Home > Uncategorized > A Swipe at the Audience with Occam’s Razor

A Swipe at the Audience with Occam’s Razor

-first posted at RTDNA.org on November 17, 2009

There are those times in our newscasts and our stations when things don’t go exactly as planned. Luckily, most of those gaffes happen without too many people taking notice. After all, we’re only human. Compound those human frailties with the complexities of modern television and radio facilities, and even more problems can erupt. As I said, most happen without much fanfare or complaint, chalked up to a “%#@%$ happens” philosophy among much of the audience.

Other times though, it seems as if everyone is watching when the big error hits. Yesterday was one of those days at my station. We carry Oprah. And in case you were in Antarctica for the last three weeks or so, yesterday was the day Oprah interviewed Sarah Palin. This was a much-anticipated interview, long awaited by both friend and foe of Mrs. Palin.  So, at four o’clock, just as planned, the program began. Oprah and the former Alaska governor sat down to begin their talk.  At 4:10, the program stopped. That was not planned.

I’ll pause right there before I get to the cause of the problem to talk a little bit about the reaction this program stoppage caused. I was in my office going over material with a reporter before the newscast. One of my anchors came in and said, “The phones are going nuts out here because of the Palin thing.” I had not been watching Oprah and did not know there was a problem.

I went into the newsroom and immediately found half a dozen people answering phones, apologetically trying to explain what happened — even though they didn’t know yet themselves what had caused it. I wanted to find out, so I dashed back to master control to see what was going on. There, two operators were examining the playback server, desperately trying to will a recalcitrant file back into play mode again. I could see it looked hopeless. I jogged back to the newsroom and took over phone duty, explaining to viewers about the glitch and our desperate attempts to recapture this computer gone rogue.

About ten percent of the callers accepted my explanation, thanked me for my time, and crossed their fingers we could restore the interview quickly. I said ten percent.  That left 90 percent who just wanted a piece of me. They weren’t buying my “file error” explanation. They just knew we knocked the interview off the air on purpose. They said things like, “This doesn’t happen when Oprah has Obama on” and “It figures you would do something like this to her.”  I, of course, new that “we” hadn’t done anything to Mrs. Palin.  Instead, one of the dozens of computer servers locked away in a dark and chilly server room “decided” to drop a bit here and a byte there until one of millions of files on those servers would no longer play.

All this brings me to Occam’s Razor. Scientists around the globe know the razor as the first approach to explaining any unknown situation. The axiom has been stated many ways, but probably the best is this: “When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.”  Read that a couple of times and admire the beauty of it.  What William of Ockham (the author of this brilliant idea) was saying back in the Fourteenth Century is that none of us need try too hard to figure out too complex an explantion for anything we observe.  Instead, go with the simplest explanation first.

Applied to yesterday’s offense against Oprah, the razor considers these two possibilities:

Possibility 1: a computer file many gigabytes in size suffered a corruption that rendered it useless for playback.

Possibility 2:  a person or persons unknown evaded station policy, security, and quality control protocols, accessed password-protected server space, and placed an up-until-then imperceptible corruption in the file containing the interview of a significant political figure, all for the sake of silencing her views and promoting a liberal agenda.

Now, with the clear brilliance of Occam’s Razor squarely in your mind, which possibility would you choose?   Unless I’ve missed my guess about the intelligence of readers of this blog, you’ve chosen Possibility 1.  So why is it 90 percent of the callers to the TV station were going with Door Number 2?

Perhaps they just haven’t been schooled in the physical or social sciences and therefore never introduced to Occam’s Razor or any other logical reasoning strategies. That’s probably part of it.  And frankly, I don’t worry too much about that part of the explanation. It’s this other part that worries me. The part I’m talking about now is the incessant drumbeat many of our audience members hear, telling them the media are all part of a left-leaning conspiracy to deprive them of valuable political information.

Those of us who work in the media often laugh at the conspiracy notion. I’ve been in enough newsrooms to know that the 10 o’clock producer often doesn’t know what the six o’clock producer’s doing.  If those two people can’t communicate while sitting one desk apart, how can the thousands of us in the news media secretly conduct the conspiracy to silence those views with which we disagree? Beyond that, in this particular case, where’s the proof the conspiracy is keeping Sarah Palin from our audiences?  Her book is the most talked about thing on the talk show circuit, whether TV or radio. Newspaper headlines and photos depict her return to the spotlight. And Oprah herself, perhaps the most important non-news interview anyone can land, did play successfully in more than 200 other television station yesterday.  Can anyone be convinced a conspiracy exists? And if one can, is there any proof it’s working?  I’m discouraged so many people are buying a complex, often ludicrous explanation for why they don’t see 100% what they agree with on legitimate news programs.  The simpler explanation out there is that we cover all points of view—not just the ones they favor.

We’re replaying the Oprah/Palin program today.  I do hope it airs without a hitch. But even if it does, I expect I’ll still have a number of phone calls and e-mails complaining that it didn’t air properly the first time. Most of those complaints will involve calling me names or impugning my character. I’m just glad I’ll be carrying a razor.

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