Journalism vs. propaganda
Americans must learn to tell the difference
April 14, 2017
At the height of last year’s presidential campaign, I got a letter from a reader who said she’d had nothing against Hillary Clinton, based on what she’d read in the newspapers. But then someone she knew from Facebook posted a list of all the murders the Clintons had been implicated in and it changed her mind.
Now, she said, she’ll never believe anything she reads in the newspaper again.
I remember thinking some kind of corner had been turned.
Back in the day, people would hear a rumor from a neighbor across the backyard fence and they’d turn to the newspaper to find out if it was true. After all, you wouldn’t want to send flowers only to find out the person isn’t dead after all. Now the word of a Facebook “friend” you may never have met carries more weight than the folks in the building down on Main Street that have been serving the community forever.
No wonder fake news has so easily invaded our body politic.
Unlike the president, I define fake news narrowly. Fake news is an assertion of fact that is either provably false or there is no evidence to back it up. It’s not a matter of emphasis, or interpretation. It’s just not true and no responsible authority alleges it’s true.
Examples abound, and new ones appear daily. An online headline this month declared that "Ken Starr’s plane just disappeared on his way to D.C. to testify against Hillary." I hope you didn’t send flowers, because the former Whitewater prosecutor is very much alive. The town where his plane disappeared is on no map, and nobody is testifying against Hillary Clinton.
If it was true, it would have been in the newspaper.
For newspapers like the one you’re reading, credibility is critical to survival. It costs money to produce and distribute newspapers, and they make it back by earning and keeping the trust of long-term readers by getting the fact right.
Over the years, newspapers developed policies and standards to protect their credibility. They try to separate news from opinions. Stories carry bylines, so the reporter can be held accountable for inaccuracies. Editors, usually experienced journalists, go over the stories before they are published and share responsibility. Newspapers put the names of their owners and management in the paper’s masthead, along with an address where people with a beef over their work can find them. Journalists and newspapers have developed standards for professionalism and ethics.
The people who generate fake news – whether they are in it for clickbait profits, political advantage or just kicks – have no incentive to tell the truth. Transparency and credibility are not part of their business plan.
I won’t defend every reporter or every newspaper story. There’s always been bad journalism - reporters who cut corners, editors who demand facts get stretched to fit a sensational headline, publishers who play favorites.
We’ve always had partisan journalism, and we’ve always had politicians who manipulated the news to suit their agendas.
We’ve long had supermarket tabloids that make stuff up. But at least you had to go down to the supermarket and shell out some coins for each week’s colorful fabrications, and educated adults didn’t take their headlines seriously.
Today fake news is everywhere, is free, and is delivered 24/7 to your laptop or your phone. Today the president – who launched his political career on the Obama birth certificate lie - cites National Enquirer stories as if they were facts.
But this crisis goes beyond Donald Trump. Generations of media bashing by politicians undermined the credibility of the journalists who try to do their job with integrity, while empowering the propagandists. Technology has reduced to zero the cost of entry into publishing, and social media has made everyone a reporter and editor.
In the process, Americans have stopped differentiating between journalists who sometimes fall short of their profession’s standards and propagandists who have no standards to begin with.
All is not lost. Newspapers are starting to push back – and some are even starting to see circulation bounce back after decades of decline. The News Media Alliance, an industry group supported by GateHouse Media - corporate parent of the paper you are reading - has launched a new initiative, “Support Real News,” (https://www.newsmediaalliance.org/research_tools/supportrealnews/)
to teach people how to spot and stop fake news, and how to strengthen local journalism by subscribing to a newspaper.
We’ve got to do a better job of teaching media literacy, to adults as well as students. When we lose the ability to agree on facts, democracy falls apart. Newspapers may seem old-fashioned in the age of social media, but journalism is as fresh as ever – and has never been more important.