Home Media “Real” News is a Bigger Problem Than Fake News

“Real” News is a Bigger Problem Than Fake News

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I certainly agree that “fake news” – and, more broadly, the spread of blatant falsehoods/lies (e.g., climate science denials) – is a huge problem, also that it played an important role in putting Donald Trump in the White House.

You’ve been writing fake news for a while now — you’re kind of like the OG Facebook news hoaxer. Well, I’d call it hoaxing or fake news. You’d call it parody or satire. How is that scene different now than it was three or five years ago? Why did something like your story about Obama invalidating the election results (almost 250,000 Facebook shares, as of this writing) go so viral?

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I also would argue that Facebook, for all its fun features (trying to think of what those are right now…ok, maybe not), is fundamentally flawed – possibly beyond fixing, even if Zuckerberg and Company had the courage to do so – and has contributed significantly to the dumbing down of our culture and the rise of a “post-truth” era.

But having said all that, I would actually argue that so-called “real” news – the kind you see on the networks, cable TV, newspapers like the Washington (Com)Post, and of course the vast right-wing media system (think Drudge, Breitbart, Fox, etc.) – is even MORE of a problem than “fake” news. To summarize a few of the points I’ve been making for years, “real” news sucks because of:

  • Its relentless obsession with drawing a false equivalence and presenting two “sides” to everything, even topics where it’s basically 100% on one “side” and 0% on another. For instance, the media will write something like “one side says there’s man-made climate change, the other side says there isn’t – discuss!” Needless to say, this is extremely damaging to public discourse and our political system, since if we can’t even agree on things that are without doubt FACTS (and problems), then how can we argue over the preferred policy mix or the best candidate to deal with those real problems? Got me.
  • Its almost complete failure to cover policy, or for “real” journalists to care about important issues and/or to know anything about those issues. How appalling the “real” media is in this regards?  A recent study found that, “Since the beginning of 2016, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage.” Oh, and “the three network newscasts have slotted 100 minutes so far this year for reporting on Hillary Clinton’s emails while she served as secretary of state, but just 32 minutes for all issues coverage.” So yeah, that’s the “real” news for ya.
  • Its obsession with triviality, faux-“scandal,” sensationalism, and basically anything that will bring them preeeccccciousssss clicks/eyeballs/etc. Thus, TONS of time on shark attacks or whatever, minimal time on the acidification of our oceans, which could be catastrophic to sharks and every other species, ours included. Again, this is the “real” news, not the “fake” news.
  • Its coverage of politics – Chris “The Fix” Cillizza being a prime, deplorable example – as substance-free “horse race,” as if it’s all just a big infotainment spectacle for our titillation, not the future of our nation and the planet at stake. It’s wildly irresponsible, and these “horse-race” people get stuff completely wrong all the time, yet there are never any adverse consequences to them, as far as I can tell – only to our democracy and our nation. Thanks a lot, guys (and yeah, they’re mostly guys).
  • The continued collapse of the “real” media (note: as deeply flawed as it is, we still need a free/vibrant press, and it’s still better than “fake” news or the crazy s*** you find on right-wing blogs, etc.):

Even before this year’s ad revenue drop, the number of full-time daily journalists — nearly 33,000 according to the 2015 census conducted by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University — was on the way to being half what it was in 2000.

That contraction in the reporting corps, combined with the success of disinformation this year, is making for some sleepless nights for those in Washington who will have to govern in this bifurcated, real-news-fake-news environment.

“It’s the biggest crisis facing our democracy, the failing business model of real journalism,” Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri and a longtime critic of fake news, told me on Saturday.

In sum, my argument is that, as damaging as “fake” news is – and no doubt it’s VERY damaging – the “real” news can be just as damaging or even worse. Thus, we had day after day after day of breathless, 24/7 coverage of Hillary Clinton’s “health issues” (turns out she had a bout of pneumonia that was easily treatable), and even worse about the trivial pseudo-“scandals” over her “damn emails” and the Clinton Foundation. It’s bad enough that the “real” news spent so much time on this crap, which basically overlapped with “fake” news (note: this is another problem; “fake” news seeping into “real” news coverage). Then there was the “real” news’ hysterical/wildly irresponsible coverage of the Comey letter in the election’s closing weeks (which very well may have thrown the election to Trump, and with it the future of our country/planet). Think about what using up all the “oxygen”/”bandwith” on this trivial garbage meant for limited/shrinking journalistic staff resources to cover REAL scandals, like the gazillion really, really bad things about Trump?

So yeah, in the end, the “real” news – with a few exceptions, like Kurt Eichenwald, Josh Marshall, Paul Krugman, etc. – utterly failed to serve the public this election cycle, and it only appears to be sliding downhill further. In that context, while “fake” news is a big problem that needs to be dealt with, I’m actually more concerned with the “real” news at this point.

  • Elaine Owens

    I’ve been watching the downhill spiral of “news” reporting every since Roone Arledge took over news at ABC and brought glitzy graphics and splashy new programs to the news. Arledge got his start in sports, but he knew he could turn news into a money-maker for the network. Before that, news was considered civic duty the wasn’t going to produce much ad revenue. It was a long slippery slope from 1977 to where we are today: “news” anchors are selected for their personality and looks (especially women); following journalistic rules of excellence is not important any more. Now, it’s eyes on the ads. News is just another “sport” with winners and losers. Terrible! Plus, few people bother to get a newspaper any more. News magazines are dying. Propaganda rules!

  • Elaine Owens

    I’m old enough to remember Ted Koppel and NIghtline obsessing over the Iranian hostage situation every evening, with graphics showing the days they had been held, etc. It made it much harder to get the hostages released and didn’t help Carter’s re-election efforts.

  • Southern Liberal

    Some professor made a list of the “fake” news sites. Included in her list were well-known progressive blogs such as Think Progress, Raw Story, Crooks and Liars. L.A. times is now reporting that she’s taken her list down for the time being due to threats.

    • No idea why she would have included those sites on her list.