Many people have asked me why I bothered to get into the fight over “fake” news versus “real” news. I began to realize that my interlocutors did not have the context that I have. Remember that my first book, Unholy Alliance, was controversial because it insisted that there was an occult aspect to Nazi Germany. In order to prove my point, I undertook dangerous travel, researched more than a thousand documents at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, and pretty much dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s. I provided a bibliography of sources in which I even provided the microfilm record locators for the Nazi files at the Archives so that others could double-check and cross-check my work. All of this was important to me because I needed to prove the truth of my allegations and not engage in baseless speculation about “satanic Nazis.” It was an important part of history, and I was dismayed to see that it had been ignored by mainstream academia. This is at least partially the reason why I became involved in the recent controversies since they seem to point at the very heart of what it was I and people like me are trying to do. We have a tremendous instrument at our hands in the Internet, a powerful tool for investigation, but we are treating it like a bunch of sorcerer’s apprentices. So, here is my take on the situation:
The erosion of confidence in what now is called the “mainstream media” or MSM over the past few decades, combined with the explosion of global Internet access and social media sites, has contributed to the growth of alternative media outlets. There is no agreement on what constitutes the MSM: is it only the venerable city newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, the major broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, or does it extend to cable news shows and to political news sites like Politico and the Daily Beast? More importantly, does the MSM have to be leftist to be considered “mainstream” or is the mere suspicion of a non-conservative viewpoint sufficient to be included in the pejorative category? No one seems able to answer that last question, because to do so would be to throw the entire binary concept of mainstream media versus alternative media into a cocked hat.
During this period in our history, “alternative media” is almost a code-phrase for right-wing conspiracy sites like Infowars and Breitbart. To be alternative is to be extreme in some fashion, and usually on the right since the right considers the mainstream media to be pro-liberal and leftist. It is a handy branding tactic, regardless of how erroneous it may be.
Recently, the Washington Post published a story about “fake news” sites, claiming that many of them are used by Russian interests to interfere in the American political process. The list aroused the ire of right-wing sympathizers who saw it as merely more evidence of the bias of the mainstream media against their preferred sources of “news.” Others, including responsible journalists, were appalled at the Post’s lack of objectivity in reporting this news since there were no identifiable sources in the story and the criteria for determining what was “fake” news and “real” news seemed totally arbitrary. Which is ironic, since the Post article would have been perfectly at home on an alt-news site had its slant been more anti-liberal than anti-alt-right. In other words, a lack of journalistic integrity cuts both ways.
How did we get to this impasse, and what can we do about it?
Obviously, the media is itself to blame. The pullback of news organizations in the wake of 9/11 to a position of acting as mouthpieces for the Bush administration in the propagation of the ill-advised war in Iraq raised all sorts of questions about the true function of a free press in America. Secondly, the increased emphasis on profits among the handful of mainstream news outlets at the expense of foreign news desks and field reporters meant that news was “shared” among the outlets with increasing reliance on a handful of reporters who could not be relied upon to cover the whole world in any kind of depth (not that the typical news viewer could accommodate any kind of depth). In the end it was easier (or at least cheaper) to reprint press releases than it was to do any kind of investigative journalism. Corporate America was calling the shots, and the “free” press became an instrument of state policy. Slowly, a kind of fascism was being created – a marriage of convenience between corporations and the state – that was distinctly American in style and substance.
Then, and perhaps most importantly, we have the spectacle of news-as-entertainment. Since news programs have to generate revenue through the sale of advertising space, advertisers want to be assured that there would be viewership for these programs and that meant making the news as entertaining – and non-threatening – as possible. The distinction between a news medium designed to communicate information and an entertainment medium designed to titillate or appeal to emotions rather than intellect became blurred to the point of non-existence.
And that is where investigative journalism began to morph into conspiracy theory.
