Book Review: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

One of the many things in life that fascinate me is the way something becomes news. In my previous life in Pakistan, I had the opportunity to explore this issue further. I interacted with plenty of journalists, both as a source of news and sometimes as a reporter. I was never involved in decisions that happened in the newsroom or any particular editorial decisions but I saw journalists working at close quarters. I was intrigued by many things and asked a lot of questions. One of my friends who used to work at BBC Urdu service once said that BBC’s way of reporting a story is to give everybody a chance to speak. If a bicycle is stolen from an apartment complex, BBC journalists would like to talk to the owner, the thief and if possible, even the bicycle. BBC’s standards are not widely followed in Pakistan (based on my limited view) and a lot of local reporting by correspondents of major newspapers and TV channels is cursory. I also became aware of this issue when I talked to people working at Punjab Lok Sujag, a non-gvovernmental organisation with local roots which had previously worked in making Punjab’s culture more popular (by staging plays in Punjabi, translating major works of fiction in Punjabi and holding an annual Punjabi mela [fair]).

I recently read a excellnt book that dealt with issues of all things ‘news’. It was published in 2007-8 by British journalist, Nick Davies. He spent most of his career working at the Guardian and The Observer in England but he did oversees stints in Australia and United States as well. The book starts off with an exploration of the ‘millenium bug’ story that gripped the attention of a lot of people at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ll let Mr. Davies do most of the talking here.

Where did the millenium bug story start?

“As far as I can tell, the story first hatched one Saturday morning in May 1993, in Toronto, Canada. Inside the city’s Financial Post, on page 37, there was a single paragraph. Under the headline, ‘TURN OF CENTURY POSES A COMPUTER PROBLEM’, the story recorded that a Canadian technology consultant called Peter de Jager was warning that many computer systems would fail at midnight at the start of the new century and that few companies had taken steps to head off the problem.

Rather like the B-movie egg which is laid by the alien in the dark corner of the peaceful suburb, this little story broke out of its shell and slowly started to distribute its offspring around the undefended planet. By 1995, it had spread out of North America into Europe and Australia and Japan. By 1997, bug stories were being sighted all over the globe. By 1998, they had multiplied tenfold, infiltrating media outlets of every kind, and they were still mutating and dividing, still penetrating more and more newspaper columns, more and more broadcast news bulletins until finally, as Millennium Eve approached, they achieved a global conquest of the media, tens of thousands of bug stories infesting almost every news outlet on the planet.”

The financial cost of the story

“Journalists reported that the British government had spent £396 million on Y2K protection. They also reported that it had spent £430 million. And that it had spent £788 million. The American government had spent far more, they said – $100 billion, or $200 billion, or $320 billion, or $600 billion, or $858 billion, depending on which journalist you were reading. Anyway, it was a lot. Beyond that, the private sector had spawned a mini-industry of companies selling millennium bug kits, while publishers turned out bug books and bug videos, and estate agents sold bug-resistant homes, and a few families sold their houses and fled to remote cabins in order to give themselves a chance to survive the coming bug-related chaos.”

How he defines ‘Flat Earth News’

“This [millenium bug story] is Flat Earth news. A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda”

An issue that befuddles ordinary consumers of news (like myself) is the difference between objectivity and neutrality. Should journalists be telling the truth (Objectivity) or just giving both sides of the story (Neutrality)?

“Neutrality requires the journalist to become invisible, to refrain deliberately (under threat of discipline) from expressing the judgments which are essential for journalism. Neutrality requires the packaging of conflicting claims, which is precisely the opposite of truth-telling. If two men go to mow a meadow and one comes back and says, “The job’s done”, and the other comes back and says ‘We never cut a single blade of grass’, neutrality requires the journalists to report a controversy surrounding the state of the meadow, to throw together both men’s claims and shove it out to the world with an implicit sign over the top declaring, ‘We don’t know whats happening-you decide’.

The damage goes further than merely abandoning the primary purpose of journalism. It actually transfers the truth-telling judgments out of newsrooms and into the hands of outsiders.”

Mr. Davies mentions that most of the news stories in major newspapers are lifted straight from news agencies, which could be local and global. Two global agencies that he talked about are Associated Press (AP) and Reuters.

“Just like PA (Press Association, England), their concern with accuracy is deliberately different from a newspaper’s concern with truth. One man who has spent many years as a senior executive from Reuters echoed Jonathan Grun from PA explaining to me that Reuters was not concerned about the truth. The agency would try to provide an accurate amount of an opposing point of view: ‘But it isn’t an agency’s job to start choosing between these voices and saying who is telling the truth’. All the great flat earth news stories have travelled via wire agencies into the unprotected global media.  It was AP and Reuters who told the world about the millenium bug and the weapons on mass destruction, who carried the myths about drugs and crime and radiation and education and all the other Huckers, big and small. All these stories were accurate, in that they faithfully recorded what somebody had said; none of them were true”.

The epilogue of the book starts with some golden words from The Simpsons: “Journalists used to question the reasons for war and expose abuse of power. Now, like toothless babies, they suckle on the sugary teat on misinformation and poop it into the diaper we call the six ‘o clock news”.

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9 Replies to “Book Review: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies”

  1. // Should journalists be telling the truth (Objectivity) or just giving both sides of the story (Neutrality)? //

    Very well put! An mportant moral question of our information age, and goes to the heart of what it is that a journalist (or any reporter) is meant to do.

    In this I take heed from the core dictum of Popperian epistemology (the epistemology of Science):

    All observation is theory-laden.

