Discerning Fact From Fake In Today's News Media

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Everybody gets that same feeling throughout the day — buzz.  It's your phone with another breaking news alert. Maybe from The New York Times, CNN, FOX News or a random source the iPhone News app found. Regardless of the source, where does your skepticism lie when you first see that notification?  Does the source at the top make you ignore the notification all together?  If it's from a familiar source, do you read with blind faith, taking every statement as the god’s honest truth? 

The media environment today is one that has been forming for over a century now. Some publications have adapted to the changing landscape, while others have been left behind in ruins because of their inability to get with the times. However, one concept has held true since the very first printing press: publications need to make money. This is a dirty reality of the trade confronted both bluntly and eloquently in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. In 1971, The Washington Post was nothing more than a local rag for the D.C. area that was facing the very real possibility of shutting down.  Just as publisher Katharine Graham was going to take the company’s stock public, one of the biggest stories in American politics appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

It revealed that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had commissioned a study on the Vietnam War, and when the results showed a history of deceit going back several administrations, the study was buried. When the Times was given an injunction from the U.S. government, and a shoebox full of the Pentagon Papers – as the study became known – shows up in the Post’s office, a crucial decision must be made by the staff: does our loyalty lie with the American public or with our shareholders?

Could there be another scandal of Pentagon Papers prominence today? Obviously there are still dedicated journalists chasing down leads in an effort to bring the truth to the public, but would the public accept this information if it runs contrary to their beliefs?  National headlines are constantly updating the country with the latest in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, while the conservative sector of media either ignores it or is actively working to destroy Mueller’s credibility. However this is not a partisan issue; when the investigations into Hillary Clinton’s private email server were open along with Benghazi probes, the left decided to turn its head. And then there are all the scandals that unfold on a daily basis on either side of the aisle.

From the left there was Rachel Maddow’s painful filibuster before finally showing the “bombshell” excerpt MSNBC had obtained from Trump’s tax return, which shockingly did not contain a section marked “Russian bribes."  Then there was CNN’s “explosive revelation” (I can guarantee you read that in Wolf Blitzer’s voice) that the Trump campaign received hacked emails from Wikileaks days before they were publicly released.  This was a major turning point in the collusion investigation until some other media outlets actually did some fact checking and found that CNN had misread the date.

On the right there is no finer example than Sean Hannity’s Clinton conspiracy blackboard, clearly paying homage to one of the original provocateurs of paranoia – Glenn Beck, which conveniently was created at the same time Hannity’s pick for the Alabama Senate race Roy Moore was reported to have allegedly molested teenage girls. This was a textbook example of the Fox News strategy of “what about”-ism.  By simply pointing the finger at a completely unrelated, and possibly unfounded, instance of wrongdoing by anybody in the Democratic Party, usually the Clintons, all GOP improprieties simply vanish. Hannity recently took this a step further when he brushed aside a major breaking news story about how White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign after President Donald Trump ordered Mueller's firing, instead showing his viewers a video of a car crash. 

In their 2002 book “The News and About the News,” Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. and managing editor Robert G. Kaiser wrote, “citizens cannot function together as a community unless they share a common body of information about their surroundings… their governing bodies, even their weather.”  

A vigilant consumer of media will notice the decline in the mere utterance of the word "fact," less the outlet lose viewers/readers/subscribers that align on the fringes of reality. Rather facts have been replaced by narratives, as if all news itself is just another fictitious retelling like the new Jumanji rather than verified information.

Yet this coddling of the viewing public runs contrary to the public’s expectations and desires from the media. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of American adults surveyed want the media to simply report the facts and not add its own interpretation. Additionally, the same study found that 81 percent of registered voters surveyed said the majority of Trump and Clinton supporters “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also disagree on basic facts.”  

Yes, the media landscape of today is a veritable minefield. But where to find salvation? There is a simple solution: if you want good content, you have to pay for it. If you don’t want to hear Sheldon say “Bazinga” for another ten years and would prefer the original shenanigans of Frank Gallagher or the power struggles in the House of Tyrell, you have to pay up. Complaining about the lack of good media content out there when you don’t contribute a dime to the salaries of those whose task it is to write that content is akin to complaining about the poor sound quality of pirated music. Non-sponsored, unbiased content does not just fall from the sky in the age of ever-decreasing ad revenue and even fewer subscriptions. A prime example of the good actually paying for news can do is Reader Supported News.

Furthermore, there is also an entire media landscape other than the big five networks of CNN, NBC, ABC, FOX and CBS.  There are more newspapers than The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The public’s lack of willingness to actually go out and find content beyond the newsstand at Starbucks is part of what has created this society of spin. Yet another option is going to the source so many publications go to — the Associated Press.  The very people who write the rulebook for journalists, the AP Stylebook, run the wire service through which local news has gotten so much of its content for over 100 years.

And onto local news. There is a reputation out there that local news is not worth the airtime it is put on. However, this is simply a less informed myth than the idea there is no real news to begin with. A prime example has come to light in the Olympic Gymnastics scandal involving Lawrence Nassar, who was convicted of molesting more than 100 young girls.  What many people did not know was that this story was only brought to light thanks to the dedicated work of a team of investigative journalists at The Indianapolis Star, which finally received its due recognition Thursday.   

Local news is the bottom line of community happenings, however there is a disturbing trend occurring in the local cable market. More and more stations are being bought by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which forces stations to run far-right editorial content in addition to their original, unbiased reporting. Seeing these partisan pleas alongside local coverage by hard-working journalists creates a unfounded sense that the local news is tainted  — when in reality it is calling out to the viewer for help.

Now is not the time to cower from the news for fear of partisan alignment. Rather now is when the new media environment must be molded. Will it be controlled by major conglomerates of publication monopolies, or will the content be curtailed to the needs of you, the viewer?  If you want a future of free press, please, put a crowbar in your wallet and support the news – while you can.