Susan Crawford: Kai’s a writer and editor in Brooklyn with colorlines.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 2006, 2007.
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.
Truthiness in Digital Media event site