We are in yet another panic in America. This one is about the news. Particularly, “fake news.”
It's the Great Fake News Panic of '17-’18!
I'm here to tell you: Calm down!
Disclaimer: How am I qualified to hold forth on a matter of such great import? I have a degree in journalism --from the same college as Ali Watkins! AND I took Journalism Law THREE TIMES (before I finally passed it... you'd be surprised at how much one can learn by failing twice before succeeding)!
Anyway, I assure you it does not take a Bachelor of Arts to figure this all out.
Simple though it may be, however, there is a serious shortage of clear thinking about "fake news." And no one is willing to define it, or capable of defining it.
In a recent USA Today opinion piece entitled "5 reason why 'fake news' will get even worse," money writer Nathan Bomey led off with this:
We are experiencing the early days of intentionally false or highly misleading online information.
Actually, Nate, we're not. The Panic is certainly in its early days, I will say. But "intentionally false" online information has been with us since Internet Day One. (And, prior to the internet, we were up to our necks in "intentionally false" information but, miraculously, nobody panicked.) As for the phrase,"highly misleading," that is subjective, impossible to define and meaningless for this discussion.
As per the headline, Bomey outlines five scaaaarrry reasons why fake news "will almost certainly get worse." (Whatever that means.)
I don't mean to pick on ol' Nate. But his article is a perfect distillation of all the boneheadery that is all too common these days when any discussion turns to fake news.
I notice (because it is mentioned in paragraph five) that Nate has written a new book! It's called, " After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump." Duly noted. "Truth" is suffering "erosion." Check.
Three of Nate’s Five Scary Reasons stand out, while the other two are not worth talking about.
Scary Reason Number One: We will soon have an "explosion" of fake video, audio and photos. These fake vids and clips and pics will be so technologically advanced as to seem "indistinguishable from reality" as one egghead is quoted as saying. Bomey sees doom!
I see an upside to this.
Think about it. If you are confronted-- every day, many times a day-- with video that looks real but is later found to be faked, you will then not trust ANY video you watch (or photo you see, or audio you hear), UNLESS it is vetted by a source that YOU trust. Trust then becomes more valuable. This can only have a salutary effect. What’s a better situation: The one where news outlets take trust as a given? Or one where news outlets are constantly fretting over the public’s perception of them regarding trustworthiness?
When we are skeptical, our trust becomes harder-- but not impossible-- to earn. I don’t know about you, but I do not believe that there are many people in the American mainstream media who actually care if I trust them or not. I’m not sure anyone currently in the media has every had to work hard to gain my trust or the public’s trust. I do, however, believe that they expect to be trusted. And that’s not an ideal situation.
"Skeptical" is not a dirty word. It means, "Not easily convinced, having doubts or reservations." That's glorious, in my book. Do not confuse “skepticism” with its nasty cousin “cynicism.”
In December of 1968, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, in the lyrics of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," gave listeners an idea of America's skepticism level: "People say believe half of what you see... and none of what you hear." So, fifty years ago, it was a given that we were a nation that, in large part, questioned what we saw and heard.
In the five decades since, we have not become more easily fooled. Of course, there are some people who become outraged when they see "a picture of Steven Spielberg posing proudly in front of the poor, defenseless triceratops he just murdered," but those people have always been with us. Those folks are the opposite of skeptical-- naive, gullible, credulous. Fortunately, they are few in number. For the most part, though, it is still difficult to hoodwink Americans.
Super Scary Reason Number Two: The ability to find stuff on the internet in just a few milliseconds is "dangerous because it provides easy access to crackpot conspiracy theories and rarely presents searchers with disconfirming evidence." Where to begin? Who defines “crackpot conspiracy theories?” Is “The Communist Manifesto” a crackpot conspiracy theory? Is the Bible? (And just what the hell is "disconfirming evidence?" Even SpellCheck is calling bullshit on that one!) Curiously, Bomey seems to believe that the internet does not provide the same “easy access” to “disconfirming evidence” as it does to “crackpot conspiracy theories." Curious, to say the least.
Talk like this unnecessarily demonizes the internet. We should be leery of anyone who says that easier access to information-- good info or bad info-- is “dangerous.” It is wise to examine such claims with… skepticism.
Reason Number Four: "Professional journalists are losing sway over what Americans read and see." Bomey sees this as a problem.
