What happens to the media in a “post-fact” era? Can we discern truth from propaganda? Has Russia simply hacked American journalism, in every meaning of the word? Do we all need to pay up to prop up what’s left of actual reporting?
Several Popdose staffers talked through the issues this week. The participants:
Beau Dure has spent 25 years in journalism, starting at mid-sized papers in North Carolina and ending up at USA TODAY for 10 years before embarking on a freelance career. Mostly sports, but a few “real world” issues are in his clip file as well, such as the Flat Earth story mentioned below.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer with over 23 years of experience. He writes primarily in the areas of music, film, and general pop culture.
Ted Asregadoo has worked in the radio industry for much longer than he expected to. Starting as a DJ on music stations, he transitioned into being a news and public affairs director, and later in his career, became a marketing and promotions director — a job that caused the rest of his hair to fall out. He’s written for both music and news/opinion sites and currently works as a news and traffic reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Rob Ross, a former music industry professional and performer, spent several years working for a public relations think tank; now writes in his free time on various topics pertaining to “popular culture.”
Jack Feerick is an editor-for-hire who writes intermittently about culture, politics, and weird history. His work can be found on your mom’s coffee table and in your cousin’s bathroom.
Annie Logue is a freelance writer covering business and finance, among other things. Like Irish rugby fans in Chicago.
David Medsker is a freelance writer and former senior editor of an entertainment web site.
Michael Parr can hardly believe he’s included in this list of actual writers.
Thierry Côté writes about music, politics and tennis. He teaches Political Science, International Relations and Media & Politics at York University (Toronto). He has had to talk about Donald J. Trump a lot in class this year.
Rob Smith was unavailable for comment.
Here’s how it went, with a few therapeutic rants omitted.
BLURRED LINES: FACT OR FAKE?
Dure: In 1994, I lost my innocence about the American public’s ability to discern fact from fiction.
I sat in a newsroom in a daze, watching Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution. To an extent, it was overdue — the old “Dixiecrats,” a vestige of Reconstruction Republican-bashing, weren’t Democrats in any reasonable sense. They were right-wingers who were neither Bush’s “compassionate conservatives” nor Buckley’s libertarian-ish intellectuals.
But it was the manner in which it happened that shocked me. This was the first election of the right-wing radio era, and it had a considerable impact on what had happened. A Los Angeles Times poll found 53 percent of potential voters believed the country was still in recession. (It was most definitely not.)
A few years later, my master’s thesis mentioned that and many other cases of the public picking and choosing their own friendly news sources. I spoke to the value of filtering (a dirty word now) and challenging information. “Voices of liars have to be heard, too,” a TV reporter told me. “That’s his story of how things happened; let him tell it, just counter it with the truth and documentation.”
And I caught a few other media trends in their formative stages. We had 24-hour news channels and the Internet, but one story always dominated — in the late 1990s, the Monica Lewinsky case. Jesse Ventura, the wrestler-turned-governor, talked of starting his own news network. A conservative radio network passed along a story saying James Carville had been jailed in Montgomery County (Md.) after some sort of incident with hunting knife and a semiautomatic pistol, a story that was debunked when other reporters noticed (A) the publication cited didn’t exist, (B) the police spokesman cited didn’t exist, (C) Carville lives in Virginia and not Maryland, and (D) Carville was not in the area on the night in question.
So in a sense, very little has changed. We even have Gingrich, still, telling CNN that voters don’t care (and don’t need to care) about the distinction between facts and feelings, and he calls Trump’s border wall a neat “campaign device.” You know — something we elites shouldn’t take seriously, but it’ll fool the rabble.
The difference today is that our misinformation is being led by Russia, not Rush Limbaugh. Progress?
