Good News About Bad News

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

You’ve undoubtedly said that before. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or a writer trying to explain a missed deadline, you had to deliver information — some of it positive, some of it not — and opened with this two-headed approach.

But which piece of information should you introduce first? Should the good news precede the bad? Or should the happy follow the sad?

As someone who finds himself delivering mixed news more often than he should or wants to, I’ve always led with the positive. My instinct has been to spread a downy duvet of good feeling to cushion the coming hammerblow.

The book, "When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing" by Daniel H. Pink
From When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink, published by Riverhead. An imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Daniel H. Pink.

My instinct, alas, has been dead wrong.

To understand why, let’s switch perspectives — from me to you. Suppose you’re on the receiving end of my mixed news, and after my “I’ve got some good news and some bad news” windup, I append a question: “Which would you like to hear first?”

Think about that for a moment.

Chances are, you opted to hear the bad news first. Several studies over several decades have found that roughly four out of five people prefer to begin with a loss or negative outcome and ultimately end with a gain or positive outcome, rather than the reverse. Our preference, whether we’re a patient getting test results or a student awaiting a mid-semester evaluation, is clear: bad news first, good news last.

But as news givers, we often do the reverse. Delivering that harsh performance review feels ­unsettling, so we prefer to ease into it, to demonstrate our kind intentions and caring nature by offering a few spoonfuls of sugar before administering the bitter medicine. Sure, we know that we like to hear the bad news first. But somehow we don’t understand that the person sitting across the desk, wincing at our two-headed intro, feels the same. She’d rather get the grimness out of the way and end the encounter on a more redeeming note. As two of the researchers who’ve studied this issue say, “Our findings suggest that the doctors, teachers, and partners … might do a poor job of giving good and bad news because they forget for a moment how they want to hear news when they are patients, students, and spouses.”

We blunder — I blunder — because we fail to understand the final principle of endings: Given a choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate. The science of timing has found — repeatedly — what seems to be an innate preference for happy endings. We favor sequences of events that rise rather than fall, that improve rather than deteriorate, that lift us up rather than bring us down. And simply knowing this inclination can help us understand our own behavior and improve our interactions with ­others.

For example, social psychologists Ed O’Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth of the University of Michigan wanted to see how endings shaped people’s judgment. So they packed a bag full of Hershey’s Kisses and headed to a busy area of the Ann Arbor campus. They set up a table and told students they were conducting a taste test of some new varieties of Kisses that contained local ingredients.

People sidled up to the table, and a research assistant, who didn’t know what O’Brien and Ellsworth were measuring, pulled a chocolate out of the bag and asked a participant to taste it and rate it on a 0-to-10 scale.

Then the research assistant said, “Here is your next chocolate,” gave the participant another candy, and asked her to rate that one. Then the experimenter and her participant did the same thing again for three more chocolates, bringing the total number of candies to five. (The tasters never knew how many total chocolates they would be sampling.)

The crux of the experiment came just before people tasted the fifth chocolate. To half the participants, the research assistant said, “Here is your next chocolate.” But to the other half of the group, she said, “Here is your last chocolate.”

The very best endings are not always happy in the traditional sense. Often … they’re bitter sweet.

The people informed that the fifth chocolate was the last — that the supposed taste test was now ending — reported liking that chocolate much more than the people who knew it was simply next. In fact, people informed that a chocolate was last liked it significantly more than any other chocolate they’d sampled. They chose chocolate number five as their favorite chocolate 64 percent of the time (compared with the “next” group, which chose that chocolate as their favorite 22 percent of the time). “Participants who knew they were eating the final chocolate of a taste test enjoyed it more, preferred it to other chocolates, and rated the overall experience as more enjoyable than other participants who thought they were just eating one more chocolate in a series.”

Screenwriters understand the importance of endings that elevate, but they also know that the very best endings are not always happy in the traditional sense. Often, like a final chocolate, they’re bittersweet. “Anyone can deliver a happy ending — just give the characters everything they want,” says screenplay guru Robert McKee. “An artist gives us the emotion he’s promised … but with a rush of unexpected insight.” That often comes when the main character finally understands an emotionally complex truth. John August, who wrote the screenplay for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other films, argues that this more sophisticated form of elevation is the secret to the success of Pixar films such as Up, Cars, and the Toy Story trilogy.

Scenes from the Pixar animated films Up and Toy Story.
Uplifting: “Every Pixar movie has its protagonist achieving the goal he wants only to realize it’s not what the protagonist needs.” Top: Up; Bottom: Toy Story 3 (Pictorial Press Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo; AF Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

“Every Pixar movie has its protagonist achieving the goal he wants only to realize it is not what the protagonist needs. Typically, this leads the protagonist to let go of what he wants (a house, the Piston Cup, Andy) to get what he needs (a true yet unlikely companion, real friends, a lifetime together with friends).” Such emotional complexity turns out to be central to the most elevated endings.

Researchers Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen teamed up with two other scholars to explore what makes endings meaningful. In one of their studies, the researchers approached Stanford seniors on graduation day to survey them about how they felt. To one group, they gave the following instructions: “Keeping in mind your current experiences, please rate the degree to which you feel each of the following emotions,” and then gave them a list of 19 emotions. To the other group, they added one sentence to the instructions to raise the significance that something was ending: “As a graduating senior, today is the last day that you will be a student at Stanford. Keeping that in mind, please rate the degree to which you feel each of the following emotions.”

The researchers found that at the core of meaningful endings is one of the most complex emotions humans experience: poignancy, a mix of happiness and sadness. For graduates and everyone else, the most powerful endings deliver poignancy because poignancy delivers significance. One reason we overlook poignancy is that it operates by an upside-down form of emotional physics. Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. “Poignancy,” the researchers write, “seems to be particular to the experience of endings.” The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead, they produce something richer — a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we need.

Endings offer good news and bad news about our behavior and judgment. I’ll give you the bad news first, of course. Endings help us evaluate and record our experiences, but they can sometimes twist our memory and cloud our perception by overweighting final moments and neglecting the totality.

But endings can also be a positive force. They can help energize us to reach a goal. They can help us edit the nonessential from our lives. And they can help us elevate — not through the simple pursuit of happiness but through the more complex power of poignancy. Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.

From When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink, published by Riverhead. An imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Daniel H. Pink.

This article is featured in the January/February 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Shutterstock

News of the Week: Best Books, Homeless Muppets, and Now We’re Supposed to Hate Christmas Cards, Apparently

December Is the Month for Lists

For several years, there was a guy online who would round up all of the “best and worst” lists of the year and put them on one page, with links to each list. It was great to have all of the lists for TV, film, books, music, and more in one handy place, and I miss it. I was thinking of setting up a page and doing it myself, and then I thought, that really seems like an awful lot of work, now doesn’t it? So I forgot about it and turned on The Price Is Right.

