My last column dealt with trying to define the fake news controversy. (In Search of: Fake News). Since it was published, not only has the controversy not gone away, it has seemed to intensify, and what qualifies as fake still hasn’t gotten any easier to define. The reason for the glut of misleading stories and half-truths is a little easier to figure out.
Don Lemon of CNN tried to boil it down to its simplest form: fake news is news that media outlets publish knowing the facts of the story are not true. If only it were that simple, but the truth rarely is.
The problem lies in the way news works these days. Whether reporters want to admit it or not, ideology has become a top factor in the way news is presented. It’s a way that in the past would have been unthinkable.
Before cable news networks and the internet, competition in television reporting was limited to the three networks. In cities and towns, there were one or two local papers. The audience pie was the same, but the slices were a lot bigger.
People would tend to stick with one paper, and as far as TV reporting, they usually watched the anchor whose personality they liked. Walter Cronkite made people feel comfortable, and in turn they trusted him to tell them what was going on in the world. Reporters always tried for scoops, but it was more important for them to be right or risk losing that trust. The lack of available competition also made it possible for them to present the facts without attaching their own conclusions.
In other words, news back in the day was all about getting the facts to the audience without attaching a conclusion to those facts.
The starkest example of this is when Cronkite broke into As the World Turns to report on JFK’s death by assassination. (You can watch that here.) Cronkite is obviously shaken- at one point he even wipes away tears- but the tone of the report never changes. Cronkite gave the who, what, when, where, and why and kept his opinion out of it. He didn’t bring on a panel to try to identify the shooter before they had all the facts or to give some sort of pop culture psychoanalysis of the sort of person who could have done it. (“Well, Walter, we’re pretty sure that this has to be some right-wing gun nut extremist who was on his way to bomb an abortion clinic and decided to just blow a president away.”)
People may not have exactly been surprised when they found out that Cronkite leaned to the left, but it wasn’t blatantly obvious to anyone who watched him on the tube.
Cut to today. Reporting just the facts, ma’am, fell out of fashion with the advent of the 24-hour news channels. With ratings playing an ever bigger role, news stopped being purely informative and became, well, a TV show. It’s as much about entertainment as information.
The game is the same, the teams have just switched sides
One TV tactic to boost ratings is to offer counter-programming. When CBS puts on a program like Star Trek, NBC will try to put on something different hoping to catch an audience that weren’t sci-fi fans. Different channels applied that philosophy to news as well. While Fox News did well with a conservative audience, other channels decided to cater to liberals. Suddenly, decisions on what to report and how to report it took on a whole new importance. The liberal channels wouldn’t touch stories that might offend their sought-after audience, while conservative channels did the same for theirs. If they did happen to report on the same subject, the tone of the stories would be markedly different.
As ideology took over, news agencies hired reporters that would sacrifice objectivity for audience. They started taking sides.
Just look at the difference in the coverage of the last two scandals to see how this has played out. Fox went after the Hillary email scandals doggedly while the other networks declared it a non-story as soon as her name came up. If MSNBC did any reporting on it at all, it was to mock Fox for thinking there was something there. They would have panels that did nothing but defend her no matter what new information came out. Compare that to the Trump/Russia story. The big three networks, CNN, and MSNBC have run stories on it for almost two months straight, even though they’ve come up with nothing but increased speculation about how bad it might be.
The game is the same, but Trump’s election signaled halftime. The teams just switched sides.
Sean Hannity, in an interview with CBS’s Ted Koppel, said that the public should be given credit for being smart enough to distinguish between opinion and news programs. Koppel disagreed. The truth is that there’s very little difference between the two anymore. The line has become so blurred that it has almost disappeared.
Here is an example of what passes as news today. This headline ran on the MSN homepage. Joe Scarborough on Trump’s Tweeting: Something is Seriously Wrong with This Man. (I’ve added the video from the Daily Review that went along with the headline. It was also reported by The Huffington Post and Politico.)
Anyone with a fourth-grade education knows that that is an opinion. How does the fact that someone said it on TV suddenly make it news? And is it fake news or not? Even though Scarborough expressed an opinion that some would say is false, the fact that he said it is true. Whether it’s fake news or not depends on how the viewer wants to interpret the words.
Don Lemon probably didn’t take that into account for his simple explanation.
Speaking of Lemon, his definition begs another important question. Is it fake news for a reporter to pick and choose which facts to report in order to justify a wanted conclusion? Some might say that’s news, but most would call it propaganda.
Throughout Obama’s tenure, his unemployment numbers were constantly under question. Some journalists took the easy road and reported the number they were given. As that number went down, it made Obama look good. Others looked at the number that included people who had given up looking for work and had run out of unemployment insurance. That statistic wasn’t quite as flattering. Which number got reported depended on whether the agency doing the reporting supported Obama.
And Kellyanne Conway got slammed for using the term alternative facts.
As news has become ideology in search of an audience, people have drifted towards media outlets that support their own opinion. They tend to believe the stories that match their biases and dismiss those that don’t. Conservatives drift towards Breitbart and Fox News while liberals brand them fake news. Conservatives will do the same for CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times. Unfortunately, biased does not always equal fake. Just as unfortunately, it doesn’t equal completely true, either. Consumers are forced to be more diligent about the news they see and read than they were in Cronkite’s time.
Skepticism is the new normal.
It’s too bad that the Weekly World News is not longer around. At least with them, we knew it was fake news.
Update: Since writing this article, it has come out that Susan Rice, an Obama political cohort, was responsible for unmasking surveillance on incoming Trump administration officials. The man who tried to define fake news, Don Lemon himself, declared it a non-story the day it came out and refused to report on it for CNN. Two of the three major networks decided not to mention it, while the other spent a whole 45 seconds on it devoted to defending Rice.
The new story changed immediately from “Trump wasn’t surveilled” to “Trump was surveilled, but legally.” Every channel has run a soundbite of Mother Jones’ David Corn claiming reporting on Rice is racist and sexist. Another opinion, but yes, he did say it.
Sure, no fake news there.