Trust. We all know what it means but, if we are honest, we know that at best it is elusive. Who do we trust? And, when do we have believing eyes?
How about artificial intelligence (AI)? Can we trust it? After all it is said to be artificial. AI’s underlying technology and its use will be a petri dish of exploration, usefulness and exploitation. Human affairs have never been able to escape the latter.
But we don’t have to go to the leading edge of technology to be alarmed, yet again. Last week Fox News agreed to settle a case brought by a voting machine company, Dominion, for $789 m. In short, Fox News treatment of Donald Trump’s claim of a stolen election, due in part to the manipulation of Dominion’s voting machines, cost it serious money.
But let’s go back to 1996. Rupert Murdoch, Fox’s principal owner and founder, recognized that much of the news was being reported by journalists and talking heads whose interpretations often skewed to the left side of the political spectrum. His plan: go to the right side and brand it “fair, balanced and unafraid.” The assumption and accompanying business plan worked really well.
Fox’s best hire was commentator Charles Krauthammer who joined the Network in 2005 and died in 2018. In recent years the most thoughtful of the conservative commentators have departed Fox as its journalistic standards too often embarrassed them.
I know and have followed Rupert Murdoch. He has a deserved reputation as an “end justifies the means” businessman. He is credited with creating the modern tabloid, newspapers with stories that focus on controversy, crime, and scandal. Again, a lucrative move.
Beyond Fox, it is not possible to write about trust without swerving into the lane occupied by former President Donald J Trump. Trump has an us against them mentality and deploys words accordingly. It’s the deep state working with the elites who are our enemies. Trump made great TV; unlike Joe Biden, he was available. He tweeted. He titillated. And then he lost the 2020 election and that didn’t go down well at Mar De Lago.
So, when Trump insisted the 2020 election was stolen Fox personalities were dubious (as their detailed texts noted), but the Rudolf Giuliani coterie of fabulists were accorded air time to berate Dominion. It’s what the Fox audience wanted and it proved to be costly pandering.
“Trust but verify.” This is said to be a Russian proverb which was used deftly by President Ronald Reagan. I understood the verify part and was amused at the trust part. Trust the Russians (then Soviets)? Verify!
And so it is with the world in which we live. Some decades ago, my Mom asked whether a Missouri Governor would be mad at her because she just didn’t have enough money to send yet another campaign contribution. She had received what looked like a personal appeal and she didn’t want to offend. In her world “Dear Marcia” was personal—she trusted mistakenly. When it comes to deceit computers are agnostic.
In a world of advanced smoke and mirrors, trust is a scarce commodity—my guess is that we find it most often in our neighborhoods. Yet, in fact, trust needs to be the bottom line that precedes the personal or financial or electoral one.
In parallel we all need to work on the credulous front. What should we believe? Who can we trust? How many sources of confirmation should we seek before making the final decision? We need to make sure trust is earned and if we don’t there are any number of people poised to exploit our naivete (domestic and foreign).
We should also understand that confirmation bias in public affairs is especially toxic. Our collective governments raise and spend trillions of dollars and ask for our indulgence when their regulatory behavior is intrusive. The trillions of dollars exacted in a wide range of tax and fee laws should entitle us, no urge us, to ask questions and demand competence.
And our relationship with our government circles back to where I began. Fox has paid a penalty and will pay more for misleading its listeners. Misleading those who look to Fox for news is much worse than impugning a voting machine company. We know what Dominion got, now what do we get?
Lest I leave out news in general, I can’t think of a better use of artificial intelligence than in the editing rooms of a news organization. If we are told to “measure twice and cut once” what should we expect from journalists whose views and interpretations are aimed at us? Fox News succeeded in part because other news outlets had failed. “Fair and balanced” became a useful slogan because millions believed they were getting the reverse. “Woke” has trended in recent years; in the news rooms wake up to the reality of the news not the preferred version.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.