But I can link you to some of the “best books of the year” lists I’ve found. In addition to the lists of books we give you throughout the year, the critics at The New York Times have picked their favorites in fiction and nonfiction. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan has her list too, including what she considers the novel of the year. Laura Miller at Slate has her picks for the 10 best of 2018, Bloomberg has their list of (mostly) nonfiction, and the GoodReads community has a lot of suggestions too.

Oh, I know, the reviews for the worst books can be the most fun to read. Here’s a list of the worst fiction of the year from Open Letters Review.

Street Talk

News came this week that Sesame Street is going to feature its first homeless Muppet. Her name is Lily, and she first appeared on the show in 2011. The show hopes that they can shine a light on homelessness and help kids and families who are experiencing the same issues.

First homeless Muppet? I’d just like to point out that Oscar the Grouch has been living in a garbage can since 1969.

Netflix Will Be There for You

When you read about the shows debuting on Netflix and other streaming services, you’re usually hearing of new, original programming. But Netflix just paid $100M for the rights to keep airing Friends, beating out other companies like Hulu, Fox, and Disney.

Now, please note that this deal is only for 2019. One year. WarnerMedia, which owns Friends, is launching its own streaming service next year and will want to start airing the show in 2020 (it’s amazing how popular Friends is across all generations), either exclusively, or perhaps they will still make deals for it to be shown on other streaming services as well.

If you don’t have Netflix, don’t worry: You can still watch Friends on various channels like TBS and Nick at Nite. Sure, they’re heavily edited to fit more commercials, but on the plus side, they’re on 27 times a day.

A Christmas Carol Turns 175

Is there any other story that has been filmed more than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? The number of versions is currently at “a boatload” (with the best being the George C. Scott version and I don’t want to hear any arguments otherwise). And that’s not counting how many other stories, TV shows, and movies copy the “person is visited by ghosts and learns the true meaning of Christmas!” plot. It’s been done by, well, everybody.

The story turns 175 this year. It was originally published in London on December 19, 1843, and proved to be very popular. The full official title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, but no one’s going to remember all that.

Here’s the first film adaptation of the story, a 1901 British short film called Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost:

With Every Christmas Card I Write

Last month we found out that A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is racist, and last week we discovered that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is unspeakably evil. Sometimes I’m not sure how to celebrate the holiday. Is it okay to build a snowman, or is that a gender thing? Can I drink cider? Is tinsel still allowed? I ask these questions because now Christmas cards are bad.

This article is a year old, but it’s worth discussing because I’m seeing this sentiment more and more in this age of social media. The author says that sending Christmas cards is “the season’s most annoying tradition” because it forces everyone “to waste their time.” She also doesn’t like cards because they’re impersonal and “entirely useless as a method of communication.” I’ve heard the word “distraction” used in many contexts before, usually with social media and phones and the amount of time we spend looking at screens, but never, ever when it came to Christmas cards. Must be an age thing. She also says that not sending out Christmas cards will help reduce our “carbon footprint.” Because smartphones and cars are made from locally grown organic kale.

I bring up the age of the author not to mock the young (though as I age into my mid-50s I see this as a perfectly reasonable pursuit); I bring it up because she herself in the article mentions rather sarcastically that her grandmother still likes to send Christmas cards, as if this is bad because it’s old-fashioned or traditional. I’m not even sure I understand the world of this article because it seems to be based on a world where everyone is still sending Christmas cards to everyone they know, but the number of Christmas cards sent has dropped.

You don’t necessarily have to make your own, but would it kill you to send a card this year, with your handwritten name and a stamp, through the mail? I know that nothing says warm and fuzzy greetings like a quick text with questionable spelling and punctuation, but if you put a little more effort into it, I guarantee it will be appreciated. And hurry up! Christmas is less than two weeks away.

If not for yourself or your loved ones, do it for Louis Prang.

Tonight on CBS

I’m not a fan of colorizing movies and TV shows, but if colorization is what makes CBS put The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy on in prime time every single year, then it’s a good thing. The shows always get good ratings — which warms the heart — and you can watch two episodes of each show tonight starting at 8 p.m. EST.

RIP Geoff Murphy, John D.F. Black, Tim Rossovich, and Evelyn Berezin

Geoff Murphy was the second unit director on a number of well-known films, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He also directed Under Siege 2, The Quiet Earth, and Young Guns II. He died last week at the age of 80.

John D.F. Black co-wrote the classic action film Shaft and also wrote for several TV shows, including Star Trek, Hawaii Five-0, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as well as the pilot movie for a Wonder Woman series that starred Cathy Lee Crosby (it’s much better than the Lynda Carter version). He died in November at the age of 85.

Tim Rossovich played football for USC (where he was Tom Selleck’s roommate) and the Philadelphia Eagles before becoming an actor. He appeared in such movies as Night Shift and The Main Event and TV shows like Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, MacGyver, Remington Steele, and Soap. He died last week at the age of 72.

Evelyn Berezin was a somewhat overlooked computer industry pioneer credited with building the very first true computerized word processor. She also founded the first company to sell the machines. She died last weekend at the age of 93.

Picture of the Week

When you tell the barista at the coffee shop how to spell your name:

 

This Week in History

James Thurber Born (December 8, 1894)

Last year the Post talked to several Thurber Prize-winning humorists, including Calvin Trillin, Sloane Crosley, and Ian Frazier, to find out what makes people laugh.

Italy and Germany Declare War on U.S. (December 11, 1941)

Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declared war on Japan, leading both Italy and Germany to declare war on the U.S.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Christmas Photograph (December 11, 1954)

Parents try to take a photo of their children for a Christmas card. Their daughter sits patiently and dignified; their son slouches with a disgusted look.
Christmas Photograph

This cover was created by Amos Sewell, back when it was still okay to send Christmas cards.

It’s National Fruitcake Month

Everyone makes the same joke at Christmas, and it involves fruitcake and how bad it is. If a dessert can be unloved, fruitcake is that dessert. Has anyone ever had a good one? There are rumors still floating around that someone made a really great fruitcake in Minnesota around 1985 or ’86, but it has never been confirmed.

But if you could make a fruitcake this year that your family actually likes, this could be the best Christmas ever. Food Network’s Alton Brown claims to have the recipe for the best fruitcake ever (there’s also a helpful video to go along with the recipe). Alcohol seems to be really important; then again, it always is.

If you want to be more adventurous, try this fruitcake recipe from a 1912 issue of our sister publication, The Country Gentleman. And you can insert your own joke here about how every fruitcake we eat seems to have been made in 1912.

