journalism. Police in Bangladesh arrested media activist Shahidul Alam only hours after he live streamed video on Facebook in which he decried a crackdown on protesters.”
You can go on and on and on. We have crossed through the looking glass where falsehoods have become truth and truth has become false. It feels an awful lot like Orwell's 1984 where War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. Facts are in crisis. I don't believe we're living in a post-truth world. But I do believe we are living in a world where those seeking the facts and the truth are under attack to an extent and in ways they never have been before. And also where those seeking to undermine the truth have more powerful tools and weapons and platforms at their exposure than they ever have before. And that is one of the great dangers we face as a society. Because without facts I believe democracy will ultimately fail.
So what do we do about it? Well I think the first thing to do is just recognize it. Care about it. You know I was impressed by the worldwide demonstrations over the last week on behalf of action to address climate change. Those demonstrations show that if enough people care it can have an impact. Maybe we need similar protests against the war on facts and the battle against truth. Because I believe it is as big a threat to the future of our society as climate change. We've kind of become inured to it. We kind of collectively shrug our shoulders. We say, “Oh well, everybody lies. Nobody can be trusted. What of it?” We need to make facts a cause. We need to make it clear we value truth.
As you might guess from what I said earlier I also think there's a role that the technology platforms can play there. I spend a lot of time looking at artificial intelligence and how it's developing. I am absolutely convinced that technology can approach a news story pretty much the same way I do and ask some basic questions. Hey, does this organization that's publishing this information have published standards? That's pretty important. Does this organization have a history and a willingness to report both sides? Does it make any effort to reach out to the other side to get information? Is it willing to publish corrections? As I said earlier, that's one of the clearest signs that you're dealing with a credible organization. I think technology could help do all of those things and provide people some guideposts to the reliability of the information that they're reading.
There are also some outside groups that are talking about doing that with people. There's an organization called NewsGuard that was started by the former editor of The American Lawyer that's attempting to do that. And then I think there's a critical role for educators to play. We were talking about this earlier today. People need to be better consumers of information because you can't trust where the information is coming from. You have to learn to look for the signs of what's reliable and what isn't.
And then of course I think my industry needs to have a reckoning. A lot of news organizations have gotten kind of a sugar high from the Trump era. Whether you're for Trump or you're against Trump, as long as Trump's in the headline you're gonna get more readers. And he’s so consistently and hugely provocative that people can't seem to stop reading about him. But in the process a number of news organizations I believe have lost their credibility and lost their bearing. And when Trump has gone and that sugar high of attention has ended I think they're going to come crashing to the ground. And really realize that he's sucked them into a destructive game that has pummeled their credibility and their ability to provide the kind of factual connective tissue that we need to make society work.
So let me end on a note of optimism because I am. You may not believe this – see I can tell you don't believe it - but I am at the end of the day an optimist. The journalism business has been through some really tough economic times over the last two decades. The staffs have been cut back. It's just become harder for people to make a living. And I keep waiting for that to reduce the number and the quality of people who are interested in being part of this search for facts and the search for truth. And what I find encouraging is it hasn't. That we still find people really want to be involved in journalism and in the search for truth. And remarkable young people coming out of great schools every year who are determined to participate in this, who believe in the facts. And while it may have gotten harder, it hasn't gotten any less important. So my message to the school today is to keep that up. Because truth does matter, facts do matter, they can be found. It takes some work but they can be found. And I do believe in the end they will prevail. So thank you for listening to me.
Remarks as given