The “Fake News” Narrative Is An Old Story

This #FakeNews madness is a headache. The term, coined to describe actual fake news sites that publish not-obvious parody has been co-opted by my fellow conservatives to describe anything perceived to be not conservative. It’s most popular among those for whose deceiving it actually described.

In fact, the last two years social media proliferated with fabricated or purposely exaggerated stories, ironically claiming actual news orgs were fake.  We also now know that the majority of these websites were fabricated, and even promoted at cost by Russian interests. But we ate them up, cuz… “HILLARY!”

It led an entire section of the voting public to believe only subjective truth. It could be said that many of us in the conservative media world became that which we fought: a self-confirming bias that focused on traffic and influence, rather than the truth.

Journalism is a craft. It’s authority is often driven by those most passionate about it. Nearly every journalist you’ll find wants the truth, not their vision of it. Not to say some won’t stray. Some will, and always have. But it’s rare. Real journalists can’t sleep. They ache during the day when they can’t write a story. They hate not having that last piece of information they need to confirm something. They hate being lied to. They’re VERY good BS detectors. Some veterans call it a “disease” you can’t escape.


First of all, to me there’s a difference between the “press,” and “media.” The “press” means delivering substance, from digging in public information files and conducting boring interviews to sitting in mundane public meetings. The “media” to me has always symbolized the latest foray into sensationalism, and focuses on audience over substance.

The latter pays the bills, so outlets have almost always been some combination of the two. Some focus on one over the other.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, most of the press was consolidated in a few major publications, usually sponsored by political parties. Particularly during campaigns, papers got vicious. Occasionally, they’d flat out lie without much recourse. But even then, the founders insisted first on freedom of the press in the constitution. Since they were mostly political, this clearly involved campaign behavior.

Things changed during the early to mid-1800’s, with the advent of the “penny press,” brought by increases in technology and communication. During this time, democratization of the press resulted in hundreds of publications and various perspectives, along with misinformation. But, still a valuable tool of accountability, and check on power.

Late in the 19th century, and into the middle of the 20th, “yellow journalism” was born, as publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst consolidated these papers again, under their respective umbrellas, for the purpose of harnessing political and economic power. (Yes, ironically, Pulitzer supported dishonest news because it sold well. So did Hearst. “Pulitzer prize” was established by his fortune to reward journalist he would likely have never hired. 😉) Modern “tabloid” media was born, as graphics and eye catching front pages became the driving source of most papers.

This of course was disrupted with new technology again, as radio and television in the early 20th century put strains on the traditional press mechanism. People wanted different and new perspectives. However, consolidation set in again over the next several decades, as these entities became similar to each other. There is some debate about what led to this “virtual consolidation” in mentality. I believe the strong nationalistic vibe after the war, combined with a natural trust that followed in the next couple of decades aided this.

While it has its downsides, this consolidation pattern we’ve begun seeing does eliminate inconsistency of public information. But it also led to negligence in government. (See: Vietnam war, Nixon, corruption schemes)

Enter the next technological revolution in the 1990’s: the internet. It democratized the press even further than the 19th century did, leading to more and more opinion and sensationalism (read: the NEW yellow journalism), and less and less *tradecraft* among journalists. This is where we are in 2017.

However, if history is our guide, we will once again see a consolidation of these various outlets in the years ahead. So, are we at the tail end of this democratization pattern, or still in the middle of it?

Regardless of the patterns, the free flow of information, and public awareness has consistently grown. I think that is a good thing.

Throughout history, public trust in the press has gone back and forth, and often for good reason. But, the journalism trade has stayed consistent. It maintains certain standards that you can bank on. Does bias exist? Sure, among writers AND readers alike. (That means you too!) An editor can omit, exaggerate or even tilt a headline or narrative. But actual “fake news” is very rare among the more established outlets. As long as journalists are human, they will always make mistakes, but they rarely flat out lie. Doing so would end their job. The elements you should look for in deciphering truth is not that it confirms your own bias, but that it employs a few standards that have separated the wheat from the chaff.

Ask yourself:

1. Do they have multiple sources for the story (at least two, most three or more)?
2. Is the narrative informative, or implicative?
3. If the issue presents contrasting sides, does it present a quote – or citation of one – from both/all sides?
4. Was the story rushed, or has it been at least updated since publication?  Almost all news stories evolve/grow over time. 
5. Does the story use pronouns or proper names in telling its story? Or is it informal and colloquial?
6. Do they source the story by hat-tipping other journalistic works or original source documents? Doing so shows confidence in a story. Consistency of a story strengthens its veracity.

Even with these standards, mistakes happen. But it doesn’t make for “fake news.” It makes for imperfect, but necessary news. Because they do the hard work we often can’t.

And as a personal note, do you occasionally find a story irritating to read as I do? That’s usually a good sign that you’re being challenged by a news source.

You should be. Stick with it.

#FakeHate #RealNewsHurts

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Ed Willing

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