The funny thing about fruitcake is that it’s usually the fruit part that makes it taste ghastly. But if you don’t include the fruit, well, it’s just cake.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

National Answer the Phone Like Buddy the Elf Day (December 18)

If you don’t remember the way Buddy answered the phone in the movie Elf, it was “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” Answer the phone that way all day today, even at work. Especially at work.

Go Caroling Day (December 20)

Last Saturday I drove around the block near my post office approximately 11 times. I wasn’t going for a casual ride, I was looking for a parking space (from Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic was terrific.) When I finally found a space — completely by accident, another car pulling out just as I got to the end of the street — I parked and put a couple of coins in the meter. I was irritated, but as I walked away, I heard a group of carolers across the street. I stopped for a moment to listen to them, and instantly got into a better mood. I don’t see a lot of carolers in my town, and it put a smile on my face.

We need more caroling.

News of the Week: Christmas TV, Toxic Words, and Respect for the Humble Tater Tot

Every Time a Bell Rings, an Angel Gets Its Wings

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving. I know you probably have leftovers in your fridge right now, but Thanksgiving is over, and it’s Black Friday, and Christmas season has begun. And it’s not just time for shopping and Christmas decorations; it’s also time for grinches to steal, magical snowmen to die, and George Bailey to find Zuzu’s petals. It’s time for Christmas TV!

There’s a website devoted to Christmas TV schedules — conveniently called ChristmasTVSchedule.com — and it lists every single time a Christmas special or holiday-themed movie will air on broadcast TV and cable until January. When is A Charlie Brown Christmas on? When will the Christmas episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond air? What’s the schedule for all those Hallmark Movie Channel movies where a busy career woman bumps into a guy at Christmastime who just happens to be named Nick and they fall in love?

The site is constantly being updated, so if they don’t have your favorite listed right now, they will once they find out when it’s on. For the record, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t on as much as it used to be back when the copyright ran out and every station from California to Maine could run it as many times as they wanted. NBC has owned the rights for a couple of decades now, and it’s on only twice this year: November 24 (that’s tomorrow!) at 8 p.m. on NBC-owned USA Network, and Christmas Eve at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Oxford’s Word of the Year

It’s that time of the year when organizations and publications start releasing their “           of the Year” lists. This week, Oxford Dictionaries picked toxic as their word of 2018.

Oxford says they picked the word because they saw a 45 percent increase in the number of times it had been searched for on their website, as well as for the many times it had been used in an array of contexts, including in the media.

I don’t know if I’ve heard the word that much this past year. I think I heard fake a lot more. Of course, Oxford’s word last year was youthquake, so …

Keurig Has a New Machine (And This One’s for Booze!)

There’s a good chance you have a Keurig coffeemaker in your home. Would you buy one that dispenses alcohol?

According to The Verge, Keurig and Anheuser-Busch are teaming up to create a new company called Drinkworks, which will release a new cocktail pod machine. It works similar to the Keurig coffee makers, only the pods contain alcohol. The machine will cost $299, and each pod will be around $4.

This sounds like a natural idea, but I don’t know if it will catch on. The cost of the pods might be a little high, and will people switch from having bottles of alcohol in their home to pods they’ll have to replace? It also seems to me that the actual mixing of a cocktail — the act of creating it yourself and making it exactly how you want it — is a big part of having one in the first place.

I also can’t imagine Philip Marlowe coming home after getting beat up by thugs and placing a pod into a machine.

Fax Machines Are Still a Thing

Every year I buy a pocket planner. Please don’t educate me about the wonders of your Google calendar and other digital marvels. I like paper, and I like the size, and it’s something that just works for me. There’s a page in the planner for your personal information: your name, your address, your phone number, whom to contact in case of emergency, that sort of thing. One thing has always irritated me about this page, though: There’s no line for my email address, but there is a line for … my fax number. (Apparently, the company that makes the planner thinks it’s still 1997.) Not only is this line not needed, but if they took it out, it would give more space for the other lines. I have to write really small to fit in my phone number.

Remember when fax machines were the “OMG” technology? “You mean I can put this paper in the machine on this end and someone across the country gets a copy of it in a few minutes? Wow!”

Well, fax machines no longer get an “OMG” or a “wow” from anyone, unless you’re talking to someone young who might say, “Wow, that sounds really lame.” For some, they belong in an old technology museum, along with 8-track tape players and rotary phones. But as this piece at The Atlantic says, they’re still being used by a lot of people, especially in doctors’ offices and in the court system.

Potatoes, in Tot Form

Tater Tots don’t get much love when you become an adult, not even among potato enthusiasts. It’s something that kids eat. Even the name Tater Tot sounds like it’s something you should abandon when you’re old enough to vote.

But one man, Dan Whalen, thinks this should change. In fact, he wrote a whole book about it, and CBS Sunday Morning profiled him this week.

RIP William Goldman, Roy Clark, Katherine MacGregor, James Greene, and Pablo Ferro

William Goldman was the writer of several classic movie screenplays, including All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, Misery, and many others. He also authored some great behind-the-scenes books about Hollywood. He died last week at the age of 87.

Roy Clark was an award-winning country star and guitarist who co-hosted the popular variety show Hee-Haw. He died last week at the age of 85.

Katherine MacGregor was a veteran actress probably best known for her role as Harriet Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. She died last week at the age of 93.

James Greene was a showbiz veteran who played Councilman Milton on Parks and Recreation. He also played Davey the elevator operator on The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and appeared on many other TV shows, movies, and on Broadway. He died last week at the age of 91.

Pablo Ferro had an interesting life. Not only did he design the main titles for movies like Dr. Strangelove, L.A. Confidential, Bullitt, Good Will Hunting, and Darkman, he also worked with Stan Lee, had a successful run in advertising on Madison Avenue, and edited the Michael Jackson video for “Beat It.” He died last week at the age of 83.

This Week in History

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863)

The iconic speech by the president was a lot shorter than people realize, and even the wording is disputed among historians and scholars.

First Push-Button Phones (November 18, 1963)

Bell was the first to offer the push-button option, to customers in Pennsylvania.

I miss rotary phones.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Toddler Empties Purses (November 22, 1952)

We’re now officially in Christmas party season, and this scene from Stevan Dohanos might play out in homes across the country. Look at all those hats!

Toddler Empties Purses

Do people still put their coats on beds during parties?

Tater Tot Stuffing

This recipe is mentioned in the CBS Sunday Morning video above and is officially called Tots-giving Stuffing. But you can make it for Tots-mas too if you want.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

Cyber Monday (November 26)

Maybe you can fax your order over to Amazon.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting (November 28)

NBC seems to own network holidays. They have It’s a Wonderful Life, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and they also have the annual Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center in New York City. It airs at 8 p.m. and will feature Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, John Legend, Martina McBride, and other musical guests.

