Feeding The Wrong Wolf

The title of this post refers to a story usually attributed to the Cherokees (although evidently its origins are murky). Commenters to previous posts have occasionally referenced it.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Like many of you, I’ve loved this parable; it reminds us that we have moral/ethical choices (no matter what psychological researchers tell us…).  What brought it to mind, rather forcefully, was an article from Politico, analyzing the business model employed by cable news channels. Apparently, their practices aren’t all that different from those employed by Facebook. And it isn’t only Fox. All of the cable networks–CNN, MSNBC, etc.– “behave more like political players — emphasizing one side while disparaging the “enemy” — than they do independent news organizations.”

By flattering the perceived political prejudices of their audiences and avoiding a story when the news becomes inconvenient to their agenda, the networks behave like vendors of political entertainment.

There’s nothing immoral or unprofessional, of course, in pursuing a partisan news agenda. There’s a long tradition of partisan, activist journalism in America, starting with the colonial era and extending to today. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, labor organizers like John Swinton, naturalists like John Muir and anti-corporatists like Ida Tarbell and Ralph Nader, just to name a few names from the past, reported the news through ideological lenses, and magazines like Mother Jones, Reason, and the National Review continue that practice. But these activist journalists made it apparent where their reporting was coming from. The cable networks, on the other hand, pretend, to use the old Fox slogan, to be “fair and balanced.” By attempting to have it both ways — tilting while at the same time posing as straight news — cable news tarnishes journalism’s good name and needlessly increases viewer tribalism.

I would quibble with the Politico story’s portrayal in degree–“They all do it” elides the rather obvious evidence that Fox “does it” to a far greater degree than CNN or MSNBC. (Confusing fair coverage with false equivalence really isn’t analytic rigor.) But that said, the article raises an issue that has no identifiable solution.

The problem is that, unlike the out-and-out propagandists and liars I posted about yesterday, news anchors–even on Fox– aren’t lying. (The pundits–the Tucker Carlsons and similar “personalities”– are a different matter, and it’s troubling that most viewers don’t recognize the difference between actual news and the wildly distorted commentary they are being fed.) Like all of us, news anchors and reporters can only view the world through their own eyes. Their individual lives and backgrounds inevitably form the context of what they see and report.

Yesterday, I cheered on the growing number of lawsuits against the most egregious propagandists–the individuals and websites trafficking in (sorry for the expletive) obvious bullshit.

The dilemma presented by the “slant” of the cable networks, falls into a different category. For one thing, omitting coverage of events that may be considered unpalatable or inconvenient or simply un-newsworthy isn’t technically lying, although in many cases it certainly is intellectually dishonest. For another, “spin,” intentional or unintentional, is ubiquitous–again, because we all see and filter events through our own world-views.

Saying that we all inevitably see the world through our own eyes isn’t simply another way of saying that we bring our own biases and prejudices to our news consumption. It also involves bringing such knowledge as we may have to bear, which is why I keep harping on the importance of civic education. (If your favorite “personality” is attributing the failure of Congress to pass the XYZ bill to President Biden, for example, it helps if you are aware of the GOP’s constant misuse of the filibuster and a President’s legal inability to do anything about that particular form of obstructionism–or actually, if you just understand that American Presidents aren’t kings.)

The Politico article was troubling, however, because it demonstrated one of the many, many ways in which Americans today are feeding the wrong wolf.


  1. Yes, programming on TV shows is designed to be biased. Why don’t we see Claire McCaskil on Fox, for example? Why isn’t Laura Ingraham ever a guest on Bill Maher’s show? I get it. We all get it. As my former journalist spouse says, “If it bleeds it leads.” Except that the shows create their own blood.

    Then, if they only show the facts, creatures like Paul Gosar get shown as the out-of-control idiot he is. No commentary or analysis is needed. How would MSNBC pay Nicole Wallace’s salary if that’s all they showed?

    I think the wolf that’s being fed is the capitalistic wolf that now produces “News” shows. You don’t get viewers to buy sponsor’s products by showing how well a physics teacher is preparing kids to fly rockets or make new clean energy devices. B-o-o-ring. Instead, it captures an audience when the networks show blood flowing across a school parking lot. THAT sells and feeds the wolf of our despair.

    I’ve hinted at it before, but I think the primitive nature of our psyches – as a species – continues to drive what we like to watch (Rubbernecking a traffic crash) and think: “Their tribe is the enemy. Their tribe is awful. Our tribe is correct in all things. Our tribe must succeed.”

  2. POLITICO (the pot) shouldn’t be calling Cable News (the kettle) biased (black). That is all.

  3. Well, it’s rather satisfying that our media propaganda has finally crept into the acceptance of mainstream circles. That’s progress.

    However, as the even wiser Vernon eludes, it exposes a much bigger problem.

    Our press was given tremendous powers by the Founders for a very good reason. Thomas Jefferson was probably one of the biggest proponents. The economic wolves as he called them or I refer to as the oligarchs, would eventually contaminate the government they were creating because of its human nature. The parable of the wolves is accurate for all humankind.

    This is exactly what Einstein saw in 1949. He took our inventory and said the country was infested with black wolves in all levels of government, industry, and major institutions. Furthermore, the black wolves were operating the free press.

