A “Red Pill” Moment
Remember that scene from The Matrix where Morpheus offers Neo a choice to take one of two pills — the Red Pill or Blue Pill? If Neo takes the blue one, everything goes back to normal and he continues living in blissful ignorance, believing whatever he wants; if he takes the red one, he learns the unsettling truth about reality and the Matrix.
I feel like I had a “red pill” moment just last week.
Last Wednesday, some family members and I attended a speech by Dr. Janet Yellen, the current Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. If you want to watch the event for yourself, the entire thing was archived on YouTube. In fact, I encourage you to watch — I don’t want you to take my word for it when I describe what it was like. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
I’m serious. Go watch the video, and come back when you’re done.
I don’t blame you if you got bored and switched back to this window after only a few minutes. If you managed to stay interested for longer than that, you have incredible patience!
Let’s be fair — it wasn’t a bad speech, and I have no reservations about Dr. Yellen’s qualifications in economics; it just wasn’t an exceptionally exciting experience. If I’m being polite, I would describe the talk as “academic.” If I’m being blunt, well… let’s call it “dry.” It reminded me a lot of macroeconomics class: Dr. Yellen gave a broad overview of what the Federal Reserve is, what it does, and how.
But let’s not dwell on the content of Yellen’s speech. That isn’t what really caught my interest. It’s what happened afterwards that mystified me.
Following the speech, our group went out for lunch at a nearby restaurant. While there, we chatted about the event. At one point, my mom went to look up some information on her phone about Yellen, where she found some of the top results on Google were news stories talking about the very event we had just attended.
Here’s where it gets weird. My mom pulled up an article from The New York Times titled, “Donald Trump and Janet Yellen Look to Be on a Collision Course.” That’s an odd headline.
While in some sense the headline might be true — the Fed may have to employ contractionary monetary policy to curb inflation resulting from a combination of ordinary recovery along with Trump’s proposed expansionary fiscal policies — the headline makes it sound so sensational.
It’s not like Yellen would be “taking a stand” against the Trump administration. As she mentions multiple times throughout her speech, the Federal Reserve has a dual mandate: Maximum employment and stable prices. If the Fed enacts contractionary policies in response to concerns about excessive inflation, it is because that is the very purpose of the Federal Reserve, not because the Fed aims to defy the president.
Then again, “Federal Reserve Expected to Do Exactly What It Was Chartered to Do” doesn’t really make a snappy headline, does it?
It gets weirder, though. Later that day after we all went home, my mom sent an email to the same group with another story she had found. This one, from NBC Bay Area, was called “Fed Chair Talks About Working With Trump During SF Speech.”
For starters, the title is completely false. I believe the reporter is confused about a part when Yellen talked about regular meetings with Jack Lew, Treasury Secretary for the Obama administration (about 55 minutes into the video). Please correct me if I’m wrong — I admit, I couldn’t stay completely interested for the entire event! — but I don’t recall a single time Yellen specifically mentioned the incoming Trump administration.
From this article, you could be forgiven for thinking there was some political motive in Yellen’s speech. This part particularly stuck out for me:
Yellen also said that no matter what the administration looks like, she wants the Fed to be more diverse.
“We are very focused on diversity of all sorts in the Fed; in our hiring and in the work we do,” she said. “We really want to see women and minorities included.”
Yes, Yellen did say this, but the quote was taken out of context. She did not say this as a statement of defiance against the Trump administration. She said this in response to a question from an audience member about opportunities for women in the financial sector (about 63 minutes into the video).
What’s going on here? Why did two separate outlets misrepresent the event like this? Hanlon’s razor would suggest I write off these stories as mere shoddy reporting, not anything malicious, and if forced to draw a conclusion, I will go with that. Yet I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any lingering doubts.
I fully realize what I’m about to say is going to sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. Heck, I feel like such a nut for even thinking it in the first place, but I can’t get this nagging question out of my head: What if these reports were intentionally written to mislead?
To be perfectly clear, I have no evidence to suggest this is the case. I’m merely posing the question arguendo. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it still reflects poorly on the press — but especially if it was, it suddenly makes a lot of sense why there is such widespread distrust of the “lamestream media.”
If major outlets can’t cover an unremarkable speech by the Chair of the Federal Reserve without injecting some political bent into it, how might they be altering other, more important events? How can I readily verify what happened or was said?
Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about the dangers of “fake news.” While I’m not convinced it’s a new phenomenon (see Weekly World News, The National Enquirer, et. al.) I have a newfound suspicion fake news sites are thriving today because people find it so difficult to distinguish facts from editorial spin in the mainstream outlets.
Confirmation bias is a powerful phenomenon, and when we find a source that sounds truthful because its stories are congruent with what we already believe, in terms of persuasive power, it might as well be the real deal.
I want to be able to trust what I read in the press, and I suspect irrespective of your politics, you feel the same way. We need an impartial press to inform the populace about what’s going on in the world around us in places we can’t always see. But if what I saw last week is any indicator of a larger trend, our news media are sorely lacking in objectivity.
It’s not completely the fault of the press, though. We readers implicitly asked for this: Journalists and editors wouldn’t be writing so sensationally if we didn’t respond so well to it. To remedy the issue, we need to support quality journalism, wherever it may come from.
There’s a big market for news, and producers respond to demand, so vote with your wallet. I encourage you to send a signal that consumers are tired of clickbait and sensationalism. Show producers there is better money to be made in delivering thoughtful, insightful content with a high regard for objectivity.
For my part, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. For the past few years, I have gladly paid The Economist about $150 in annual subscription fees for access to its articles, but could be persuaded to defect if a better option comes along — even if it’s more expensive.
Unless the sensationalism dies down, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read something in the news and not wonder if the subject matter is being conveyed completely truthfully. I have inadvertently taken the Red Pill, and truth doesn’t feel so obvious anymore.