I try to get a varied news diet. I watch NBC Nightly News, read the newspaper, scan mostly conservative news feeds. For a liberal perspective, I find audiobooks most effective: most of the day-to-day liberal media presumes that one already understands their premises, and the audiobook format discourages me from skipping over the parts I might not agree with.
I normally don’t watch the cable news channels, except when I’m at the gym. I watch CNN or MSNBC with the sound turned off, sometimes with captions, while sweating on the treadmill.
Since I started going to the gym in 2015, it seemed that the ‘news’ on CNN and MSNBC wasn’t quite real. NBC, in fairness, wasn’t—and isn’t–that different. This was before Donald Trump emerged as a serious candidate for President, but has only gotten more severe since then.
Journalism is, or ought to be, like mining. One digs out nuggets of truth, and presents them to the world. A customer of a coal, gold, or diamond mine would be unhappy if they received something other than coal, gold, or diamonds, and the customer for journalism should have the same expectations.
But mining is, well, iffy. One can dig and find nothing. Real journalism is iffy, too. It can also be difficult and expensive. Real journalism runs the risk of getting sued or arrested for saying the wrong things about the wrong people.
Given that most of the media is run by multinational corporations worried about liability and their bottom lines, how can the iffiness be removed from journalism, so that one can deliver a consistent product with no risk of liability?
Just like gold and silver have been replaced by fiat money, so truth in journalism is being replaced by ‘truthiness:’ it’s delivered like news, feels like news, but it’s not quite the same.
President Trump, shortly after he was inaugurated, called the phenomenon ‘fake news,’ which seems a reasonable name for it. But what makes fake news different from real journalism?
- It’s all about the narrative: There’s nothing wrong with narratives in and of themselves. They’re how we go from data points, like reports of incidents, to understanding. But in real journalism, the facts drive the narrative. In fake news, the narrative drives the facts. The narrative determines what facts should be emphasized and which should be disregarded. You can marshal enough facts to support the narrative that the United States was built on slavery, but the preponderance of historical evidence suggests otherwise.
- Is it news or is it opinion? There isn’t an absolute boundary, and reportage is always colored to a degree by the reporter’s perspective, but it used to be clear what was news and what was opinion. Today reporting and opinions are allowed to mix.
- Or just tell us what to think about it: I noted back in 2014 of an NBC news item that we were told was ‘scary’ before any of the facts were presented. It seemed an outlier then, but not so much now.
- Lose your sense of proportion: If a politician who has said nasty things about President Trump says something else nasty, it isn’t really news: it’s something we’ve basically heard before. But one can advance the narrative by presenting it as a fresh revelation. Just keep banging the drum: as my mother used to say, “it’s repetition that teaches.”
- And now for a commercial break: One of my jaw-dropping experiences on the treadmill came a couple of years ago while watching CNN, when a commercial for Tom Steyer’s ‘Need to Impeach’ initiative appeared. The viewpoint of the commercial was so consistent with the content of the news program that, other than the request for a donation (to do what?), it was hard to tell them apart. I accept that politicians running for office will run commercials presenting their own viewpoints and positions, but this bordered on propaganda.
It’s a troubling trend. I’ll leave it at that.