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March 9, 2014
David Warsh, Proprietor


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“Don’t believe everything you think”

A strong hint of spring in Boston interacted with Economic Principals’ reluctance to write about the very complicated fracas in Ukraine. In the end he gave up and took the day off.

The advice in the headline comes from David Johnson, editor-in-chief of Johnson’s Russia List, the press digest from which EP gets most of its news about Russia.  Johnson has been working overtime recently and has been, I would say, somewhat demoralized. Last week he wrote:

A couple elementary principles of news reporting and commentary. If you have a firm view of what the facts and the story are you will be very successful in finding things that are consistent with your views. It’s easy. Confirmation bias. And the stronger your views the more information you will find to support them. And the world you have constructed seems consistent and makes sense. Reporters and editors are as vulnerable to this bias as anyone, also government officials and academics. When your colleagues are saying the same thing as you it’s even harder to see contrary information. One only pays attention to differing views in order to knock them down. In fact, it makes you angry that “they are lying.”

A second principle. The fact of life is that however much you think that you are right and the other fellow is wrong the high probability is that the other fellow is equally persuaded of his views. This is a basic reality that many people have a hard time grasping. You simply will not understand what is going on if you operate from excessive attachment to your own opinions. You will lose contact with the frustrating complexity of reality. Sadly, a world of good guys and bad guys, good countries and bad countries, simply does not exist. But it is good entertainment and provides a warm feeling of moral rightness. And the drama that we need and want. To our detriment. We only have to remember the near unanimous consensus that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction to know that huge group think errors can be made. So don’t believe everything you think. I hope that JRL can help correct your confirmation bias, whatever that may be.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as does Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University, writing in The Nation:  “The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia, a country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many years. If the recent tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines—particularly about the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine and, unfailingly, President Vladimir Putin—is an indication, this media malpractice is now pervasive and the new norm.”

I do agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel, writing in The Washington Post, that the muscle-flexing in this country has been excessive, a symptom of our own unsettled politics. (Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, is also Cohen’s wife.).

Mainly I think you have to read pretty far down in the stories in the Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal before you get any idea what Vladimir Putin is thinking, if then.

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