Dunphy: We probably shouldn’t be shocked by the apparent manipulation that’s taken place, but by how long it took someone to use the weapon we were handing them. Look to entertainment — shamefully as always — for the antecedent plotlines. It’s not rock ‘n roll, it’s rock, but more than that, it’s punk rock, but hardcore punk rock, and not on a major label so it is indie rock, and recorded on a cheap 4-track, making it lo-fi indie hardcore punk rock. A program on a network about sports is not enough. We need a network devoted to just that one sport, that just one team, that just one aspect of a team.
And we need just one network devoted strictly to how we see the world, not how the world is, not where we need to do the hard work and see things as they are, good or bad, without clear adversaries. We demand black hats and white hats, damn it.
Of course we’ll get sucked into such a compartmentalized pseudo-reality. This doesn’t tell us we’re wrong and we need to look at things any way other than the way we want. This makes us feel like we’re the smartest, most-savvy, most-prescient person in the room because it tells us our secret fears are real. What we think is sacred is sacred, and some known or unknown boogeyman is trying to tell us otherwise. Into this sense of self-manipulation, all that is required is someone to say “yes” long enough to gain your confidence. Once you trust them explicitly — after all, they think exactly like you do — they can then start shaping what “yes” means, to you, but crucially, what it means to them.
Human beings have always compartmentalized, separated and segregated. Consciously rejecting compartmentalization is a function of the evolutionary process. But if you don’t believe in the evolutionary process, and you’ve surrounded yourself with media that likewise denies the evolutionary process, then you may be cool with not evolving. You might demand not evolving. “Don’t tread on me.”
It’s easy to point a finger at Fox for this, or Breitbart, or Alex Jones and Infowars. The fact is that every news/pseudo-news outlet is to blame, because news is boring. News is meant to be boring. Television stations at the dawn of the industry had to broadcast news as a requirement to gain licensing, even though advertisers would have nothing to do with it. Why? Boring!
It wasn’t until news got exciting, sexy, scandalous, dangerous, terrifying, and potentially lucrative to the individual viewer (“learn the secret to living like the rich and famous…on a budget!”) that it also became lucrative to the parent television companies, and interesting to people who wanted their ads there. They say the key to getting somewhat honest politics back is to get big money out of the process. Well, the same thing goes for big news. The antidote is to get the advertisers disinterested again, to get the editorialization and slant out of the news…in short, to make it boring again. Guess what? Donald Trump can haul up CNN’s Jeff Zucker to Trump Tower every day and rip him a new craphole constantly, and that still isn’t going to change the news landscape.
And that’s where we are. The media, good and bad, left and right, leftist and alt-right, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pouty and perky stood like a gleaming hand puppet, waiting for someone to slip theirs right up and in. We should not be shocked that someone did. Did such a lack of responsibility help install The Muscovite Candidate? We’ll have the shocking answer to that after these messages.
Asregadoo: Beau’s email started with Russian-spawned fake news. I was reading a Washington Post article on fake news/propaganda and the election, and there was a link to this site — which breaks down how the Soviets,um, I mean, Russians stoke fear, doubt, and distrust as a way of weakening states they don’t like (like the U.S.). It’s a tactic that was used in during the Soviet era, and it’s working pretty well now. Have a look.
- FB friend likes a post.
- The post is critical of Soros and how the Russian government passed a law aimed at Soros’ NGOs for trying to undermine the Russian Federation.
- Slant of the article is “liberal hating” so it creates a sympathetic view of evil liberals meddling in Russia’s affairs.The article ends by asking an question like “If only we had a law like this in the U.S.”
- The “Contact Us” page lists Area 51.
- Post is shared over 200,000 times and peppered with comments about how Soros should be shot, hung, beheaded and the like.
- Congratulations: if you agree with the article, you’re a useful idiot.
A NEW VIRAL MOVEMENT?
Dure: There’s a political correctness dilemma involved in pointing out fake news — one segment of the U.S. political spectrum falls for it disproportionately to others. And it’s difficult to point this out without sounding like a condescending coastal elitist who’s out of touch with “real America.”