    In other words, neutrality is physically impossible. It is a utopia that is, in principle, unachieveable as there is no such thing as plain observation shorn of theories, i.e. causal structure. To hanker after neutrality must inevitably lead to a non-preference for truth. And since false theories are always in more supply, it leads to the tyranny of bad explanations and barbarism.

    The quality of truth is not in averages. E.g. scientists who differ in their explanations of a phenomenon *never* resolve their differences by averaging their theories out. Or in some sort of middle path compromise. Such compromise is almost always more wrong (or worse, not even wronger) than either theory.

    No wonder the reporting of modern news media – obsessed with the gospel of neutrality – often feels terribly reductive and compromised.

    (PS: I can already see that I’ll raise the hackles of some over-wrought humanities’ types, or the occassional professional curmudgeon, who’d accuse the above PoV of Scientism. A fairly fashionable slur these days. To them I would simply ask to read up on Popper and Fallibilism more generally)

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  2. A tricky choice to have to make for a reporter. A reporter can (perhaps, must) have an opinion about the matter they report on. But they then run the risk of picking the reportage that fits the opinion.

    Reporters and scientists can learn something from each other. The best of each are able to consider the facts that run counter to their theories and avoid the temptation to gloss them over.

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  3. Computer programmer checking in. I dispute that y2k was so bogus. The reason it was a nonstory was because we fixed it On Time. If not Under Budget.

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    1. Yes, I kept quiet because I have been out of the business for 10+ years, but the amount of Y2K work done in 1999 was substantial; we literally had to pause all existing projects and fix the known bug. In addition I am skeptical of most Grauniad types.

      This makes me nervous about what follows: “who carried the myths about drugs and crime and radiation and education and …”. How many of these were real problems that Nick Davies just papers over claiming to be a hoax?

      I have read Nick davies in the Guardian, and came across as a bit underwhelmed. I remember the deal that he brokered with Assange”Davies also brokered the deal with Julian Assange which led to The Guardian publishing the Iraq War Logs investigation in 2010 based on files leaked to Wikileaks”. In some ways, this group was as shady as the opposing group, and a pox on both of these groups.

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      1. @Vijay

        “Nick Davies, not to be confused with the Guardian reporter Nick Davies, is publishing director at Canongate”. The other Nick Davies published Assange’s autobiography.

        As far as the journalist Nick Davies,

        from The Independent (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/from-allies-to-enemies-how-the-guardian-fell-out-with-assange-2179166.html )

        “The article claims that Nick Davies, one of the Guardian journalists who forged the relationship with Assange, has not spoken to the Australian for more than five months after a bitter falling out. Assange reportedly angered Davies by involving Channel 4 in the WikiLeaks coverage. The collaborative reporting project, which involved a global network of media organisations, was “marked by serial delays and considerable mistrust on all sides”, says Vanity Fair, quoting one senior journalist complaining that “everyone’s a cheat”.

        Assange and Wikileaks started out as entities that challenged the powers that be. Their later metamorphosis was hard to predict at the time.

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        1. My intention is not to argue with you, as you are one of the more levelheaded of the authors here. However, the Guardian journalis Nick davies book is a bit old, and I had read it in the early 2010s, without realizing that there are two Nick davieses. It had a hard-hitting coverage of British newspapers, but my feeling is that the day of newspapers has passed, and what was hardhitting before now looks like punching a falling old fighter. Today, both, NY times (owned by carlos Slim) and WP (owned by Bezos) survive primarily because of the owners (even given the interest in newspapers after the new president). Is there any business model for profitable newspapers today?

          We are expecting newspapers to do a service, but where is the money?

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    2. I am intrigued as to what the exact problem was? and how was it solved? I have a basic understanding of computer hardware and software so if you could explain it to me, I’ll be thankful.

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      1. A crude answer was that two digit julian calendar year representation of the year 2000 was presumably an issue in application software. In other software, internal calculations were expecting 100 after 99 if the data was internally carried over as a two digit year date and performed bizarrely with zero. This was critically important in utility management software and financial software, but the extent of problem might or might not have been precisely estimated and communicated. However, most companies took this seriously and resent the internal representation of year in four digits, both in the software, output, and in data transfer. It was a race to fix all the code, especially with legacy systems, for which, both, the compilers and machines were not available or robust, and it is believed that the companies fixed most issues. We all had cancelled leave to just wait for problems that never showed up.

        One good outcome of the year 2000 problem was a lot of legacy systems and computers were retired. The above is a rather weak description of a real problem.

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      2. Just to add – it was not Julian calendar, it was the current, Gregorian calendar. The Julian (Caesar) calendar is still used by some (for example Serbian Orthodox Church).It was the official before Jesus Christ and it rightly expresses the dates of his birth (Christmas), death (Good Friday) and resurrection (Easter). Recently introduced Gregorian has shifted all dates for 2 weeks backwards. It means, for e.g. that my, Orthodox Christmas is on the 7th Jan in Gregorian, i.e. on the 25 Dec in Julian calendar.

        The assumption was that many technology systems (including military, facilities, telecommunications, power and electricity) were dependent on legacy software from 50-es and 60-es and used two digit year format so transition from 1999 to 1900 would crash all these software systems and potentially, as doomsday’s predictions preached, could cause nuclear explosions, the total crash of communications, traffic chaos, power station breakdowns, stucking in elevators, etc. Enormous money was spent to prevent such scenarios, the company where I was consultant spent more than $400 million. But, for now, we are safe until the next hype or new invention how to suck out money from suckers.

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