This “fake news” thing is like an aging hi-yield nuclear weapon. It’s dangerous and unstable. And it’s not a play-toy, though some practitioners of fake news, according to multiple reports, just create fake news for the hell of it. Some are highly paid spinmeisters, some are just kids adept at the technical aspects of the internet.
Though I’ve never had a single course in journalism, I’ve been in the news business for a long time. I learned from some pretty tough teachers: experience, and mentors whose bedrock principles were accuracy, fairness, and restraint.
It’s not like that any more, though.
In no particular order, these are my thoughts on the rise of fake news and how dangerous it is.
Deregulation and leveraged buyouts decimated local radio, TV, and print newsrooms. In the Clinton era, Clear Channel bought up every radio station it could, and when it couldn’t sustain the debt load, shed personnel – starting in the news room. The same economic pressures from the advent of the internet, Craig’s List, et.al that started the problems with radio soon spread to local TV and print newsrooms.
While news gathering was becoming expendable as "too expensive" to the suits who run broadcasting at the local level, the network TV operations were creating more and more “news” programming. Because of the vastly different economics driving network TV, news (and "reality") programming is a lot cheaper than scripted shows.
The influence of local news diminished, and the influence of national news rose.
The Rise of Social Media and Specialized “News” Sites
Just as broadcast stations are constantly hungry for more content, social media sites presented a huge opportunity for content creators to spread content from their websites. Outfits like Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, Huffington Post, and Democratic Underground – just to name a handful – exploded in popularity because of Facebook sharing and Retweeting.
With varying degrees of slant, the stuff on these sites is not “news”. It is not, in most cases, written by impartial journalists, but rather by people who are helping promote a certain mindset or point of view.
Because we tend to filter out the news we don’t “agree” with, and expose ourselves to media which is congruent with our mindset, many of us have lost the ability to discern what is real, fact-checked, verifiable news, and what’s opinion. Far too many people who see a “story” headlined “Obama Behind Secret CIA Move To Impeach Trump” actually regard this sort of thing as “news”.
In the span of a decade, we’ve become a nation of people who can’t even agree on what a fact is.
Network News Headquarters Are In New York
This familiar map of the electoral results of the last election illustrates perfectly the divided nature of our country. News, by and large, originates in New York City or Washington DC. Network newsrooms are staffed by people who live in blue states. “Normal” to them has nothing to do with an outlier like Donald Trump, which is why at first they didn’t take his candidacy seriously (HuffPost covered Trump’s campaign as “Entertainment” for months) and later, as he steamrolled candidates from the Republican mainstream, they didn’t really know what to make of it.
With the exception of Fox News, liberal points of view dominate the mindset of people who work in network newsrooms, whether they’re producers, writers, reporters, or anchors. Even though they are professionally neutral, their default mindset is more liberal than conservative.
The Cult Of The Brand
Many reporters, who used to have a status about 15 notches below the national anchors, now seem to be as concerned about “developing their brand” as they are about presenting the facts in a neutral manner. Now, “reporting” has become a brand-builder: you’ll hear the national network correspondents use phrases like “my reporting indicates that….”
Even fledgling reporters at the local level are paying close attention to how they are presented, the kind of stories they do, and the manner in which they deliver the story all as part of “building their brand” to advance their career.
All the things I’ve mentioned here have given rise to the dangerous phenomenon of “fake news”. People can’t agree on facts; the media outlets they choose reflect their personal bias; and the default position of the news gatekeepers is liberal.
The most dangerous part of all this is the “I’m entitled to my opinion” mindset. If you choose to believe Jenny McCarthy’s spewings on vaccination, and disregard the peer-reviewed reports of medical experts, you’re confusing opinion and fact. And that’s one of the many reasons you’re vulnerable to fake news.
And when there’s an entire professional class of people dedicated to making you doubt everything you hear and read, and label what they don’t like as “fake news”….well, we’re all in trouble.
Without facts, the decisions we as a nation have to make are no better than a roll of the dice.
To understand what’s going on in the red/blue rural/urban divide, read UW Professor Kathleen Cramer’s excellent book “The Politics of Resentment”.