But the evidence is overwhelming. The birther movement. Climate change denialists who believe the corporate lobbyists are white knights while the poorly paid post-doctoral researchers are corrupted by riches. People who believe 33% of the U.S. budget is going toward foreign aid.
A Facebook friend of mine asked if “the left” (a fractious community if there ever was one) should consider its own propaganda movement in response to the Russia/Trumpbot movement. The answers came quickly — there’s no reason to cede the moral high ground, and it wouldn’t work, anyway.
"Coler says his writers have tried to write fake news for liberals — but they just never take the bait." Go figure. https://t.co/9U7Y71hwqv
— Brian Quarstad (@IMSoccerNews) November 26, 2016
It’s important to point out that the left, the libertarians and what’s left of the traditional GOP may also be prone to following false prophets at times. Anti-vaccine movements, for example, cross party lines.
And everyone can form an echo chamber. I did a story for The Guardian on the Flat Earth movement. They have disagreements between sects, like any good cult does, but within their echo chamber, those are the only arguments. Within that group, Neil de Grasse Tyson is universally seen as corrupt. NASA and Russia are conspiring somehow. These are fundamental beliefs, as sure as a group of mathematicians would agree 1+1=2.
So I had an idea.
We have very few avenues left to reach everyone. Viral videos that we think everyone is seeing are only being seen within certain groups. (Trivial example: I had to look up Gangnam Style after SNL did a parody. I had no idea what they were talking about, though it had umpteen million views on YouTube.) Certain groups automatically dismiss whatever they see in the New York Times and so forth.
We need a Super Bowl ad.
We need a nonpartisan group to set up a Web presence giving everyone a guide to what’s fake and what’s not. It’ll classify various sites and explain — The Onion is satire, other sites simply get their kicks from making stuff up. It’ll round up fact-checking from Politifact, Snopes and all the others.
But the bulk of the money will go toward a funny 30-second ad that will air during the Super Bowl and be available on YouTube.
One benefit of the GOP splintering is that it’ll be easier to make this a nonpartisan effort. You can find plenty of traditional conservatives who aren’t happy with Russia spreading its tentacles into what we think is true.
Ross: The only thing I want to say about the fake-news syndrome, most notably in this last year, is the frightening, disturbing ease in which people bought these headlines — let alone stories — and swallowed them wholesale, never mind regurgitating them on to others. The gullibility factor on both sides rose exponentially in a manner I still find hard to digest.
Whatever happened to taking the time to actually investigate and read to find the facts?
I know; that’s a rhetorical question.
This election cycle was based on the most thwarted version of “telephone.”
Dunphy: To address the question that need not be addressed: “Whatever happened to taking the time to actually investigate and read to find the facts?”
Short answer is that the facts would contradict what they want to believe and, somewhere deep down, they know this.
Long answer is that for a large portion of the country Trump is as close to a feeling of community they’ve felt in a very long time. This is why hardcore Trump supporters are almost cultish in their ardor. This is rock star fandom, not political engagement. It is the only way to describe the smoothed-over conflicts that should have destroyed his capabilities ten times over. The Reagan Republicans — at least a large percentage of them — have disavowed Reagan all but verbally in following Trump, a man who actively courts authoritarian Russian leaders. Like Reagan or hate him, we can agree he would not have been so warm to cold warriors.
So too, the Evangelical Christian segment who ordinarily would have been on record against the so-called “inveterate adulterer” kissed the ring so fast and so hard the diamonds fell out.
B.S. detectors only work if you decide to turn them on.
Dure: I think we’ve gotten so bad at B.S. detection that the great blog Literally Unbelievable, a compilation of people taking Onion and Clickhole stories seriously, hasn’t updated in months. Probably just overloaded, like the Fool in King Lear. (The idea persists on Reddit, at least — see this classic thread that goes with the picture at left.)
