Ad Fontes and the Virtuous Path

Does rigor yield value?

NOTE: Within this text, wherever gender is not key to the explanation, I am using the Elverson ey/em construction of the Spivak Pronouns.

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

Any company that seeks to take on the problem of fake news is to be lauded. I believe that the ambitious goal of the news rating company, Ad Fontes should be respected as a daunting and well-intentioned undertaking. The company seeks to provide definitive and rule-based assessments of news and opinion in articles, podcasts and TV from the standpoints of veracity (truth-telling) and bias so that the consumer may better understand the greasy bag of information they find on their porches every morning. This endeavor is not to be tossed off lightly; but, it may be fundamentally flawed.

To be fair, sources of data like OANN, Fox and InfoWars vomit congealed processed news product into the brains of unwary observers every day. That mush is reprocessed through the observers’ various biases and then heaved relentlessly into the open bins of Twitter and Facebook where the simple refuse of the originator is crafted into appealing product for the average news consumer. Questions and rumors become accepted fact when blessed by the benediction of repetition.

Those that Ad Fontes see as the bias-opposites of the above sources, like The Huffington Post, Slate and The Daily Beast, provide information and opinion that focuses more on the preservation of generally accepted norms such as voting rights, fair taxation and acceptance of outlier groups such as the poor, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. These sources, like their competitors at Fox and OANN, are also enthusiastic and determined to convey their view of what is best for the nation but the vomit analogy really applies much better to the former than the latter. One is providing opinions based largely upon demonstrable falsehoods while the other is providing opinions based largely upon demonstrable facts. Indeed Fox News has won court cases by proving that their information is not news but merely entertainment; and, that no one in their right mind would take anything they say seriously. There have been no such successful defenses made by Slate. These oppositely biased competitors are, nonetheless, rated on Ad Fontes as roughly equivalent regarding their veracity.

There is a real need for a disciplined assessment of this information and certainly a ranking of veracity is essential. At the most basic level: Is the statement true? While the bias rating is an interesting idea, the problem with bias is that assessing it reveals another sort of bias. The reader determines that an article is biased, which reveals something of the author’s standpoint, which provides some indication of whether the information provided was illuminating (bringing the reader further into the world of reality) or misleading (bringing the reader deeper into a constructed fantasy). It is metadata about metadata about presented information, and that may be too abstract to be useful.

Ad Fontes rates bias as Right, Center or Left. Their proprietary algorithm for these ratings is reported by the company as strict, rule-based and patent pending. This is a for-profit company and the worker is worthy of his wage, so we should review the concept on its merits without assessing how the profit motive may affect the result. Such an assessment must be centered on the company’s two watchwords: What is the meaning and value of veracity and bias? Are these axes useful to understanding?

Veracity

From the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

Veracity, n 1.a. The quality or character in persons of speaking or stating the truth; habitual observance of the truth; truthfulness, veraciousness.

So veracity is a measure of truth-telling. That is to say, is it true that Donald Trump is the actual president of the United States? Is it true that global climate change is caused by human activity? Is it true that we must act to curb further global warming? Is it true that women should be paid the same as men for the same work? Is it true that Democracy is better for the people than Autocracy? Is it true that a benevolent dictator will make the trains run on time?

Clearly, some of these questions can be resolved by checking simple facts while others are a bit more nuanced. Veracity is a messy business when applied to the tangled complexities of the real world. A serious question arises about any immediate assessment of veracity: How do you know it is true until a few months later when the truth of the statement may be tested against actual outcomes? If a revolution occurs in a few months and Donald Trump is returned to his “rightful place” in the White House, the first question is easily answered: It is true. Joe Biden’s presidency was illegitimate and Trump was actually president all along.

If the eternal Trump presidency, after dispensing with Joe Biden, decrees a massive infrastructure program to build out electric public transportation across the nation assuring the efficient transport of humans from place to place without the need for individual automobiles, the planet is saved and the last question above is also answered: It is true.