    Thus a truth-teller comes along named Julian Assange in the 21st century to hold the darkest of the black wolves accountable. Most people have no idea the laws the USA has broken to punish this truth-teller, but they will. As in the 30s, the brave muckrakers will arise to shine the light on these nasty dark wolves. 😉

  4. The description the old Cherokee gave his grandson of his two wolves can be applied to President Joe Biden and Donald Trump (I still refuse to refer to him as president or former president). Trump is being well fed while President Joe Biden appears to be neglected by those who should be feeding him. We are all going to pay for the outcome of “Feeding The Wrong Wolf” in this situation as we watch the known planners and supporters of the January 6th insurrection use our own laws against us to protect themselves as their evil thrives.

    President Joe Biden is the other wolf; “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” I’m not claiming he is perfect and Joe would be the first to deny any claim of perfection.

    This blog also points out that we are living in a zoo today but the animals who should be caged are roaming free and devouring our rights as they trample democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution.

  5. JoAnn makes a great point about Biden and Trump and their respective media coverage. That is spot on! She also hit upon something of interest for me with her zoo analogy. It made me ask myself, ‘how would we get those animals back in the cage?’ The left has always used inappropriate tactics for its fights and I suspect there would be little agreement on how to approach that task. Thanks for making me think this morning!

  6. This is the inevitable end of a twenty four hour news stream that doesn’t have twenty four hours worth of actual news to report. Always be skeptical!

  7. My old stalwarts, PBS news and the New York Times are not much better. It is all a matter of degree. Who can name an “objective” news source?

  8. There is a clear solution. Here’s a great book that explains the situation and makes the point. Highly recommended!

  9. Let’s wax philosophical. Yin-Yang preceded the Cherokees. It seems to be built into the neurons of us latter day chimps. In the biting and clawing for money, prestige and relevance many of us have employed social conventions or lack thereof to advance our interests. Fox et al. are corporate manifestations of such means.

    However, we are where we are, however we arrived here, and I for one am sticking with the ideals of truth, justice, democracy etc. in this battle of how to collectively survive and even prosper if we persevere in pursuit of such lofty principles.

  10. Humans have two sources of assembling abound them people who are like themselves. The first works on the individual and we give it the name culture. As we emerge from what we were born with and into we begin the search for, “who am I?”, by noticing the behavior of those around us who satisfy our needs. As that critical picture of “who” gets some detail filled out, more and more, we balance the developing “who” with “who is like” by starting to pick our friends. Both processes never stop. To that degree, we are AI, artificial intelligence, but of course with our own memories of all of the events in our life up to now which contained essential knowledge of both questions.

    Eventually, our life becomes full of feedback loops that reinforce our concept of “who”. Spouses, family, work and recreation cohorts, neighbors, the news, what we notice around us, organizations like churches and country clubs and granges, travels, and of course entertainment. There’s nothing more satisfying than being entertained with feedback that says, you are right.

    We pretend to be way more right than we are. That’s ego. That doesn’t mean that there is not right and wrong objectively and functionally and morally. This is perhaps the biggest challenge in life – distinguishing what makes me feel good versus what motivates me to real objectivity in leading my life. How do you even measure it?

    Many here and now measure it by accumulated wealth. Many by how entertaining they are. Some by how many people they can influence and move to follow them, how attractive they are. Many by their success in imposing their will on other people. Some lead much more basic lives leading to success being survival.

    We are all very, very resistant to any suggestion that we aren’t both who we are and right. We can justify almost any position connecting who we are and why we’re right. We can find someone who understands why we’re both us and right.

    What is your basis for distinguishing being objectively or functionally or morally right as compared to just happy about the feedback from others?

  11. I miss Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. I miss the news that just presented the facts of a situation without speculation. I have noted, Lester, that PBS interviews both Democratic and Republican members of Congress about proposed bills and questions both about the concerns of their colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

    I cannot control which wolf others choose to feed. I have to monitor which wolf I am feeding and pray that others are inspired when they see I am feeding the white wolf.

    The yin/yang understanding of Chinese philosophy is amoral. It talks about the balance of opposites. And when I start feeling hopeless, I recall the Chinese parable of the horse rancher.

  12. Robin – you are correct…but, all that does is present canned “party lines”. They do better when they ask researchers to discuss the proposed legislation.

    My issue with PBS is the clear focus on “progressive “issues and emphasis on identity politics/culture.

  13. Yes, “the capitalistic wolf” is a great way to put it.
    Biases are! There is no way to get around that, but one needs to know the biases of others, as well as of one’s own, in order to
    parse information pro[perly…even in order to separate BS from factual information, and, in Carl Sagan’s words, get one’s “Bullshit detector”
    working properly.

  14. I think the dilemma presented by the two wolves is called ethical dualism. In an age that clamors for “both sides” of an argument and implies that one opinion is as good as another, one has to be able to eventually choose one’s position and believe it is on the side of “the good”. I finally adopted a personal criterion for making choices, and it is whether or not what I am choosing will hurt anyone or anything else. I think of it as the application of love. This criterion doesn’t guarantee that all choices belong to “the good”, but it does help provide guidance and provides a way to make choices with a lot less stress and/or guilt. Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking essay.

  15. The large social media companies focus all their efforts (via their algorithms) on feeding one of the wolves, and it’s not the good one.

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