Inquiring minds wanted to know: Who the heck is Nina Jankowicz?
Inquiring minds were asking today. They were reacting to her op-ed column in the New York Times, in which she pondered the success of Russia's "information war."
At one point, Jankowicz wondered why so many people believed the disinformation and "fake news" which emerged from Russian sources last year. We thought this part of her discussion had a remarkably clueless feel:
JANKOWICZ (9/25/17): What no one seems to care to discuss is the people who are targets of Russian disinformation, why its narratives find fertile ground among them and what can be done to change that.We agree with Jankowicz on one basic point. It's impossible to say, with perfect precision, why Americans may not trust their traditional, mainstream news sources.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 20 percent of Americans trust their government. The same low percentage has “a lot” of trust in the national news media. It’s impossible to say definitively what causes this mistrust, but its growth has coincided with the rise of both the adrenaline-driven internet news cycle and the dying of local journalism over the past two decades. Without news that connects people to their town councils or county fair, or stories that analyze how federal policies affect local businesses, people are left with news about big banks in New York and dirty politics in Washington.
Readers compare this coverage with their dwindling bank balances and crumbling infrastructure and feel disconnected and disenfranchised, and latch onto something—anything—that speaks to them. That might be President Trump’s tweets. Or dubious “news” from an extreme right- or left-wing site might ring true. Or they might turn to Russian disinformation, which exploits this trust gap.
That said, Jankowicz's attempt to explain this situation is utterly sophomoric. Why do many Americans tend to mistrust traditional media? Jankowicz cited exactly two reasons:
1) The rise of the "adrenaline-fueled" Internet news cycle.She offered those explanations, and nothing else. Where does the Times find these people?
2) The dying of local journalism over the past two decades. Not enough reports about county fairs!
In this case, the Times offered a partial answer, saying that Kankowicz is "a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.
We'll offer more info below. First, let's consider two other obvious sources of mistrust in traditional media.
Duh! Over the past five decades, starting perhaps with President Nixon, conservatives and Republicans have waged a relentless war against the alleged "liberal bias" of major mainstream news orgs.
Whatever you think of their claims and complaints, this GOP-sponsored crusade has played an obvious, outsized role in breeding mistrust of traditional media. Who in the world doesn't know this?
That said, there's a second possible reason for mistrust in the media. Is it possible that people mistrust traditional media because these news orgs have done a lousy job on an array of topics?
Hint: Actually no, that isn't possible, not in a Times op-ed column!
Here's the survey in which "only 20 percent of Americans" say they have "a lot of" trust in national media. In that same survey, an additional 52 percent said they had "some" trust in national media.
(Twenty-two percent said they had "not too much" trust. Six percent said "none at all.")
We would have said we had "some" or "not too much" trust in the media too. Why wouldn't we say we have "a lot of" trust?
Duh! Because of the lousy job the press corps does on an array of topics! Also, because of guest columns in major papers like the one Jankowicz wrote!
In this morning's column, Jankowicz never mentions the propaganda war conducted by conservatives over the past fifty years. She never brooks the possibility that people don't trust traditional media because the traditional media do a poor job.
Instead, she takes out the flag and tells us this:
JANKOWICZ (continuing directly): All is not lost. Disinformation can be defeated without the establishment of a shiny new initiative cased in the language of Cold War 2.0. Instead of “rapid information operations,” the United States should work to systematically rebuild analytical skills across the American population and invest in the media to ensure that it is driven by truth, not clicks.Jankowicz seems to assume that "critical reading skills" will tend to make people trust traditional media more. It doesn't seem to occur to her that critical reading skills might make citizens trust orgs like the New York Times less.
The fight starts in people’s minds, and the molding of them. In K-12 curriculums, states should encourage a widespread refocusing on critical reading and analysis skills for the digital age. Introductory seminars at universities should include a crash course in sourcing and emotional manipulation in the media. Similar courses could be created as professional development for adults, beginning with state employees. Large corporations could be offered government incentives to participate, too.
Training like this has a proven track record. In Ukraine, IREX, a nongovernmental organization, trained 15,000 people in critical thinking, source evaluation and emotional manipulation. As a result, IREX measured a 29 percent increase in participants who double check the news they consume.
(Why do we trust Rachel Maddow much less than other liberals? Because, over the past nine years, we've routinely "double-checked" her work! The results are rarely good.)
Jankowicz goes on to say that the federal government "should also work to level the information playing field, increasing its investment in public broadcasters." Again, we're not entirely sure what that means. But as presently constituted, NPR and PBS are frequently part of the problem, trust in the media-wise.
Plainly, it would be a very good thing if fewer people fell for crazy disinformation campaigns from covert Russian sources. But over the course of the past several decades, crazy disinformation campaigns have often proceeded from within the very mainstream press which Jankowicz seems to think we should be trusting more.
Starting with that ridiculous account of the public's loss of trust, this column struck us as the type of transparent propaganda which makes some people lose faith in orgs like the New York Times. "Who the heck is this Jankowicz?" one of the analysts cried.
Here we go again! She's six years out of Bryn Mawr (class of 2011). (After that, she spent two years getting a master's degree.) In our view, that makes her a very young "Kennan Fellow"—and a slightly starry-eyed Kennan Fellow to boot.
Despite her tender years, Jankowicz seems well-versed in the type of true-believing twaddle news orgs like the Times may want to present to the world. In fairness, the youngster may be completely sincere. That may be part of the problem.
Our elite institutions are full of bright young kids who seem eager to prop up establishment guilds. They may be completely sincere, but they're also quite young, and exploitable.
Why don't people trust the press? Kennan Fellow, please! We'll guess it isn't the lack of reporting about those county fairs!