Feerick: Re: “We need a nonpartisan group to set up a Web presence giving everyone a guide to what’s fake and what’s not. It’ll classify various sites and explain — The Onion is satire, other sites simply get their kicks from making stuff up. It’ll round up fact-checking from Politifact, Snopes and all the others.”
The problem is that there are no longer any sources that are universally recognized as “reliable.” Wingnuts regularly characterize, say, Snopes as partisan, even as propaganda.
SEE YOU IN COURT!
Logue: I was sued for libel a few years ago by convicted felon Keith Gilabert, who ran a fraudulent hedge fund. I have reason to believe he was trying to clean up his search results, and my mention of him was off-hand. The suit was so frustrating, too: he confessed, spent time in prison, got out, and then accused me of lying about it.
My sources were public releases from the U.S. Department of Justice, the California Department of Corporations, and the Securities and Exchange Commission! (See the legal documents.)
I was naive. I thought a judge would look at the evidence, laugh, and then dismiss the suit. That’s not how the legal process works, though. It’s so long and tedious. I prevailed, and Keith Gilabert was ordered to pay my legal fees. Of course, I’m in line behind a few other people, including the family of a retired rabbi.
Yes, among his victims was a rabbi who invested his retirement money with him.
Anyway, I refused to settle, but it was expensive. I could not have done it if my husband had not agreed to it. (My husband’s exact words were “Crush this guy, Crush him like a little bug.”) I wonder how often bloggers receive a cease and desist order and take the post down, even when their information is correct? Even when they are in the right?
I was surprised how many freelancers asked me why I didn’t just take the post down, including some who were leaders of different writers organizations. Everyone gets excited about glamour cases like Salman Rushdie. Tawdry little chiselers who want clean Google searches? That’s another story.
Somehow, too many believe that the First Amendment gives them the right to see the news they want to see and say what they want to say – the right to bully reporters – rather than about the right of the media to report the truth.
So, the long and short of it is, we’re screwed.
Dunphy: It really has digressed to the stage where leftys might need to counter-program crap with crap. It makes me nauseous to think or say it, but if this is an arms race, can you afford not to be armed?
Logue: I like to think that truth wins out, just as love and equality do — eventually. Karma is real, and karma is powerful, but karma is slow.
Dure: And this is where Trump’s “rev up the libel laws” mantra can be especially dangerous, even if it’s somewhat seductive. It might be nice to put fake news sites out of business or to lower the whammy on Matt Drudge. But how many nuisance suits will be launched in a litigious country such as ours?
Logue: It is weird to me how people hear what they want to hear. Like people who voted for Trump because they think he’s pro-life. He said he was, sure, but is there any reason to believe him? Anything in his history that says he’s telling the truth? No. And yet, his saying is was enough.
Whatever happened to walking the talk?
Dunphy: This election was absolute crack cocaine for the media. They did not want to blow up access. They still don’t. There’s plenty of grousing and self-reflection about “how we didn’t see this coming” from the outlets, but all the controversies have stopped. The sexual assault accusers. Those who were on the losing side of business deals. Trump U was nailed down, likely with so many NDAs even the guy delivering the paperwork had to sign an NDA. All these things stopped dead. The media, for all the “woe is us” they have uttered, have learned NOTHING. They’re trying to protect their access.
Logue: It’s interesting that the Washington Post did some of the best reporting, after they were denied access to the campaign.
Medsker: In other words, Network warned us about this 40 years ago, but we were too chicken to listen.
SAVE NEWSPAPERS, SAVE THE WORLD
Parr: In spite of all of it, I just subscribed for home delivery of a newspaper for the first time in my life. I’m tired of getting my news fed to me based on clicks and trending, and decided it was time to take control.
Ross: I still get my daily deliveries of the NYT and the Washington Post; even our local newspaper. Nothing’s changed on that front.
Dure: I never thought subscribing to a newspaper would be an act of defiance. But that’s where we stand now.
