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Bye-Bye Balance: Skewed and False News Is on the Rise

November 28, 2016
by Glen Martin
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Democrats are still stumbling around in the smoldering rubble of the 2016 presidential election, struggling to identify just what went wrong for them. Several theories are vying for primacy: voting fraud (or at least, inaccurate ballot counting), the Democratic Party’s disconnect with white working class voters, Trump’s bonding with the same, Trump’s uncanny tapping of surging nativist and xenophobic sentiment, the American susceptibility to celebrity, and Clinton’s bedrock weakness as a candidate.

But there’s one precipitating factor that all traumatized Democrats seem to agree on: the proliferation of fake news. During the last three months of the campaign, bogus news stories on Facebook generated more clicks than articles from legitimate sources such as The New York Times and the Washington Post. According to BuzzFeed, the 20 most popular faux stories from “hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs” spurred 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook compared to the 7,367,000 engagements generated by real stories from real news organizations.

That’s significant for two reasons. First, according to the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans get their news from one social media site, the most common being Facebook; only 20 percent of adults still get their news from newspapers. Second, most of the fake stories skewed decisively to Trump. There was a very good reason for that: Trump stories made money for the content producers. Despite fears that the election may have been swayed by Russian government hacks (as opposed to hackers) striving to disrupt the information flow, the situation seems both more international and entrepreneurial in scope. Yes, Russian government trolls may have been involved, but so were a legion of international bloggers out to make a buck. As a Tbilisi computer science student and fake news blogger put it in a New York Times piece, “I don’t know why, but [stories championing Hillary Clinton] did not work,” while the publisher of a satirical website was quoted as saying, “It’s all Trump. People go nuts for it.”

It all made social media moguls distinctly uncomfortable. Mark Zuckerberg, for one, stretched credulity as he tried to explain that though Facebook was a major driver in helping people connect, share information, and decide what movies to watch and shoes to buy, it didn’t influence their views of the presidential race in the slightest.

Almost half of Americans rely on Facebook as their primary information source; only 20 percent of adults still get their news from newspapers.

But the story is bigger than Trump, of course. A recent Stanford study of 203 middle school students determined that U.S. students in that cohort couldn’t differentiate between true news and concocted news-like fantasies. Further, more than 80 percent were flummoxed when asked to winnow real website news stories from “sponsored” stories. Our future electorate, in other words, may be utterly unmoved by legitimate reporting when they head to the polls—for the simple reason that they won’t be able to distinguish fact from fiction.

It’s a dire situation no matter how you parse it, and it can be argued that it threatens the foundations of the Republic. But it’s also nothing recent, says Lowell Bergman, a professor of investigative reporting at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, a producer for the PBS series Frontline, a former producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes, and the guy Al Pacino played in the movie The Insider. The fake news menace isn’t a creation of the Internet, observes Bergman. Yes, the Internet hastened its spread; but the virus was incubated long ago.

“From my point of view, the real damage started in 1985,” says Bergman, “when, during the Reagan administration, the FCC released a report concluding the Fairness Doctrine violated free speech and didn’t serve the public interest.”

Adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to present contrasting views on issues of general concern and devote some time to the presentation of matters of public interest. The 1985 FCC report maintained that the doctrine actually inhibited thorough and balanced coverage of controversial issues because it impinged on the “editorial prerogative” of broadcast journalists.

The Fairness Doctrine grew out of the Communications Act of 1934, which presented the airways as an essential public resource because the radio spectrum was limited, says Bergman. Free and open access was a concern. But the business side of broadcasting always chafed at efforts to “balance” the news. By the 1980s, the Reagan administration was open to the argument that TV cable and the expansion of media outlets in general made the Fairness Doctrine obsolete.

Bergman was an executive at ABC News when the Fairness Doctrine was overturned, and network bigwigs, he says, were ecstatic.

“They had been frustrated by the Fairness Doctrine,” he recalls. “They thought it was a major pain in the ass. ‘We gotta do this, we gotta do that. Who cares about public policy? It leads to bad ratings.’”

Indeed, says Bergman, the recent election explicitly demonstrated that the networks, both broadcast and cable, are far more concerned about profits than the quality of their news coverage.

“Trump was fantastic for the ratings,” says Bergman, “so that became part of their calculus for the election and their coverage. It didn’t matter that he lied constantly—he generated enormous amounts of money for the networks. The news divisions didn’t rely on their ‘normal’ standards to limit the false information that went out. It wasn’t in their interests.”

