Neuter News and Choose Your Views

A week or so after 9/11, a business I was running had a small warehouse fire. A barrel of waste material was set aside at the back of our shop waiting to be picked up by a recycling company. Unfortunately, it had been packaged carelessly exposing some raw lithium metal to air. This caused the lithium to ignite. Had it been left, it likely would have burned itself out and not spread. However, workers from our neighbor were working the graveyard shift. While enjoying a smoke break, they saw flames flickering through our bay door window in the dark. They grew concerned and called 911.

The fire department rushed to the rescue. They swiftly arrived on scene and quicker still chopped through our garage bay door window thrusting their hose through while simultaneously filling it with water. They neglected to look at the notice of hazardous materials posted on site or study the emergency action plan we had given them prior. Both of these spelled out the materials on hand and the class of fire extinguisher to use (of which several were available in the proximity of the barrel). Instead, the impulsive hose flooded the area of the smoldering barrel further igniting the exposed lithium with far greater ferocity. Worse yet, the pressure from the water mixing with lithium caused the resulting flames to be spread from the barrel into boxes of inventory piled high nearby. The fire spread. The flames intensified. Our intrepid firemen figured getting closer to the action was the solution. They further broke through our bay door so they could raise it. Now the toxic air of the oxidizing lithium hit a number of firefighters who weren’t prepared for it as they exposed themselves directly to the noxious fumes. About a dozen firefighters were knocked back and overwhelmed by the fumes. They had to retreat and seek medical assistance.

Unfortunately for us, this story made big news. Both because of the number of firefighters involved and the proximity of the problem to New York’s 9/11. The news of this “massive industrial fire” that required a “quadrant of the city to be shut down” was blasted over radio. Journalists from radio, print, and TV flocked to the “scene.” Yes, we had an issue. Yes, a fire occurred. Yes, some firefighters were required to seek treatment at a hospital. However, the building, business, or people near by weren’t at threat. It was resolved in literally minutes once the assault on the smoldering ashes was stopped. The mess left behind was when the work began.

With emergency vehicles of all kinds parked in and around the blocks where our warehouse was located, the press was drawn to these lights like moths to a flame. They wanted the big scoop. They repeatedly asked for interviews. As President, the requests came to me. I turned down every single one. 100% of the asks were denied. I had other priorities. With no input from me, the media came up with answers of their own to their questions. The biggest cost to us was a disruption to our production for half a day. Our staff were back to work by the afternoon. The next cost was the clean up required from the “intervention” of firefighters. In terms of actual damage, there was little. Any inventory that had been compromised was a pile of boxes that caught fire and incurred some damage. However, these were basically scrap materials we inherited from the purchase of some equipment and material from another business. They weren’t even on our balance sheet.

In short, the actual damage to building, inventory, and business was zero. Yet, from the headlines hurtling through numerous news outlets, the toll was substantial. Damages were estimated well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every aspect of the coverage was inflamed far beyond any actual flames that presented. As the dust settled on that day, my wife and I were decompressing with friends that were kind enough to look after our only son at the time. We watched the news together and I sat there stunned as one falsehood after another were broadcast without a blink of an eye. There was no shame, no doubt, just complete confidence that what was being presented was completely true. It was in that moment that my respect for and trust in media of all kinds tanked.

The author Michael Crichton gave a talk some years ago in which he introduces what he calls the “Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.” It’s a name he came up for an idea he discussed with a friend, Murray Gell-Mann. The idea is that we’ve all read or watched stories in the news on a subject we know well. We read the story, recognize all kinds of flaws with it, realizing that the article is misleading and produced by someone clearly without domain knowledge. We roll our eyes as we finish it. Yet, we proceed on to the next story on a subject we know less about and treat the story as the gospel truth. Crichton said, “You turn the page and forget what you know. That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper.”

Crichton notes that “Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved.” We trust the news as presenting the facts without slant. Yet, who decides what stories we see? What are the consequences to the press where incorrect information is presented? What’s their goal? Is it to inform? Really? Or is it to churn out content come what may to attract attention? Are they more interested in selling eyeballs to advertisers than they are in respecting the intellect of those allocating attention?

We can apply the Allegory of the Cave to our business worlds by considering where our understanding of the environment in which our business operates comes from. Do you passively absorb what others are offering? Do you rely on industry magazines or conventions to get insights? Does most of your market analysis come from conversations within your brokerage? Or are you proactively curating your own perspective? Are you looking outside your industry for an understanding of what’s going on? What kind of economic and financial data are you studying? Are you talking with others in your industry outside of your brokerage? Are you seeking the perspective of both grizzled veterans as well as younger employees? Are you asking older team members what they’ve seen change in recent years and where they see things going? Have you asked younger team members what’s important to them and their peers related to insurance?

Seth Godin writes in a blog post, “When there were a limited number of channels, mainstream ideas were the focus of our conversations, because the mainstream was all that was widely amplified. … Now, thanks to the billion-channel universe, the mainstream has gone out with the tide and every belief can feel mainstream if you immerse yourself in it. … Our choice of media and cultural inputs matter, now more than ever. When we choose what to see and who to hang out with, we’re actually choosing our future.” Lean in to avoid being a passive participant in the propaganda of the press. Own your informational inputs. Choosing your news to develop your own views is up to you. It’s a way of being W2D WOW and willing to do what others won’t. There’s an opportunity in being willing to look for and work to find a clearer picture. Actively developing a higher resolution reality can be rewarding.

Seek skepticism. Seek to adopt the aphorism of fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Once we’ve been burned by broadcasters, we should be turning them off. They are constantly training us to tune them out. Unfortunately, accuracy as an objective is shifting in favor of attracting. Much media would rather tell viewers what they want to hear instead of the truth. It becomes entertainment instead of information.

As a result, accuracy takes a back seat making broken clocks look reliable. At least, broken clocks are correct twice daily. News, not so much. The good or bad news about news is that more and more of us are doing just that, turning mainstream networks and newspapers off. Viewership and readership are down dramatically in the last 10 years. It’s because people have lost trust in media as an institution. We see governments funding them and wondering what influence that support is buying. We see more and more coverage of stories as being opinion based as opposed to fact driven. We’re told what to think not what’s going on. We can’t help but lose trust and interest.

In a separate post from December 2023, Godin writes, “Where we choose to direct our gaze determines not only what we learn or believe, but how we choose to see the world. … If we’re not happy with how external forces are stealing and redirecting our attention, we can change it.” We aren’t Plato’s passive, chained, and contained Cavemen. We can control our focus of attention to change our perspective. Adlin Sinclair offered, “You are the embodiment of the information you choose to accept and act upon. To change your circumstances, you need to change your thinking and subsequent actions.” What we know is shaped by what we hear and see. What are you looking at and to whom are you listening? As you work to take control of and expand your perspective, consider a couple of questions Morgan Housel offers in an article, “What do I believe the most with the least amount of evidence of it being true? Do I spend more time defending what I already know instead of trying to learn something new?” Working to question your own ideas and seek out other perspectives will lead to a richer, more accurate picture of your environment allowing you to make better decisions.