And it’s the end result of decades of media scapegoating. That takes us back to the beginning of the conversation — in 1994, when voters didn’t believe the “liberal media,” opting instead to believe people sitting in radio studios instead of the people doing the actual reporting.
Frankly, the only reason the media seem “liberal” is because so many elements in the GOP take anti-science, anti-academia, anti-media positions. Believing climate change is real shouldn’t be a “liberal” belief any more than believing in gravity is.
Asregadoo: I get a paper copy of the SF Chronicle and have the digital version of The NY Times…been doing that for years.
Côté: Of course, a lot of these problems are related to both the proliferation of news outlets with plausible names that make it harder to think twice about pulling the trigger when sharing a (possibly fake) news story as well as a massive trend towards media concentration that has all but eliminated local news and smaller outlets that used to do careful local reporting, played their role as local politics watchdogs and had the ability to factcheck a local news story before it became viral (see: “300,000 Cable Users in CNN Porn Shock!”). That trend towards increased concentration is both the product of and the source of some of the economic constraints for media/reporters that explain how horserace and clickbait journalism as well as unlimited Trump coverage completely took over this election cycle.
And if you think things are bad in the US, Canada has one of if not the most concentrated media landscapes of all liberal liberal democracies, which leads to this:
After buyouts, the Postmedia parliamentary bureau will be down to four. In 2000, at Postmedia predecessor Southam, it was 34.
— Sean Craig (@sdbcraig) November 26, 2016
For reference, Postmedia is the largest newspaper chain in Canada. And yes, its parliamentary bureau has now dropped from 34 to 4 journalists since 2000.
Asregadoo: From the NY Times story on phony news on November 25th: “For me, this is all about income, nothing more.” The quote is a from a guy who made a lot of cash creating made up stories with a pro-Trump slant. He found that people who supported Trump would believe anything he wrote (or copied from other websites — but altered the facts and the point of view of the story to favor Trump). He tried creating pro-Hillary news sites, but found a lack of interest, so he switched to Trump, and he hit pay dirt.
Dw wrote that people who support Trump view him as a rock star, and like all frothing fan-boys and girls, they only want news that paints their hero in the most flattering light. That’s why pro-Trump websites profiled only write stories that are flattering. “My audience likes Trump,”[Beqa Latsabidze, 22] said, “I don’t want to write bad things about Trump. If I write fake stories about Trump, I lose my audience.”
The problem I see with the Times story is that it mostly focuses on the economic part of the enterprise. These people don’t make a ton of money, but when you’re an unemployed 20-something like Latsabidze, making $6000 in one month by creating fake stories that feeds a propaganda machine is pretty sweet. The political side of the story gets some ink, but what’s overlooked is how these stories are seen as a way to sway public opinion during elections by foreign governments. Soviet-style propaganda may seem like a throwback to an era that’s long gone, but the methods of manipulation still work — you just have to adapt them to current technologies. It’s clear when people distrust “The Media,” the government, liberals, and the “Gay, black, feminist, or Muslim agenda” their cynicism creates opportunities for propaganda to feed them BS that they want to believe is true –because it fits with their biases and prejudices. None of this is new, of course, and isn’t limited to Trump supporters. Paranoia runs deep in many cultures, but seems to really excel in the U.S. So when you have a celebrity like Trump who essentially channels large scale paranoia, rage, and economic desperation into an “I alone can fix things” campaign, his supporters are immune to uncomfortable truths about their messiah.
The scary part of all this is that Brexit was a template on how to use fear of immigrants and job insecurity in propaganda campaigns. The U.S. presidential election solidified many of those elements that can and will be used in upcoming elections in France — where similar issues could elevate the National Front to power. It only took razor-thin margins of votes in swing states in the U.S. to elect Trump (barring changes from the vote audit in three states), but the sweeping changes that will likely happen will negatively affect a number of groups in the U.S. because the political elements are in place at the federal and state level to favor both Trump and the GOP. In short, the GOP will probably get their wish and completely erase the gains the Obama administration made on a whole host of things people who voted for him wanted.