We don’t hear much about investigative journalism any more. For one thing, it is too easy to sue a newspaper, media outlet, or journalist if one doesn’t like what is published. Legal fees will kill the careers of most independent journalists. With the rise of the surveillance state in the wake of 9/11 and its legal cover, the Patriot Act, there are other dangers for the independent journalist, no less than the more traditional investigative journalist working for a major or “mainstream” outlet. This writer for several years found that his airline boarding passes had the dreaded “SSSS” designation, meaning he was pulled off the TSA security lines for “special screening.” Since he was not a terrorist the only reason had to be his published work. Thus you will not see this writer defending the status quo, or the official government line on what is or is not true (especially as that line shifts with every administration, and with every gust of political wind). But in the end the real enemy of investigative journalism is the dilution of the very concept of journalism by those who are not trained in journalistic methods and practices (or who are, and then abandon them).
The democratization of access to information represented by the Internet has led to some unforeseen consequences. When everyone has equal access to media as providers then everyone’s “news” carries equal weight. While we have the bravery of the citizen journalists in places like Teheran or Baghdad, Myanmar or Brazil, who risk their lives to post photos of anti-government demonstrations, the bombing of civilian targets, or of military oppression generally, we also have citizen journalists who, from the safety of their homes in America or other “first world” nations, post … well … crap.
And somewhere along the credibility versus crap spectrum there is the alternative media and the alternative news sites.
When news became entertainment there were those in the business who realized that entertainment could become news. In other words, there was no real requirement on the part of the consumer to obtain actual data: no information unless it was pre-packaged as something designed to sell itself. If the marketing was done well, the news programs would attract an audience of consumers who fit into specific demographics. This had been done previously with regard to sit-coms, police procedurals, and made-for-tv movies, but now it was being crafted as a way to package what appeared to be news in a manner that allowed the same marketing strategies to be employed to maximum benefit. This meant a strategy of appealing to the emotions of the news consumers rather than their intellects.
It is a truism in the industry that one has to communicate to the average television audience at no more than a sixth-grade reading level. How to “communicate” news that way? One has to use the same tricks as one does for sit-coms. One cannot stay on one story for too long, otherwise the audience becomes bored and changes the channel. So a swift magazine-style format is used to move quickly from one story to the next – with lots of visuals, sometimes the same visuals used over and over again – to dazzle and engage and even hypnotize the viewer on a purely gut level. This was done to great effect by entertainment news programs such as ET and TMZ, and a similar approach was taken by the television news programs.
As these same news programs were bending over backwards in an effort to secure as much advertising revenue as possible, the Internet began to compete with the traditional medium in a revolutionary way. Revenue was generated according to different models, and anyone could set up a website with space for ads and create an income stream through the phenomenon of “click-throughs.” If one lands on one of these sites and then clicks on an ad to go to an advertiser’s site, income is generated for the owner of the original site.
This meant there was considerable incentive for anyone with an interest in current events or politics or celebrity scandals to create a site that would appeal to the largest number of people with the minimum expenditure of investment in journalistic tools or personnel. All one needed was an understanding of one’s target audience, and a feel for the “entertainment” side of the news rather than the actual data or information. One could take a perfectly innocuous news item and spin it any way one wished in order to generate the greatest emotional response in the viewer. This meant the viewer was engaged fully in the transaction and would be mesmerized by the basilisk gaze of the site. There would be no tendency to check the news stories for sources, and no effort by the news sites to backstop a story in any way with confirmation from multiple sources, etc. If one knew one’s audience, one knew how to craft a “news” story that would satisfy their hunger. In effect, it was no longer news. It was entertainment – masquerading as news – pure and simple.
This contributed to the rise of Internet “news” personalities and to their enormous fan bases. Political personalities who understood entertainment, branding and marketing more than they did the Constitution or basic civics could generate voting blocs that were composed not of voters in any traditional sense and not of die-hard party supporters, but of fans. We already had been prepared for this with such television programs as American Idol, in which one “voted” for one’s favorite performer, week after week. Take that model, and combine it with news-as-entertainment (or more correctly entertainment-masquerading-as-news) and one had a winning strategy for political success.