Basically the veracity of certain statements needs to be assessed a few years after the statement is made. This does not impeach the Ad Fontes veracity project, but I think that it does imply that the veracity of certain statements made by news and opinion sources cannot be assessed fully until the actual truth of the statement has been verified against actual outcomes. Jimmy Dore, for example, gets a very low rating for veracity (and my gut tells me this assessment may be accurate) but the proof of his often forward-looking claims is yet to be actually observed. The veracity of Fox News is rated higher than Jimmy Dore even though they are generally discouraging Covid vaccinations and discounting global warming and arguing against entirely reasonable accommodations for those seeking gender flexibility. Are those claims consistent with truth-telling? We will have to see. Perhaps, ten years from now, gender flexibility will result in the downfall of Western Civilization. Will that make Fox’s warnings true or will the downfall of Western Civilization actually save the planet making Fox’s statements false (in a nuanced way)? My point is simply that veracity is complicated. True versus false may be too shallow a measure to carry value. Even truth-telling, without context, may be meaningless. Perhaps for this reason, the Ad Fontes veracity axis involves more than just truth.

Bias

From the OED:

Bias, n 3. c. Tendency to favour or dislike a person or thing, especially as a result of a preconceived opinion; partiality, prejudice. Also: an instance of this; any preference or attitude that affects outlook or behaviour, esp. by inhibiting impartial consideration or judgement.

Ad Fontes seeks to assess veracity and bias by using a three person panel to rank individual stories or programs along those two axes. The panel is comprised of a self-assessed Left-leaning person, a self-assessed Right-leaning person and a self-assessed Centrist. It should be noted that their assessment of truth versus falsehood does not involve a self-assessed truth-teller and a self-assessed lier. The notion of assembling a panel of humans to assess the likely orientation of the products of other humans is reasonable and may prove enlightening. The current approach, though, leaves us wondering what is actually meant by Left, Right and Center?

The Ad Fontes documentation refers to these analysts’ position on the bias spectrum as “self-reported”, meaning that each analyst comes into the process as the bias ey believes ey is. This may be a clever way to avoid bias in determining bias but I’m a little skeptical. The company seeks to define bias on the basis of the stances of elected officials and the platforms of the two major political parties. It strikes me that such a definition would require a right-leaning analyst to accept Q and advocate for Trump’s reinstatement. I must assume that the company has taken steps to moderate their understanding of Right in order to assure consistency

Ad Fontes, a Colorado company, explains in its documentation that the development team chose to define Right as the documented political position of Cory Gardner, the decidedly right-wing Trump supporter who served the Colorado citizens in the U.S. Senate for six years. It chose to define Left as the documented political position of the neoliberal Democratic Senator, Michael Bennet. I see two interesting things here:

On the plus side: By selecting existing positions of self-described Right and Left politicians, Ad Fontes has avoided the need to actually define Right or Left. Instead they have chosen simply to point at examples.

“What does Right mean?”

“It’s what that guy believes.”

On the minus side: Defining Right and Left by example after over thirty years of rightward push by the forces insinuated into our society by authoritarian idealogues like the Koch Brothers, a reasonable person could argue that, by standards understood in the 1950s, the definition of Left is really more of a definition of Center leaving no real place on the axis for actual non-neoliberal positions. If Nancy Pelosi is Left then Bernie Sanders, advocating an understanding of Capitalism that was mainstream under Eisenhower, is now ultra-Left and Communists have already fallen off the ragged edge. Nonetheless, Communists exist and have some reasonable perspectives.

Muddied Axes

As I argue in Use Your Words, if we are to understand someone’s position on a subject, we must locate it on a meaningful axis. Right versus Left is such an axis where Right is defined as it has been for centuries as a predilection toward monarchical or authoritarian rule, eschewing interference by the unwashed masses; and, Left is defined as it has been for centuries as the belief that the best government is one in which the common people rule in a democratic union. Now there is an axis upon which we may place ourselves and others in order to understand our actual positions as regards the best form of governance.

My concern with Ad Fontes’ two axes, veracity and bias, is that they are not each measuring a clear and distinct quality. For example the vertical axis on the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart® (veracity) doesn’t just measure truth value. It mixes up truthfulness, analysis and strength of advocacy. Therefore, isolated true statements (as we may read from the Associated Press) are recognized to be of the highest veracity. True statements combined with context explaining how that true statement relates to the rest of the world (as may be found in competent investigative journalism) is ranked lower in veracity.