Côté: I’m not sure if it was an NPR or NY Times who described Trump supporters as stans, which seemed accurate—and that was a good explanation for why it became so difficult to provide any kind of information that would change their view of him.
As for propaganda, new technologies have shifted the terrain, but that does not mean propaganda cannot be a crucial part of any political movement. This Quillam Foundation study of the Islamic State’s propaganda over a one-year period is illuminating with respect to techniques and technologies that are now part of the repertoire.
Smith: I bought an electronic subscription to both the Times and Mother Jones. And we upped our donation to Planned Parenthood. I think they’ll need it.
Dure: Of these 20 ways to resist tyranny, published by a Yale Holocaust professor, Nos. 2, 8 and 9 are directly related to our conversation here.
It’s not natural for the media to speak up for themselves. We’re a self-flagellating industry, and we’re doing it again now. That’s healthy to an extent — the unexamined industry is not worth supporting, to twist Socrates slightly. But it’s time to speak up. Maybe an ad campaign. Maybe viral videos. Maybe thoughtful editorials about the mission of newspapers.
Asregadoo: I think the 20 ways to avoid tyranny needs to add: get involved in voter registration and get out the vote efforts. Building a movement to protect the right to vote is extremely important because it’s one thing tyrants want to limit. Because it’s all about counties and states in the U.S., a voter movement needs to understand the complexities of voting regulations in each state and individual counties in order to create successful registration and get out the vote programs. However, while some voter I.D. laws are being struck down as unconstitutional, state and county governments aren’t bothering to end the practice.
Covering voter suppression efforts isn’t a sexy story, but it’s clearly one that has far-reaching consequences. Right now, the vote audit is dominating the news. And if there’s a takeaway about this effort it’s this: raising $5 million dollars in a couple of days to audit the vote in three states shows that people with limited means have power and — when collectively pooled — money. Even though Jill Stein has been clear that an audit may not change anything, I think those who gave money to the cause know this, but want to make sure nothing shady has happened in these swing states. So if people are willing to give small amounts for a large effort, perhaps viral videos, memes and the like will impress upon folks how important voting is in the short and long term — and that may spur a larger, sustained movement to register and inform voters to act in the face of those powers who are trying to suppress their voices.
Dunphy: Here’s what we need to be worried about. We want to express how we feel but, already, we’re afraid of the repercussions of a person who threatens the free speech of his supposed fellow countrymen.
Feerick: Yup. The government won’t have to censor the press; the press will censor itself—out of fear of litigation, or simply fear of losing access.
Dure: I think we’re finding we can do plenty without “access.”
But we can’t do much without readers. And the truth can’t get across when we’re facing issues like this:
Leah Remini's description of how Scientology keeps their followers is exactly what Trump has been doing with his. pic.twitter.com/XKwLDNc1AX
— rob fee (@robfee) November 29, 2016
Logue: Well, yeah.
In Chicago, there are people who want an elected school board and an elected police oversight commission. Doesn’t that sound nice? But when the mayoral primary had 27% turnout – involving Rahm Emanuel, a national figure, who had real competition – how many people do we think will vote for something more ordinary? And will take the time to understand the different candidates?
I don’t know what to do about this. My Facebook friends include a lot of my high-school (Catholic school) classmates, and some of the most loyal Catholics among them know the least about church teachings. Two insisted that they had to vote for Trump because of their religion (ie, abortion). Death penalty? Unjust war? Rights of refugees? Poverty? No, no, those don’t matter. They haven’t even bothered to understand the thing that is supposedly the most important thing in their entire lives – and after being exposed to it from kindergarten through 12th grade.
People believe what they want to believe. And that’s a problem.
Dure: The good news is that a lot of people now recognize that problem. And they’re responding with their wallets. We’re not the only ones subscribing to the NYT now.
The decades-long assault on the media will continue. But a resistance is forming. It’s about time.