Part 3—The possible rise of the bots: Midway through The Godfather, Don Corleone thoughtfully tells Tom Hagen.
Somehow, he's managed to puzzle things out. This is what he says:
"Tattaglia is a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn't know, until this day, that it was Barzini all along."
It was Barzini all along! For ourselves, we've never understood how the Don reached that conclusion. But the trail of cinematic mayhew proceeds directly from there.
Yesterday morning, sitting in Starbucks, we had a similar epiphanic experience. We think it happened when we were reading this lengthy piece in the New York Times, an analysis by Sheryl Gay Stolberg.
That said, we'd already read this report by Peter Baker. The brainstorm may have blown up then.
It had never occurred to us, till that very day, that our journalists may be bots! Rather, that the work which appears beneath their names may sometimes be the work of such entities.
(Full disclosure: after reading Stolberg's piece, we proceeded to this piece by Professor Vavreck, which tended to confirm our suspicion.)
In fairness, we've long suggested that our upper-end scribes might be aliens from other worlds, or possibly misfiring androids. But we hadn't thought, till we read the passages shown below, that it might have been bots all along.
Baker was writing about Donald J. Trump's tweets from the previous day. Thump had tweeted about Senator Richard Blumenthal, making an array of false statements as he did.
Ostensibly, Baker was trying to straighten things out. That said, why would he offer the peculiar description we highlight below?
BAKER (8/8/17): Mr. Blumenthal received at least five deferments from military service during the Vietnam War era and then went into the Marine Reserve, where he served in a unit in Washington. But as a politician, he referred to himself as having “served in Vietnam” or “served during the Vietnam era.” The New York Times article exposing these false statements in 2010 did not, however, report that he had told stories about Vietnam battles or conquests, nor that he had cried when exposed. Mr. Trump received five deferments from the draft: four for college and one for bad feet.That's the way the graf appeared in our hard-copy Times. Obviously, we were puzzled.
In fact, Blumenthal did "serve during the Vietnam era," in the Marine reserves. Given the paragraph as written, it was hard to see why a major reporter would list that clipped quote, all by itself, as a "false statement."
This morning, we see that Baker's text has been revised on line. The text now says that the New York Times exposed "these false or misleading statements" in 2010.
(Was that statement by Blumenthal misleading? It all depends on the unreported context! It's possible that Baker's revised statement is right, though it could still be wrong.)
Still and all, we were puzzled by what we read in our hard-copy Times, in real time. In real time, we puzzled hard: why would a person as bright at Baker make such a puzzling error?
From there, we turned to Stolberg's report, which ran more than 1600 words. As she started out, she was rather skillfully using her words as she discussed the many false statements of President Donald J. Trump.
Stolberg was lustily using her words as he report began. Eventually, though, the programming failed, and she—or conceivably "it"—was saying this:
STOLBERG (8/8/17): Many of Mr. Trump's lies—like the time he boasted that he had made the ''all-time record in the history of Time Magazine'' for being on its cover so often—are somewhat trivial, and ''basically about him polishing his ego,'' said John Weaver, a prominent Republican strategist.Stolberg had battled, throughout her long piece, to avoid conflating misstatements with lies. But now, near the end of her piece, her performance broke down:
That mystifies Bob Ney, a Republican former congressman who spent time in prison for accepting illegal gifts from a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, and lying to federal investigators about it. ''It really baffles me why he has to feel compelled to exaggerate to exonerate himself,'' Mr. Ney said.
But other presidential lies, like Mr. Trump's false claim that millions of undocumented immigrants had cast ballots for his opponent in the 2016 election, are far more substantive, and pose a threat, scholars say, that his administration will build policies around them.
Why would she assume that Trump's misstatement about those magazine covers had been a "lie?" How dis she know that Donald J. Trump didn't believe what he said?
Why would she quote Ney seeming to say that Trump's misstatement was an attempt to "exonerate himself?" On its face, that didn't seem to make sense.
Wildly mistaken as Trump's statement about illegal ballots seems to be, why would Stolberg feel that she could report that this misstatement had been a "lie?" Given Trump's delusional tendencies, we aren't sure we'd make that assumption.
Given Trump's delusional tendencies, we weren't sure we'd go there. And the analysts were still writhing from having been forced to read this:
STOLBERG: President Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction in trying to cover up his affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, during legal proceedings. Chris Lehane, a former Clinton adviser, said Mr. Clinton's second-term agenda suffered during his impeachment, yet paradoxically his favorability ratings remained high—in part, Mr. Lehane said, because ''the public distinguished between Clinton the private person and the public person.''Did President Clinton have an affair "with an intern?"
Let's give credit where due! Many years later, major journalists have stopped saying that he had an affair with "a 21-year-old intern," a plainly false claim they insisted on making for a great many years. (Why did they keep making this misstatement? We can't tell you, but it made their pleasing story much better.)
That said, did the gentleman have an affair "with an intern" at all? We'll grant you, it's a treasured claim, but to what extent is it accurate?
Did President Clinton have an affair "with an intern?" Nineteen years later, for reasons which have been explained many times, the statement remains a bit "Clintonesque"—though we'd say the unflattering term may describe the work of the mainstream press corps more than the work of Bill Clinton!
At any rate, at some point in the course of reading Stolberg's piece, an epiphanic moment occurred. For the very first time, we began to wonder if we were reading the programmed work of a bot.
Make no mistake—Baker and Stolberg seem to be actual people. In recent months, Baker has been an increasingly reassuring presence on cable, where his calm clear presentations tend to contrast with the more excited work of the rampaging cable news herd.
That said, the Stolberg piece shook us to the core. (On the very next page, Professor Vavreck's "Upshot" piece seemed to reinforce our new suspicion.) For the first time, a thought had entered our heads:
At least upon the printed page, it may have been bots all along!
Briefly, we offer these words of justification:
What difference does it make, you ask, if those inaccurate statements by Donald J. Trump are identified as lies?
Given the perilous state we're all in, it makes no difference at all! Fire and fury are going to come, just as we've been suggesting.
That said, our upper-end journalists make their living using words and drawing distinctions. And the distinctions involved in these ruminations are unbelievably basic.
When is a misstatement a lie? The question is about as complex as the sum of 2 plus 2. And yet, our highest-ranking scribes struggle beneath its weight.
When scribes can't handle such basic tasks, we're unlikely to be well-served by the rest of their work. Inevitably, one wonders if their published work come from real people at all—or if it could come from bots!
When is a misstatement a lie? When is a federal employee an intern? When is 22 to 24 years old really just 21?
Our highest-ranking professional journalists routinely fall beneath the weight of such conundrums. Any person with any good sense would ask the question we now ask:
Was it the bots all along? Did the bots outfight the Clintons, enabling Donald J. Trump?
Tomorrow: We've cited this piece many times