That this would flower in the United States is no accident. With some of the worst academic standings among industrialized nations in STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math – it is no wonder that the lack of the type of critical thinking so necessary for excellence in science and technology would render American audiences more susceptible to speculation and fantasy. Further, that this vulnerability would be exploited by individuals and organizations that had mastered Internet technology to such an extent that they could seed fake news into what many considered to be normal news channels is nothing if not ironic.
So maybe “fake news” is the wrong term to be used in this discussion, especially when it comes to characterizing a website as a “fake news” site. To be more charitable, perhaps we should emphasize less the “fake” aspect of the idea which implies a degree of willful intent to deceive and shift the emphasis to the flawed methodology employed by sites that have been targeted as purveyors of “news” that is simply wrong.
So I propose calling these sites “flawed news” rather than “fake news.” They do not adhere to basic journalistic standards such as finding corroborating evidence or documentation or other verifiable or credible sources but simply repeat whatever they are told without doing any kind of background research or checking. They do not vet their sources or the information given to them by their sources. They employ such techniques as “guilt by association”, “false equivalencies,” and “confirmation bias” and the end result is a “news” story that is more story than news. What is needed is a refereed system in which news stories are double-checked for accuracy by peers. This was normally the job of news desk editors and editorial staff. That is pretty much why they existed, the very concept of “edit.” Editors made sure that reporting adhered to legal standards (so the newspaper or other medium would not be sued) and to generally-accepted journalistic standards so that the public would consider them a credible source of information.
No newspaper was, or is, perfect however. Mistakes always have been made and always will be made. The relaxation of those standards, particularly in war time (where “the first casualty is truth”) and in the aftermath of 9/11 arose because it was much safer – legally and politically if not ethically or morally – to reprint the government’s version of the truth. After all, one would have to sue the entire US Government if one didn’t like what a newspaper printed if all it printed were USG press releases. And if one did not take the government’s word on events then one was in danger of being labeled unpatriotic, or worse.
We are told constantly that the United States is at war. That is an excuse (not a reason) to employ censorship and media manipulation, and with no end to this war in sight we can assume that this state of affairs will continue (at best) or become even more draconian (at worst). The methods that alternative media is using now in promulgating all sorts of unsourced, uncorroborated rumors as fact will be the methods that will be used against more and more Americans by official agencies. It is almost impossible to prove that one is not a pedophile, for instance. Any one of us can be identified as a “suspected” pedophile, and it will be a label that sticks forever and which will imbue even the most innocent of our actions with a sinister halo. It used to be that any one of us could be identified as a “suspected” Communist – a la the McCarthy Era – and in fact J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, lost his security clearance after the war because he was “suspected” of being a Communist. Soon it will become the new normal that any one of us can be identified as a “suspected” terrorist. When I had the dubious distinction of winding up on the “selective screening” list at the airport I had no recourse, no way of finding out why I was on the list or how to get off of the list. I could not even determine which of the many agencies under the Department of Homeland Security had deemed me a risk. It truly was Kafkaesque; I had stumbled into a road show of The Trial.
This is the kind of world we inherit if we – those of us who research, write and publish on topics that the regular media do not cover – use sloppy and irresponsible methods and rush into publication with rumors and gossip and masquerade as journalists.
Alternative media has the responsibility of speaking truth to power. It can’t do that if it doesn’t value and cherish the truth in the first place. What is the point of speaking lies to power? Doesn’t power already corner the market on lies? By spreading disinformation, alternative media does the work of the power structures for them. There is no bravery, no glory in promoting false or flawed news stories just because the target is your enemy. The Soviet Union did that for decades. It was called disinformatsiya which is where we get our term disinformation. It was an intelligence term of art during the Cold War, and now it has become tactic of choice in our media, both mainstream and alternative.
That has to change, and if it won’t start with the mainstream media it has to start with us.