Susan Crawford: Kai’s a writer and edi­tor in Brooklyn with col​or​lines​.com, which has been work­ing on racial jus­tice issues since 1998. And one of the goals of the site is to give read­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to take action. Big ques­tion for us today, you know. All these bright peo­ple in a room with name cards and lap­tops is, what’s the action need­ed? Emily’s just called us to think about clos­ing the invest­ment gap and the under­stand­ing gap between jour­nal­ists and tech­nol­o­gists and these oth­er cir­cles I’ve men­tioned. What about action in the Yochai Benkler sense of act­ing on mis­in­for­ma­tion and respond­ing to it effec­tive­ly online? Lots of calls to action. Kai Wright is going to help us think about this from his perspective.

Kai Wright: Well, sad­ly I don’t know how much I’ll suc­ceed at that. You know, I actu­al­ly come at this with a set of ques­tions for folks here. Because before we get to the action ques­tion I have ques­tions about the broad­er prob­lem, right. So when we’re talk­ing about truth and truthi­ness and in media, I think we first have to ask whose truth mat­ters, and what are its boundaries. 

So I’ll start with an anec­dote. This must’ve been I think prob­a­bly late 2006, ear­ly 2007—I remem­ber I was at a friend’s wed­ding, an old high school friend. And he is a guy…he did­n’t have a lot of pol­i­tics. You know, he does­n’t care one way or the oth­er, this left/right stuff. He’s just you know, going about his busi­ness. Had some invest­ments, was mak­ing good mon­ey, felt pret­ty good about the world. And we were hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion and I was like…money came up some­how and I said, Oh yeah, it’s tough out there, right?” This was 20062007.

And he goes, What’re you talk­ing about? You’re on the moon. It’s great out there. My stocks are up. My house is worth a lot of mon­ey. Everything’s fab­u­lous.”

But every­thing that I’d been report­ing and in the net­works I was in for the past decade, it felt like a reces­sion. And that’s because I was report­ing in black com­mu­ni­ties about what was going on with homes, and what was going on with cred­it, and what was going on with jobs, and it was still in the 2001 recession.

And so I tell that sto­ry to say that we both had facts, and they were both accu­rate. But the truth…where were we? And I think media, news media, has done a very poor job of includ­ing the entire truth because it’s only look­ing at a nar­row set of facts. And a nar­row set of sources. 

So you know yes, we are in a cri­sis right now I think because of the fast-moving news cycle and all of us who help move it faster (present com­pa­ny includ­ed, right) on peo­ple who wish to tell lies and assert them as truth, right. That’s plain. And that is a cri­sis that we have to deal with and that we’re talk­ing a lot about here.

But I also want us to talk about how how do we broad­en the world of facts. And this is an old con­ver­sa­tion. This is not new to the Internet. How do we broad­en the world of facts? And how do we broad­en the world of facts once we know them that matter?

So to take anoth­er exam­ple from the econ­o­my dis­cus­sion, robo-signing. Everybody know what robo-signing is at this point, right?

Susan Crawford: Tell us.

Wright: So what all of the attor­ney gen­er­als just set­tled with the five largest banks for the fraud­u­lent doc­u­ments they filed in courts when they were fore­clos­ing on folks in states that required a judge to approve a fore­clo­sure. That is a fact that has been out there…since fore­clo­sure start­ed. In places like The New York Times. Gretchen Morgenson has been writ­ing about it since you know…got to be 08. And I’m guilty as well. I was cov­er­ing the fore­clo­sure cri­sis, and folks were telling me about it. But these were the set of facts as a reporter I was sup­posed to be look­ing for. The con­ver­sa­tion we were sup­posed to be hav­ing at the time was whether or not peo­ple are irre­spon­si­ble bor­row­ers, right?

So jour­nal­ism debat­ed at great length, are they or are they not irre­spon­si­ble bor­row­ers? And we all gath­ered up a bunch of facts that deter­mined whether or not peo­ple were irre­spon­si­ble bor­row­ers. But there was this whole oth­er set of facts out there in front of us that nobody weighed. Which was the preda­to­ry behav­ior of the lend­ing agencies. 

So that then has con­se­quen­tial— And this is now how I guess we can get back to— My lens on the action’s ques­tion that I want to have is what we’re try­ing to do at Colorlines is bring more peo­ple’s facts into the pub­lic debate so we can broad­en what we’re talk­ing about

And you know, so the Web is great. This is just a 101 point, right. That because more peo­ple get to par­tic­i­pate, I have a lot of micro­phone. We can build a com­mu­ni­ty and lift them up and they can start say­ing in 2006, Hey wait, stuff’s kin­da bad out here, actually.”

I’m curi­ous, and this is my ques­tion, is what are all of the new tools we can use to broad­en the con­ver­sa­tion and broad­en the sets of facts that are avail­able beyond just polic­ing the lies that we’re already fight­ing? What are the tools for our com­mu­ni­ty where we can broad­en the set of facts? 

Audience 1: Hi, I’m Dan Schultz. I just want­ed to make sure I under­stand. So when you say more peo­ple’s facts, that has the poten­tial of bring­ing up the ques­tion what do we mean by a fact here? Like does it make sense to have lots of dif­fer­ent facts? Is truth real­ly rel­a­tive and what do we think of—

Kai Wright: So that’s a great segue to Kathleen. What I’ll say about it is that my asser­tion is not that facts are rel­a­tive. There is a— I believe that things are know­able, and they can be known, and there is a crit­i­cal prob­lem right now of peo­ple try­ing to mud­dy up things that are know­able. And the nature of jour­nal­ism today makes it dif­fi­cult for us to do our job. This tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ing of our job, of polic­ing the facts. 

But there’s a broad­er job we need to be play­ing in the whole sets of facts that nev­er make it into the con­ver­sa­tion that are defin­i­tive. So if the sets of facts that I had been see­ing about the econ­o­my in 2005 and 2006 and 2007 were part of the dis­cus­sion around the econ­o­my at the time, we would’ve been hav­ing a very dif­fer­ent debate over… Perhaps we would have nev­er arrived at the fore­clo­sure cri­sis, right? 

But the peo­ple who knew those things weren’t legit­i­mate in the eyes of main­stream jour­nal­ism. And the facts them­selves weren’t rel­e­vant to the con­ver­sa­tion we were sup­posed to be hav­ing. So how do we broad­en the con­ver­sa­tions we’re hav­ing? Truth is not just about what are the fact points. Truth is about also what are we talk­ing about in the first instance. 

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site