The use of the phrase “professional journalist” is telling, as it implies that only “pros” are deserving of an audience, deserving of trust. It implies that a journalist's credibility rises or falls in direct proportion to the size of the assets of the corporation that signs his paycheck. Further, it implies that journalists who do it for the sport (or the tipjar, or what little fame or juice they may accrue) are somehow less credible or less trustworthy. (Former CBS News Exec Jonathan Klein famously and derisively described the typical upstart blogger in 2004 as "a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks. ")
There's an obvious reason journalists are "losing sway," nicely summed by the statistic that only 17 percent of Americans give the news media high marks for being "very accurate" (Media Insights Project, May 2017). A reputation for accuracy (or a perception of accuracy) closely correlates with trust. And it can be argued that the dinosaur media has an “accuracy” problem these days.
BTW, that 17 percent figure is just too big. C'mon people--start working those skeptical muscles! We can get that number closer to zero. Our press could still function even if no one trusted them.
I'm hard on Bomey. But, after reading the description of his book on BarnesAndNoble.com, it appears we would actually agree on a lot of things having to do with "shifting news habits" and "the rise of social media." and we could probably talk all day long about "the failure of schools to teach basic critical-thinking skills." But his idea of "fake news" (and what, if anything, can be done about it) is nowhere near mine.
I grew up in the era before the internet. In addition to having three daily papers delivered to our door, my mother had instructions from my father that she was to pick up a copy of his favorite supermarket tabloid when she went grocery shopping.
My father was an intelligent man. He was a machinist by trade. He was a parallel reader-- he would often have three or four books going at once-- and the topics varied. He explored everything from science to politics to religion. His affection for the tabs derived from their mutual side-obsession with bizarre phenomena, particularly UFO’s and the possibility of life on other planets.
When he was done reading them, I snatched them up. I loved reading those ludicrous rags! (Full disclosure: My first editor-in-chief when I worked at my college newspaper is the guy who ran the National Enquirer from 1999 to 2016.) P.S.: The headline of this article is actually the motto of The Weekly World News, which entered the media scrum in 1979.
But even as a kid, I could tell what was real and what was “fake.” The National Enquirer has been with us since 1926, the Globe, since 1954. And, up until recently, the republic held together in spite of this onslaught of “fake news.”
Was I smarter than everyone else? Well, I went into the journalism business, so, the answer to that is, obviously, “no.” But it doesn’t take much smarts to distinguish between a real story and one that is questionable. Which is why I despair when Bomey and others seek to portray my fellow citizens as dolts, incapable of figuring all this out on their own, just because it’s on the internet.
We should be skeptical about what we read, and I believe we are. And I believe that should be our default position. Any claim that there might be some sort of “crisis”-- that our republic is in danger because of Bomey’s idea of “fake news”-- is suspicious.
Side note: President Trump’s idea of “fake news” is an entirely different idea from Bomey’s. Might Trump have gone “too far” in labeling the media the “enemy of the American people?” Yes. But he tweeted pretty much the same thing fifteen months ago and the press now seems to be just as free-- if not freer-- than it was in February of 2017. Little has changed in the last year and a quarter. And even FDR “claimed that 85 percent of the newspapers were against him.” Presidents don’t like the press and, with some exceptions, the press doesn’t like the president. Nothing new here. (And, if we go further back, to the beginnings of this great nation, the treatment of our leaders at the hands of the press was hair-raisingly coarse and outrageous. Trust me on this, I failed Journalism History twice before passing it!)
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” That quote has been used, re-used, laundered and shrunk down to, “The solution to bad speech is more speech.”
But in the full quote, Brandeis urged us to “expose through discussion” the “falsehood and fallacies” and emphasized “the processes of education.” We used to call this “debate.” Remember debate? Free and open debate? Good times. Nearly all forms of useful debate are disappearing. Gone are the chats by the water cooler, the discussions on college campuses, civil chats on Facebook. (When was the last time you saw people having an honest debate on social media, one in which the goal was not to “own” someone or “dunk” on them?)
I suspect that the very same people who seek to control our actions and our speech by inflating the imagined menace of “fake news” long ago soured on the notion of debate. It is clear that they believe that the time for discussion is long past and that the time for the suppression of speech has finally arrived.