News of the Week: Expensive Gifts, Kleenex Dumps Man Tissues, and Maybe You Should Eat Some Bugs on Halloween

All I Want for Christmas Is …

Did you win the Mega Millions lottery this week? I didn’t either. Sure, it didn’t help that I forgot to buy a ticket, but that doesn’t lessen the pain. But if you won, perhaps you’d be interested in buying a 74-foot solar yacht. It’s only $7.1 million.

That’s just one of the gifts you can buy from this year’s Neiman Marcus Christmas Book. You can also get a tour of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments with Sloane Stephens (only $555,000), a private “secret agent adventure” in Las Vegas ($315,000), and a personalized outfit designed by Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (that’s $300,000).

I don’t remember gifts like this in the Sears Wish Book.

To be fair, most of the gifts in the catalogue are normal, and won’t cost you thousands or millions of dollars. If you did win the lottery, you could buy everyone in the world a set of towels or a tin of popcorn.

A Tissue Issue

This is another one of those gender/Kleenex stories that you always hear about.

Kimberly-Clark, the company that makes Kleenex tissues, has been selling a “Mansize” tissue in the United Kingdom for 60 years. But the company has been the subject of many complaints lately (many of them on social media, of course) because the tissues are “sexist.”

Let’s pause this section of the column to think about the fact that people are calling Kleenex tissues “sexist.”

One concerned mother tweeted that her four-year-old son saw the word “Mansize” on the product and asked his mother what it meant. She informed him that it was a decades-long plot by the tissue conglomerates to force women into a subservient role in society. Well, no, she didn’t actually say that, but I’m sure some other people think something similar.

The company listened to the complaints, and now the tissues are being rebranded as “Extra Large.” Oddly, “Mansize” is still being used on their website.

I just wonder how overweight people are going to feel about the words “extra large.”

50 Years of the Fisher Space Pen

A lot of people think that NASA invented the Space Pen, originally called the Anti-Gravity 7, but it was actually the brainchild of Paul Fisher in the 1960s. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a retractable pen that writes over grease, upside-down, and even in zero gravity, which is why NASA was interested in them for the first Apollo mission.

When people think of the Space Pen, they’re usually thinking of another one of Fisher’s inventions that is probably the most well-known. The Bullet Pen also writes in zero gravity, but it’s a small, rounded, bullet-shaped pen that is the perfect size to carry in your pocket, and you can add a little clip to attach it to your planner or phone case. I have one, and while I’ve never tried it in space, I can report that it works well and is really handy.

The pens are still flown on every space mission.

Robert Charles Howe

I haven’t been watching What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth on Buzzr that much lately. It used to be a daily watch for me, but they’ve switched to showing the 1970s color episodes. While I watched them as a kid and enjoyed them, I don’t enjoy them as much today. Maybe it’s the fact that the celebrities seem dumber and the humor more crass, maybe it’s the horrible ’70s clothing, or maybe it’s the fact that Soupy Sales is a little hard to take, but they’re just not as enjoyable as the black-and-white episodes of the ’50s and early ’60s.

But I was channel surfing last week and came across To Tell the Truth, heard the name “Norman Rockwell,” and knew I had to stop and watch. The panel had to guess which of the contestants was Robert Charles Howe, a teenager who won a Saturday Evening Post contest in the early ’70s. I did a little digging and found this fascinating Chicago Tribune article from 1986 that describes how the talented Howe won the contest, what happened after his self-portrait appeared on the March/April 1973 cover and he came to work for the Post, and the health problems that he endured all his life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video of the episode, but if I do I’ll post it in a future column.

Howe died of a stroke in 2002. He was only 48 years old.

TCM Does Halloween

Bill Newcott has already given his list of smart horror movies, and Troy Brownfield picked 15 funny-but-scary films, but I’d like to add a few films to those lists that Turner Classic Movies is going to show on October 31.

They’ve actually been showing horror movies every Wednesday this month, but on Halloween they have an all-day marathon of scary flicks, including Dementia 13, the 1963 cult classic directed by Francis Ford Coppola; Cat People, the weird 1942 film produced by Val Lewton; Carnival of Souls, from 1962; and then starting at 8 p.m. there will be a marathon of Vincent Price films, including House of Wax, Pit and the Pendulum, and House on Haunted Hill.

If you’re not in the mood to be scared and want to get a head start on Christmas instead (besides reading the Neiman Marcus catalogue), the Hallmark Channel will have a marathon of made-for-TV holiday movies all day.

RIP Danny Leiner, Todd Bol, and James Karen

Danny Leiner directed such comedies as Dude, Where’s My Car? and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. He also directed episodes of The Sopranos, Gilmore Girls, Sports Night, The Office, and Arrested Development. He died last week at the age of 57.

Todd Bol was the creator of the Little Free Library, those small boxes outside many homes that are filled with books you can borrow. He put the first one outside his Wisconsin home in 2009, and now there are more than 75,000 of them all around the world. Bol died last week at the age of 62.

James Karen was in everything, and you’d know the face more than the name. He appeared in such movies as Poltergeist, All the President’s Men, Wall Street, The China Syndrome, and in TV shows like Little House on the Prairie, The Larry Sanders Show, As the World Turns, Murphy Brown, and Seinfeld. He died Tuesday at the age of 94.

Quote of the Week

“The Titanic replica will have the same interiors and cabin layout as the original vessel, but with modern safety features. You know, for example, doors large enough for two people to float on.”

The Late Late Show’s James Corden, talking about the Titanic II that may set sail in 2022, and referencing a famous movie scene.

This Week in History

President Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” (October 20, 1973)

During the height of the Watergate scandal, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent prosecutor Archibald Cox. When Richardson resigned instead, Nixon ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to do it. He resigned too. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork did it.

CBS Begins Using “Eye” Logo (October 20, 1951)

Here’s a history of the logo from 2001, narrated by Bill Kurtis:

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Rockwell’s Halloween

In this Rockwell Video Minute, a look at the Halloween cover the artist drew for the October 23, 1920, issue.

Halloween Recipes

Halloween is the one day where you should take a chance and eat something you wouldn’t ordinarily eat, something you’ve always thought you’d never eat, maybe even something that has always seemed a little … gross.

The United Nations wants us to eat more bugs. At the top of the list are ants, grasshoppers, crickets, stinkbugs, and tree worms. Sorry, I’m not eating anything called a “stinkbug.”

If you’d like to eat something that looks like a bug but doesn’t have any of the qualities of the real thing, how about making these Brownie Spiders from Taste of Home, these Garlic and Herb Cheese Ball Bats from The Hopeless Housewife, or this Bug Salad from MyRecipes (no actual bugs are harmed in the making of this recipe).

I might be really daring this year and eat something that terrifies me to my very core: liverwurst. Ooooooo, scary!

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

National Candy Corn Day (October 30)

Does anyone really like this stuff? I can eat maybe three of them before I realize it’s like eating wax covered in sugar.

