From The Hollow Men:

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar …

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

– T.S. Eliot

Assume, for a moment, that the world we want to live in can’t exist without freedoms and democratic institutions that in turn depend on informed citizens.

If you agree this is an essential precondition for a desirable society then you also have to agree we all need trustworthy sources of information.

Not just sources we trust. That comes later. First they have to be trustworthy.

I first wrote about the need for trusted information providers and how the Internet exacerbates the challenge of recognizing them more than two decades ago in InfoWorld (read “Trusted Information Providers,” 3/17/1997, although I didn’t draw the proper distinction between trusted and trustworthy.)

There isn’t yet a Trusted Information Provider seal, but we’ve reached the point where we need one desperately — not only as citizens but in our roles as IT and business managers and professionals. As evidence, I offer “Hoax attempts against Miami Herald augur brewing war over fake, real news,” (Tim Johnson, McClatchy DC Bureau, 2/24/2018).

Briefly, an Internet imposter posed as Alex Harris, a Miami Herald reporter. The imposter issued offensive tweets spoofed so Mr. Harris appeared to be their source. Another imposter, or possibly the same one, created a phony and equally offensive Miami Herald story by Mr. Harris, using screen shots indistinguishable from legitimate Miami Herald articles, and distributed them through Twitter and Snapchat.

I can think of only three reasons someone might do this. (1) They might be taking advantage of our increasing tribalism to discredit those on the other side of the issue being reported on. (2) They might be trying to discredit the mainstream media by making it appear to be disgusting. Or, (3) they might be going a step further, fostering distrust of any information we read because we can never trust that the source is who or what it claims to be.

Their motivations don’t really matter, though. The inevitable outcome is to further increase our tribalism and to contribute to the increasing distrust of the sources of information we’re accustomed to relying on.

When I first wrote about the need for a Trusted Information Provider certification body I was thinking in terms of whether a given information provider adhered to trustworthy information gathering and vetting practices.

The stakes are higher now. We need some means for validating that the information we encounter does come from its purported source.

For general news I can offer a short-term solution: Stop getting any of it from the Internet. It’s easy to fake up a page that looks like the source is CNN, Fox, or any major online newspaper. It’s much harder, not to mention more expensive, to print a fake newspaper and distribute it to hundreds of thousands of doorsteps.

Which in turn isn’t as hard as hijacking a cable channel to send out truly fake news.

But that doesn’t solve the problem. In your professional life you also rely on information providers. Only there’s a very good chance you have no print publications available to you. No matter your field … IT, marketing, finance and accounting, human resources, or what have you, printed magazines are as it were, pretty much yesterday’s news.

And it isn’t just general-purpose trade publications that are at risk. Think about information publishers like Gartner and Forrester. If you receive information from them you receive it electronically.

And if you receive it electronically it can be counterfeited.

We need something that reverses the usual order of things. If you subscribe to, for example, the Washington Post, you occasionally have to log in — to authenticate yourself so as to have access to the information it publishes.

What we need is a reliable mechanism for Trusted Information Providers to authenticate themselves to us.

I once helped a client become PCI compliant. The company was owned and managed by members of a tightly knit community. So when the time came to institute background checks, the CEO was incensed. “Background? I know my employees’ parents and grandparents! I was there when a lot of them were born! I’m a guest at their weddings! Why do I need background checks?”

When we were all truly tribal, proving you were who you said you were took no more effort than showing your face.

Not anymore.

Now, proof of identity just might be the central challenge of our age.

I know I’m going to regret this … and I promise, I will connect it to practical business concerns.

Last week’s possibly satirical discussion of non-human entities we’ve created and given power over us to (“Who needs Skynet,” 2/12/2018) led to a lively discussion in the Comments section, including a controversy in juridical circles as to whether, when the First Amendment mentions “the press,” the protections are supposed to apply to the technology and its use or to the institutions commonly referred to as “the press.”

Or both.

My own conclusion: Failing to recognize the press-as-institution puts us at serious risk. Imagine politicians or lobbyists who don’t like what a member of the press-as-institution publishes. Without imposing any restriction on any individual’s use of press technology to disseminate information or opinions, those politicians could pass laws that drive that press organization into bankruptcy in retaliation.

But, if we do want to recognize the press-as-institution and protect it from governmental retaliation we’re faced with the fascination challenge of defining it.

Strict originalists face an even more challenging issue: As written, the First Amendment only protects speech and publication. It doesn’t even mention the activities needed to discover and gather the information the news media publishes.

Dumbass opinions, in this view, would enjoy constitutional protections. The careful research needed to publish accurate information would not.

Which got me thinking about The Post, its recounting of how the Pentagon Papers were brought to light, and how, in the end, revealing how the American public was misled into the Vietnam War arguably strengthened our government in the long term.

Which gets me to a point I’d like you to entertain even if you disagree with the above conclusion.

Unlike our government, there’s nothing in how corporations are chartered, organized, and run that provides any protections that would allowing employees to play a press-like role in their management.

I’m not talking about whistleblowers and the discovery of corporate wrongdoing. I’m talking about something far more mundane and potentially useful.

Imagine you discover a function within the company you work for is guilty of chronic but concealed idiocy. Nothing illegal or immoral, mind you. Just stupid.

Speaking of stupid, now imagine you try to bring the issue to the attention of a member of the ELT (Executive Leadership Team for those of you who haven’t heard the term before). Think they’ll thank you for your trouble?

Not most business executives, who largely rely on their chain of command for most of their information about What’s Going On Out There, supplemented by management dashboards and computer-generated reports.

Which often means they know much more about unimportant matters than about, for example, the stupidity factory you uncovered.

As I’ve mentioned from time to time, one of the most important skills for any business leader to develop is organizational listening. In the past I’ve suggested developing a variety of mechanisms, ranging from formal metrics to informal internal networking to accomplish this.

But this whole conversation about what constitutes the press leads me to wonder if a business would benefit by establishing the internal equivalent of the press-as-institution.

I’m not talking about adding a First-Amendment-like policy to the manual. While the results might be fun to watch, the most likely result would be a very poor signal-to-noise ratio.

I’m talking about establishing a formal internal news-gathering function, focused on discovering what managers don’t want the ELT to know and that ELT members might not want to know.

One of the most important (and most easily abused) functions performed by the press-as-institution is deciding what information is worthy of publication. Whether you get your information from newspapers or broadcast or cable news, you rely on them not only for the information they provide itself, but also to let you know what subjects you should be paying attention to.

A corporate internal news-gathering function would play a similar role. It would be a known place for employees at all levels to report what they’re aware of and think the ELT should be aware of, without incurring personal risk. It would also be responsible for sorting through it all, deciding what matters, and, when the situation calls for it, researching an issue in more depth.

It would have a regular slot on the ELT agenda — it wouldn’t need to fight for air time.

The ELT would be responsible for paying attention — for reading its metaphorical newspaper. And for instituting and enforcing the one rule critical for this organization’s success:

Don’t shoot the messenger.


This isn’t something I’ve tried with a client and can attest to. I know of no business that’s tried this. If you do, please post a Comment to tell the rest of us about it. If you don’t, post a Comment anyway.