(One vestige of the Fairness Doctrine remains intact, however: a protected broadcast time period between from 7 to 10 on Sunday nights, the slot during which the centerpiece program of Bergman’s career, 60 Minutes, runs on CBS. “The network executives are fine with that,” says Bergman. “It makes a lot of money.”)

Ed Wasserman, the dean of Berkeley’s journalism school, agrees with Bergman that the mainstream media shares much of the culpability for the dissemination of faux news. By blaming social media, Wasserman says, big media is attempting to ease itself off the hook.

“They devoted much more air time and headline space to Trump over Clinton because he was telegenic, a known celebrity, a crowd pleaser,” says Wasserman. “His entertainment value supplanted his news value.”

Early in the election cycle, says Wasserman, established media didn’t think they were promoting Trump; they thought they were exploiting him.

“They thought he was such a clown that they could use him with impunity,” Wasserman says. “But they were conferring stature on his candidacy simply by giving him so much exposure.”

Trump, says Wasserman, simply did what Trump has always done: use the media to expand his brand and collect royalties. In the case of the election, the royalties were votes rather than revenues.

“But now I’d venture to say that the nation’s top dozen J-schools feature ‘story telling’ as part of their mainstream approach to training journalists,” says Drummond, “and that concerns me.”

“The idea that false news delivered the election to Trump—I think that’s an empirical question that has yet to be proved,” Wasserman says. “Yes, there was crap news in this election cycle. But there always has been crap news. Just go to any supermarket checkout counter and read about the Loch Ness monster in the tabloids. Trump won because he inspired and benefited from a cultural insurgency. He said things to a marginalized and disaffected electorate that they wanted to hear, and he seemed to pay attention to issues they cared about. He was a guy who expressed their longings and who made them feel they were not despised.”

And according to Bill Drummond, a Cal J-school professor, former Los Angeles Times foreign bureau chief and the founding editor of NPR’s Morning Edition, there are deep structural flaws in “real” news that are contributing to the fake news tsunami. Journalism, he points out, was once about just the facts, ma’am: Reporters and editors tried to get basic information about critical issues out to the public without gussying it up.

“But now I’d venture to say that the nation’s top dozen J-schools feature ‘story telling’ as part of their mainstream approach to training journalists,” says Drummond, “and that concerns me. It’s almost novelization—to engage people, you’re supposed to build a ‘story’ based on ‘strong characters.’ But when that becomes valued over the essential information you’re trying to convey, you’re asking for trouble.”

Drummond observes that the story-telling doctrine grew out of the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, and now defines the way news is not only produced, but how it is perceived.

“When students tell me they’re going to ‘watch the news,’ they mean watching The Daily Show or John Oliver,” Drummond says. “That’s fine as far as it goes—but it’s satire, it’s snarky commentary. The primary purpose of those shows is to amuse, not inform.”

By blaming social media, Wasserman says, big media is attempting to ease itself off the hook.

Drummond says memes—fanciful, infectious, ironic conceits dealing with politics or the economy, but based on videos and still images widely distributed peer-to-peer over the Internet—have now become the news.

“The meme is now the lingua franca, and people are incredibly fluent in it,” he says. “But it’s also all based on extreme simplification, so it’s really little wonder that fake news can gain as much or more credence than real news.”

Despite the recent hand-wringing over the malign impacts of false news, Drummond doesn’t see things changing soon—or perhaps ever. The J-schools, he observes, have become part of the problem. It’s not so much that they’re complicit, but they’re forced to react to a new model of journalism defined by a screen-gazing, obsessively clicking public with a distressingly short attention span and an insatiable appetite for novelty and sensation.

“Just go to the course offerings for any major journalism school,” he says. “It’s driven by student demand. Are there any courses like line editing? Of course not. If you had the same courses that were listed 15 years ago, you’d be out of business. But line editing is essential to good journalism. On the other hand, I’d argue that coding isn’t. But any J-school course that teaches coding is going to be incredibly popular.”

Further, while social media can’t be wholly blamed for the rise of fake news, it seems destined to sustain it. The virtues of Facebook and Twitter—inclusiveness, easy access, an innate resistance to control or censorship—mean the rhinestones inevitably will circulate with the diamonds, and get as much or more attention.

“Unless there’s somehow the political will to stop it, fake news is going to continue,” says Bergman. “The technology abets it. Goebbels once said he couldn’t have achieved what he did without radio. Yeah, there has always been fake news. But I don’t think it’d be as widespread and influential as it is today without social media.”

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