Men Make Dinner Day (November 1)

We can’t have our own tissues anymore, but hey, we can still make dinner!

News of the Week: Stamp Prices Might Go Up, Sears Might Go Down, and Young People Hate American Cheese

55 Cents?

I’m a big fan of snail mail and the post office. I know “there’s an app for that” for many of the things we used to do via mail, but it’s one of the things I don’t want to give up. I still send several pieces of snail mail a month, paying bills, sending official forms, and even writing letters to people. I don’t really understand how, even in this age of the internet, a person can get by purely online, and I say this as someone who is online 10 hours a day.

Then again, I don’t understand how people get by these days not wearing a wristwatch or having cable TV either.

I talked to a couple of people (that was the extent of my research for this column) who absolutely swear they never, ever use snail mail, and even they had to admit that, oh yeah, they do send one or two things via mail here and there, like their rent checks or a bill they can’t pay online (they still don’t understand watches, though).

The United States Postal Service wants to raise the price of a first-class stamp to 55 cents, an increase of 5 cents. It would be the biggest one-time increase since 1991. I say that’s still a great deal. Imagine if mail were just now invented and they told you that, for 55 cents, we’ll deliver your mail anywhere in the country in a few days. We’d think that was pretty amazing, because it is.

I want the USPS to stick around forever, and I vote we say okay to whatever they need. A lot of people assume they take tax money, but they don’t. They have to be run as an independent organization, and they have to go to Congress to get rates approved. The money they lose every year? There are many reasons for that. Sure, I send a lot of email and pay for many things online, but I like the option of snail mail, something that won’t get hacked or get a virus, and that doesn’t make me look at yet another screen.

A lot of people say we don’t need the USPS because companies like FedEx and UPS can handle deliveries. You think FedEx or UPS is going to send a letter to a rural community across the country in two or three days for 55 cents? Good luck with that.

Sears Files for Bankruptcy

One of the fondest Christmas memories of my childhood is reading the annual Sears Wish Book. I would very carefully go through the catalogue to find all of the items (translation: toys and games) I wanted for Christmas. Then I would make a handy chart for my mom with each item’s name, the price, and the page where the item could be found (hey, I was only trying to be helpful!). They discontinued the catalogue several years ago, though they still publish a much smaller version in Canada and released a special Wish Book and Wish Book app in 2017.

Now Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They’re closing 142 more Sears and Kmart stores, after closing 45 stores just two months ago and 103 stores a few months before that.

This is sad. I’m not saying I shopped at Sears as much as I did years ago, but it was always comforting to know that they were still there. (And they were the only place that sold my favorite brand of sneakers.) Last week, I went to the mall and the Sears was closed, just a giant wall where the entrance used to be. Next year it’s going to be replaced by a fitness center and a parking lot.

Young People vs. American Cheese

First they came for our cereal, and then they came for our mayonnaise. Now young people have officially gone too far. They’re abandoning American cheese.

Younger people (and let’s not blame this all on “millennials,” a term publications keep using to describe anyone young) just aren’t feeling American cheese anymore. Sales of American cheese and similar products like Velveeta will drop an estimated 1.6 percent this year, which is the fourth year in a row they’ve seen a decline.

And this isn’t one of those niche things that goes nowhere, a temporary anomaly in the food world. Restaurants have taken notice, too. The A&W chain switched to cheddar, Wendy’s offers asiago, and Panera Bread replaced the American cheese on their sandwiches with a four-cheese combo that people seem to like.

Maybe it’s the plastic wrapper around American cheese. It didn’t used to be sold that way. Maybe if they start selling it without the wrapper and put the word artisanal on the package, younger people would like it again.

I mean, what do young people use for their grilled cheese sandwiches now? Gouda? Brie? This is America, not some fancy place like France!

Let’s get #SaveAmericanCheese trending on Twitter.

No Womxn, No Cry

I have a theory: We’re all drowning in information. This isn’t a particularly original observation, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And not only are we overwhelmed by the usual types of information we receive — TV news, newspapers, books, history, social media — it’s that people are trying to change the things we already know, things we don’t need to change.

This week’s example: the spelling of the word woman. We all know that’s the way it’s spelled, right? Well, some people want to change that. A library and museum in London called The Wellcome Collection sent out a tweet — and this is usually how all bad ideas start — asking if the word woman should be spelled womxn, to get away from its origins from the word man and make it “less patriarchal.”

As the cheese-hating kids say today, I can’t even.

Not only is it confusing because that’s not how woman is spelled, the new spelling makes it look like a new cholesterol or blood pressure medication. “Ask your doctor if womxn is right for you.”

If we’re going to change the spelling to womxn, then I insist we change other words too. “Man” will now be spelled m!n, boy will be spelled b2y, and girl will be spelled with nine ampersands: gi&&&&&&&&&l.

One Giant Auction for Mankind

One of the truisms of life is that everything eventually gets sold.

Up for auction on November 1 and 2 (and then continued in two other auctions in 2019) are the private items of first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, subject of the new movie First Man. Included in the auction of 1,200 items will be Armstrong’s spacesuit from a Gemini flight, letters, items that went with the astronaut to the moon, and even pieces of the propeller and wing from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer.

Armstrong’s parents appeared on a 1962 episode of I’ve Got a Secret. Pay close attention to what host Garry Moore says at the 4:39 mark.

RIP Carol Hall, Paul Allen, and Peggy McCay

Carol Hall was a composer most famous for the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. She also was one of the people behind the ’70s album and TV special Free to Be … You and Me, and worked on Sesame Street. Hall also wrote dozens of songs for artists like Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, and Tony Bennett. She died last week at the age of 82.

Paul Allen was the co-founder of Microsoft and owner of both the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers. Earlier this year, Allen’s research company found the long-lost wreckage of the USS Juneau. He died Monday at the age of 65.

Peggy McCay was probably best known for her decades-long run as Caroline Brady on Days of Our Lives. She also portrayed Andy’s high school girlfriend on The Andy Griffith Show and Charlie’s wife on Lou Grant. McCay died Sunday at the age of 90.

Quote of the Week

YouTube went down for a terrifying 60 minutes on Tuesday night, prompting many to post tweets like this:

 

This Week in History

Cornerstone of White House Laid (October 13, 1792)

Oddly, no one knows where the cornerstone is today.

Jackie Mason Fired from The Ed Sullivan Show (October 18, 1964)

The comic was doing his stand-up act, when Sullivan motioned to him with his fingers to wrap up the act. Mason got irritated and copied the finger movements, and Sullivan thought Mason had given him “the finger.” Sullivan banned Mason from the show for two years, but he was welcomed back in 1966. (For the record, Mason didn’t do what he was accused of, and Sullivan apologized.)