The company acknowledges that the axes are composites and that it is striving to address concerns regarding that fact by constantly tuning its methodology. This mixing of qualities on the same axis may be unavoidable since a 2D chart may clearly express only two or three axes. Anyone who has tried to represent three dimensions on a piece of paper will understand the problem. Unfortunately, it means that the chart must represent the statement …

Senator Cobble said, “The president has once again raised taxes on the wealthy which threatens to destroy our economy.”

… as a statement of highest veracity. It is simple “fact reporting”. Meanwhile this statement is problematic:

Senator Cobble said, “The president has once again raised taxes on the wealthy which threatens to destroy our economy.” This statement is not uncommon from the Senator or his party despite authoritative studies which demonstrate that raising taxes on the wealthy has no adverse impact on the economy while lowering such taxes tend to isolate wealth in the higher tax brackets where it tends to lie dormant rather than stimulate economic growth.

Both statements are true but the second provides context around the original quotation leading the reader to improved understanding. Unfortunately, because the axis is muddied, the second must be ranked as less veracious, a “mix of fact reporting and analysis”.

Tucker Carlson may simply ask a question about the effectiveness of the Covid vaccine using persuasive rhetoric and this would result in a rating in the lower third of the veracity axis as “unfair persuasion”. A journalist who sites that question and provides a follow-up regarding how the answer is easily obtained from the CDC website would be rated in the upper third of that axis “mix of fact reporting and analysis”. Even though I suspect that this response to Carlson provided more useful information than simply reporting the facts, I do not believe that such a statement would be rated as the highest veracity. Admittedly, I’m guessing here.

In other words, the preferred form of truth by Ad Fontes appears to be the view from nowhere, a term originating in the eponymous book by Thomas Nagel and popularized by the journalism professor Jay Rosen to mean news without meaning because its connection to the actual world has not been made clear.

The horizontal axis, representing bias, is muddied because of the decision to define Right and Left by example only. In other words, Cory Gardner believes that the wealthy have been blessed by God for their hard work and Bennet believes that the wealthy are upstanding citizens who should obey the law but have earned their position through competence and initiative. Where on that axis may lie the entirely reasonable view that wealth itself represents a threat to economic stability? I myself have made such an argument and I do not believe it to be far left. It is consistent with Conservative beliefs under Eisenhower. How would one assess bias for an argument that disagrees with Senator Bennet and is based upon extensive scientific research which argues for an economy with significantly reduced disparities in individual worth? Is that really Left or is that just reasonable? It is clearly to the left of Senator Bennet. Is reason supported by competent science Right or Left?

A Noble Effort

I struggled with the decision to publish this because Ad Fontes itself has documented many of these concerns and has described their efforts to understand and, if needed, address them. I began this document because I read another Medium article which described the company without going into detail regarding the challenges. There was nothing particularly wrong with the article. It presented the list of best and worst sources according to Ad Fontes without much discussion regarding the methodology, although the author did provide several links to the Ad Fontes documentation. When I reviewed that documentation, I came away thinking that a simple “Trust these five. Don’t trust these five” was a risky over-simplification. I resolved to provide some additional review because these concerns apply not only to Ad Fontes but to any endeavor that must simplify for the purpose of clarity.

This is certainly a critique of Ad Fontes and its methodology, but it is not intended to be a rejection of this noble effort. We will need to watch as this experiment unfolds. Does the information being provided deliver value? While the Ad Fontes documentation is honest, extensive and easily readable, I have not settled, in my own mind, on what exactly is the intended outcome. The goal of helping consumers to better understand the news is a good one. Will the methodology, though, help people to place the news into the context of the real world as understood by reasonable thinking people or will it cement indistinct definitions of Right and Left into an already entrenched and unforgiving moral culture? In other words will the definition-by-example of Right and Left affix brackets to an already Right-biased Overton window?

There is a certain genius in taking the complex problem of how humans see things and applying biased humans to the assessment of bias in the hopes that biased human perception may cancel out biased human persuasion. This philosophical core may yield unexpected value.

John Locke once wrote, “It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of the truth.” Is merely knowing veracity and bias sufficient to expose the actual facts on the ground? If our goal is to help news consumers claim possession of the truth, can Ad Fontes pave a virtuous path that the average consumer may negotiate?

Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
Available at or orderable from your local bookstore.
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Also available in ebook and audio formats at Sockwood Press.

This work represents the opinion of the author only.

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Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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Julian S. Taylor

Julian S. Taylor

Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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