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Kraft Fall Cheese Festival (October 17, 1953)

Kraft cheese ad

Look at all that cheese! Basically, this is a young person’s nightmare ad.

Fall Recipes

It looks like the cool temps of autumn have finally locked in for the season (he said cautiously), so how about some recipes that scream (or at least whisper) fall?

Midwest Living has an Autumn Beef Stew; Food & Wine has these Chipotle-Roasted Baby Carrots; Bon Appétit has this recipe for Chili Colorado, and our own Curtis Stone has these recipes for the season: Butternut Squash with Sage and Brown Butter and a Shaved Fall Apple Salad.

If that’s not enough for you, The New York Times has a special section of 72 more fall recipes, everything from hearty soups and satisfying pasta dishes to candy apples and rich cakes. You could make a different one every night for the rest of the year and still have some left over for January.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

National Mole Day (October 23)

This isn’t the day to celebrate the small animal that lives underground, nor is it the day to celebrate delicious sauces or things that grow on your body. It actually has to do with chemistry.

World Series Starts (October 23)

The Boston Red Sox meet the National League winner — which will be decided this weekend — in the 114th edition of the best-of-seven series, airing on Fox at 8 p.m.

News of the Week: Rocket Ads, Clark Bars Are Back, and Cynthia Nixon Has a Bagel Problem

NASA, Brought to You by Budweiser

Imagine a giant Doritos logo on the side of the International Space Station, or the Geico gecko on the next NASA satellite. Imagine that creepy Burger King guy as the co-pilot on one of the space agency’s future missions.

Those things could actually happen. Okay, maybe we won’t see the Burger King mascot at the controls of a ship, but we could see a Whopper involved with various space projects. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently said that the agency is going to hold meetings to discuss whether or not they should sell naming rights to rockets and other craft that NASA sends off into space. Visa: It’s Everywhere You Want to Be, Even If Where You Want to Be Is Space.

This would certainly be one step beyond Tang ads.

It could work, though. Maybe the first mission to Mars could be sponsored by the Mars Bar.

Help Save the Sky Bar!

Speaking of candy bars, how would you like to own the rights to one?

We told you recently about how Necco (the New England Confectionary Company) suddenly went out of business, leaving 230 workers out of a job and many fans of candy like Sweethearts Conversation Hearts, the Sky Bar, Mary Janes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mighty Malts Malted Milk Balls, and Haviland Thin Mints out of luck. It seems that the still-unidentified buyer of the company has no intention of bringing them back, so they’re auctioning off the brands and the production equipment at a public auction on September 26 and 27 in Revere, Massachusetts. This is the perfect time for a Post reader to jump in and save some of those candies.

Here’s a related story. Necco made the Clark Bar for many years until it was discontinued in the recent sale. But there’s good news! Boyer Candy in Pennsylvania has purchased the rights and recipe for the candy bar, which was actually created in Pittsburgh.

They also make Mallo Cups.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

The new season of Jeopardy! started this week, and not only does host Alex Trebek have his mustache back, he has a full white beard (which seems to be a popular thing this season).

Of course, Alex and the show aren’t sure if he should keep it or not, so they’re turning to fans on social media. Beard or no beard? Vote today! Make Alex Trebek’s Face Great Again!

 

40 Years

We love CBS Sunday Morning here at the Post, and this year they’re celebrating their 40th anniversary. Tonight the network is airing a special titled “Sunday’s Best.” The hour, hosted by Jane Pauley, will look back at some of the stories they’ve covered over the years, present some new stories, and show clips of former hosts Charles Kuralt and Charles Osgood. It starts at 8 p.m.

On a related note, CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist (father of The Today Show’s Willie) is retiring this year, and he’ll be profiled on this Sunday’s edition of the show.

RIP Bill Daily, Mac Miller, Christopher Lawford, Adam Clymer, and Will Jordan

Bill Daily got his start as a director and performer on various shows in Chicago and then later on The Mike Douglas Show. After working on Steve Allen’s show, he went on to be cast as the comedy sidekick on two classic sitcoms, I Dream of Jeannie and The Bob Newhart Show. He died last week at the age of 91.

Mac Miller was a rapper and musician. He performed as recently as a few weeks ago on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and had just released a new album. He was found dead last Friday at the age of 26.

Christopher Lawford was an actor and the son of actor Peter Lawford and nephew of John F. Kennedy. He died last week at the age of 63.

Adam Clymer was a veteran political reporter and editor for various newspapers, most notably The New York Times. He died Monday at the age of 81.

Will Jordan was an impressionist and comic famous for his impersonations of Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, and other celebrities. He died last week at the age of 91.

Quote of the Week

“Don’t yuck my yum.”

—New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, after she was criticized for ordering a cinnamon-raisin bagel topped with lox, capers, red onions, tomato, and cream cheese.

This Week in History

9/11 Attacks (Sept. 11, 2001)

Firefighters in Minnesota got a surprise visitor during a commemoration ceremony this week.

Lassie Debuts (Sept. 12, 1954)

The first owner of Lassie was Jeff, played by Tommy Rettig. His family eventually moved away and the dog was given to Timmy, played by Jon Provost. After he left the show, the collie went through various owners.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Stealing Cake at Grownups Party (Sept. 10, 1960)

Cover
Thornton Utz
Stealing Cake at Grownups Party
September 10, 1960

This Thornton Utz cover apparently shows MacGyver as a little kid, coming up with a clever way to get cake for himself and his siblings. By the way, what is that on the left, a coffee pot or a giant trophy?

More Cake

In honor of the inventive kid in Utz’s painting, let’s talk cake.

Here’s a recipe for Sour Cream Poppy Seed Cake, and here’s one for Zion Canyon Lavender Pound Cake. If you like whiskey, you can make Aunt Mary Ann’s Four-Layer Whiskey Cake, and if you like Abe Lincoln, you can try his favorite cake.

What, that’s not enough cake? Here are 30 more recipes featuring vintage cakes that grandma used to make, including Red Velvet Cake, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, German Black Forest Cake, a Moist Lazy Daisy Cake, and a 7 Up Pound Cake.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

National Play-Doh Day (September 16)

I played with Play-Doh when I was a kid, but I never knew it was originally marketed as wallpaper cleaner.

Emmy Awards (September 17)

It’s the 70th presentation of the awards. Here’s a complete list of the nominees so you can keep score. The show airs on NBC at 8 p.m. It’s on Monday for some reason, after years of being on Sunday, and some of the awards were handed out last weekend.

Can Government Censorship Be a Good Thing? 75 Years Ago This Week

In this editorial from January 24, 1942, the Saturday Evening Post analyzed the role of wartime censorship implemented by the Office of Censorship and extended by the cooperation of newspaper editors. The assumptions in this editorial — that the citizens will trust the government to censor information as it sees fit, that the press and the politicians can find mutually agreeable terms of censorship, that the press will exercise discretion in what it chooses to publish — would be unlikely to find much support today.

The Post noted that wartime censorship required “a pledge of unlimited confidence to be exchanged between the Government and the people.” While this point of view may have found favor 1942, it’s doubtful that Americans would agree with this sentiment 75 years later, even if we found ourselves in similar circumstances. Whether you call it cynicism or wisdom, too much has changed.

Censorship

Originally published January 24, 1942

It says much for the powers of self-discipline in a free and willful people that liberty of the press very willingly submits to put itself in a strait jacket for the duration of the war. Everyone uncomplainingly takes it for granted that communications will be censored and that news will be controlled at the source, and that this will be done not as the law says it may be but as military judgment says it shall be. Censorship on those terms requires a pledge of unlimited confidence to be exchanged between the Government and the people; and so, happily, it begins. But we shall do well at the same time not to underestimate the difficulties.

The Government lays down what appears to be a very legible rule to govern the release of news. The conditions are two. First, the facts must be fully verified; second, publication of them is forbidden if they tend in any way, direct or indirect, to give aid and comfort to the enemy. But you could not invent a general rule that would leave more to arbitrary discretion in its application to a particular case.

News is of two kinds — good and bad. Any bad news at all tends to give aid and comfort to the enemy. Then what will you do with it? Withhold it from the people until it is certain that the enemy already has it?

Take the communiqué. In its daily report to the people the Government cannot tell everything that has happened, and the more critical the situation is the more this will be true. Why? Because the enemy is reading it too. You cannot have two reports — one for the people and one for the enemy.

In the business of bombing, for example, the enemy’s only firsthand knowledge of his hits is from his own pilots, who tend naturally to exaggerate what they think they have done and are liable in any case to be mistaken. The enemy, therefore, anxiously watches the news on the other side in order to check the claims of his own pilots; and one of his artful tricks is to put forth fantastic claims in his own communiqué with intent to provoke on the other side a denial, on the chance that the denial will be informing. Thus, it was very important for the Japanese to know whether or not they had got an aircraft carrier at Pearl Harbor, as their own pilots said they had.

The communiqué, indeed, now is one of the weapons of strategy. The Russians in theirs were most despondent just on the eve of the unexpected counteroffensive that forced the German war machine suddenly into reverse. The purpose was probably twofold. One part of it was to deceive the Germans; the other was to hasten American and British aid.

On the free, Anglo-American side there is no likelihood of bad military news being suppressed or long withheld for fear the people cannot take it. The British are extremely the other way. They are nourished by bad news. “It must be remembered,” said Mr. Churchill, in a recent review of the war before the House of Commons, “that here at Westminster and in Fleet Street” — newspaper row — “it has been sought to establish the rule that nothing must be said about the war that is not altogether discouraging. Although I must admit the British people seem to like their food cooked that way, a military spokesman addressing a large army might do more harm than good if he always put things at their worst, and never allowed buoyancy, hope, confidence and resolve to infect his declarations.” He was defending the military spokesman at Cairo, whose reports on the North African campaign, the English people thought, had been disgustingly optimistic, and they were complaining of him on that ground.

But there is another kind of bad news which, although it is not strictly military in character, does tend nonetheless to give aid and comfort to the enemy; and the question about it is not whether the people can take it but whether the Government can, because it is news of the Government, of its own blunders and failures and mistakes of political judgment. What will the censor do with facts of that order? What ought he to do with them?

This is the kind of news that free criticism tends to reveal; and here it is that censorship faces what is perhaps its most unruly problem. For all the aid and comfort it may afford the enemy, shall criticism be free? In England it is. Mr. Churchill has at times complained of it, yet very mildly and with grim understanding. Suppression of criticism would be incomprehensible in England. So it would be here. Free criticism is troublesome. It does present a problem. Nevertheless, it is one that will solve itself if let alone. A government in the popular principle, being trusted by the people to control their news at the source and censor their communications for military reasons, must in turn trust criticism to censor itself. And this it does much more than can be realized by those who know only when it errs and have no idea how many times it makes the right answer when it asks itself this question: All things considered, will the saying of this truth do more good than harm? And if, in a given case, it comes too often to the wrong answer, then people themselves by their extreme disapproval will extinguish it, with no aid from the censor.

Good news, you might suppose, offers the censor no problem at all. Nevertheless, good news can be a liability. People may make too much of it. Bad news moves them to greater exertion, whereas good news may tempt them to relax. In his very fine sermon on “must” to the representatives of labor and management just before they sat down to work out a truce for the duration of the war, President Roosevelt said: “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. … I was reading a paper this morning which was telling how inevitable … a victory would be. I want to see what we can do.”

To be on the safe side, we must expect a long hard war. News tending to belittle the resources of the enemy or to make us complacent about our own must be discounted. How? Not by suppression and certainly not by distortion, but by mixing bad news with good, by emphasis, by keeping the facts in perspective. Thus you come to censorship policy, touching the handling, timing and spacing of the news, for its effect upon public morale.

The poet said, “Let me write the ballads of the people and I care not who may write their laws.” This was paraphrased by a New York managing editor who said: “Let me write the headlines and anyone who likes may write the ballads.” He would not touch a word of the news to alter it, nor would he write a false headline. He would produce his effects entirely by selective emphasis. If there could be anything like that power of propaganda in mere headlines, and truthful headlines at that, imagine what lies in the hands of a censor, a national managing editor, acting upon news at the source, not to change any of the facts, but to time the release of them, to counterweight good ones with bad ones, and so control the perspective. Whose perspective? Not his own. The censor has no policy of his own. He executes the government’s policy, and when he fails to do that, there is a new censor.

Censorship is unavoidable. Although it may be authorized by a wartime statute, and is in that sense lawful, it cannot be administered by any rule of law. You may read in the Constitution that the Congress shall pass no law to abridge freedom of speech or freedom of the press; but when drums beat, the law flies away, says the proverb. Moreover, censorship entirely innocent of propaganda belongs to some faraway realm of the ideal. The subtle power of propaganda that is implicit in control of the news is bound to be exercised, because, first, a government is human, and for the reason besides that every government is obliged to believe that it knows what is best for the total good.

This is our second experience. In the war before, it was the Committee on Public Information. Now it is the Office of Censorship, which has a more honest and a more severe sound and, we suppose, a more severe intention. Even so, there will be, we think, forbearing to almost any point, no want of co-operation and no unfair criticism, so long as the Government holds free of hurt and trespass that confidence with which people, both the believing and the unbelieving, have suddenly overwhelmed it.

Balancing Act

Broadcast News

A few days before the 2012 presidential election, Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of Morning Joe on liberal MSNBC, proclaimed, “Anybody that thinks this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue … they’re jokes.” He felt reports that put Obama ahead were biased, and he had one particular culprit in mind, Nate Silver, a presumably liberal polling expert who calculated that President Obama had a 79 percent chance of beating Romney.

There was just one problem. It turned out to be Scarborough himself whose judgment was clouded by bias—as Silver recognized when he offered to bet the anchorman $1,000 on the outcome of the election, a wager Scarborough wouldn’t take. Silver turned out to be amazingly accurate in how he called the race.

That’s the problem with media bias. We all know it’s there, and we all know we need to see it, detect it, and overcome it if we’re ever going to know the truth, but we also all see it in different places. All too often, we think whoever we agree with is unbiased. It’s the other guy, the one we disagree with, who holds the biased opinion. How, then, are we ever to get at the truth, the truth we need, not only just to know what’s going on, but to be responsible citizens in a democracy?

It’s a very old problem, and it’s not about to go away, though there are definitely things we can do to try to smoke out biased reporting and see the facts more clearly. We’ll get to that later, but first, a little history. Bias in the media wasn’t always considered a negative. In fact, until about 100 years ago, it hardly ever occurred to anyone that media should be unbiased. Everyone agreed that an informed electorate was the basis of a free society, but they didn’t take that to mean that the news should be delivered without a point of view. They did agree, however, that in the U.S. the freedom of the press was sacred. That was a founding principle of our nation, and one of the great things that set us apart from every government that had come before.

The idea of a truly free press was born in 1735, when a New York newspaperman named John Peter Zenger was put on trial for libel for defaming the royal governor. Zenger’s lawyer insisted that he was innocent because what he had printed was the truth. No law at the time protected a journalist who told truth that hurt a public official, but the jury set Zenger free anyway—and established the notion of a press unafraid to speak truth to power as a cornerstone of liberty.

What makes the jury’s decision all the more intriguing is that it was quite well known that Zenger’s paper had been founded expressly to attack the royal governor. Freedom of the press was considered to be quite a separate matter from bias, as indeed it should be. By the time of the American Revolution, the colonies were awash in partisan newspapers and pamphlets. One of the British outrages that led to the Revolution was the Stamp Act—which put a tax on newspapers. In Europe the press had always been controlled by the ruling aristocracy and bent to serve its purposes; in the colonies, it became the weapon of the people, and publications like Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense fired the people to revolt against their overseas overlords. The only kind of media bias anyone really worried about was bias imposed from above, by the king and his men.

And so, when the Constitution was written its very first amendment stated “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

With those words, a free press was enshrined along with freedom of speech and religion as one of our most crucial liberties. The government went well beyond mere words in supporting it, too. Where other nations heavily taxed their newspapers, the young United States did the opposite. It subsidized them. The Postal Act of 1792, which established the nation’s mail service, gave newspapers discounted postage rates, and legislators often provided funding for papers in their districts.

With that help the American press flourished so much that by 1835 the U.S. had five times as many daily papers as the British Isles. However, high officials often hated and distrusted what the papers printed. In 1798 President John Adams went so far as to push through the notorious Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious” writings about the president or Congress. The law would backfire badly, turning its victims into free-speech martyrs. Thomas Jefferson got rid of the Sedition Act soon after he was elected president.

Not all bias is political bias. In the 1830s James Gordon Bennett used sensationalism and colorful embroidering of the truth to build his New York Herald into the biggest newspaper in the world. As but one lurid example, his paper described the corpse of a murdered prostitute in 1836 as follows: “The perfect figure, the exquisite limbs, the fine face, the full arms, the beautiful bust, all, all surpassed in every respect the Venus de Medici.”

Newspapers were, after all, businesses first, and the primary concern was selling papers. By 1871 a British observer would describe the typical American newspaper as “a print published by a literary Barnum, whose type, paper, talents, morality, and taste are all equally wretched and inferior; who is certain to give us flippancy for wit, personality for principle, bombast for eloquence, malignity without satire, and news without truth or reliability.”

How biased was the press in the 19th century? In 1860 Bennett’s Herald reported that Abraham Lincoln was “a fourth-rate lecturer who cannot speak good grammar.”

By the end of that century, the United States was a nation of mass-readership newspapers. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World led the way, with signs in its city room that read, “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy! Who? What? Where? When? How? The Facts—The Color—The Facts!”

Despite the noble motto, in the World and in its archrival, William Randolph Hearst’s Journal, “there was a lot of willful omission and lying,” as Brooke Gladstone, media historian and host of the NPR show On the Media, points out in her book, The Influencing Machine. Hearst himself is best remembered for his (possibly apocryphal) 1897 telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who told him there was no fighting in Cuba to report on: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

The tide began to turn with the century. Adolph Ochs bought The New York Times in 1896 and announced that it would henceforth “give the news … impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved.” Lack of bias became a new ideal in the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. In 1904 Joseph Pulitzer endowed one of the first journalism schools, at Columbia University, to “raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession,” and others soon followed. In 1922 editors founded their first professional association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and drafted a code of ethics that declared, “News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.”

Only The Facts

Newspaper Stack

How do you know you can trust what you read? Start by recognizing that there is no such thing as completely unbiased news. No one can report any news story without encapsulating complicated events, deciding what’s really important, leaving out what the reporter thinks are insignificant details, and adopting a point of view that makes it possible to stitch together all the elements and tell a story. Therefore no two people will ever report any news story the same way. So there is no such thing as a single objective telling of a news event. That said, the following tactics will bring you closer to the objective truth.

1. Triangulate from less biased sources. Fox News has a clearly conservative slant; MSNBC has a liberal one. Whatever news source you begin with, think about how hard that source tries to be unbiased.

2. Separate news from opinion. Always ask yourself whether what you’re getting is reporting or commentary. In newspapers the distinction is usually pretty clear. There’s news on the front page and commentary on the editorial page. On television and on the Internet, it’s often less clear. Sites like Drudge Report on the right and Talking Points Memo on the left report news, but from a definite point of view and with a lot of opinion mixed in.

3. Be suspicious. Always have your antennae out for anything that sounds untrue. If something you hear or read seems questionable, a simple Google or Google News search can often ferret out the truth. Factcheck.org, politifact.com, and snopes.com are good nonpartisan sites devoted to separating truth from fiction.

4. Balance your news diet. Try to get at least some of your news from the other side. Even if you feel strongly about an issue or a news event yourself, it’s vital to take in opposing positions. Somewhere between one extreme and the other usually lies the truth. But above all …

5. Recognize your own biases. The multiplicity of voices available to us today allows people to find news sources that consistently present the news the way they like it. This tends to strengthen people’s prejudices and make all of us even more polarized than ever. Try always to stay aware of this tendency in yourself. It’s there in all of us.