Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fake News and Our Media Landscape

When I was a kid, pre-Internet, every guy I knew had heard a story about Rod Stewart and semen. No need for me to go into the details of it because it was a lie, but what is amazing is that if I talk to someone my age who is from the West Coast, they heard the same story as well. Since we didn't have the Internet, how did this happen? In the 19th century, Mark Twain said that "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." In the Internet era, truth doesn't have a chance ... truth hasn't even thought about putting on its shoes while the lies has done global laps. Another good example is Mikey from the Life commercials died from ingesting pop rocks.  Everyone from coast to coast heard this and it wasn't true. If we couldn't fight fake news before the Internet, how can we do it now? When Bill Clinton was president, I knew a few people who had a video tape of "The Clinton Chronicles." 300,000 copies of this tape existed and were even stocked on the shelves of some video rental stores. It was a bizarre "documentary" that portrayed the Clintons as murderous drug dealers. I watched this with someone who believed it completely. A co-worker of mine handed me the tape and told me I needed to watch it.  We don't need the Internet for this nonsense. 

In case you didn't notice both of the links in the prior paragraph are from This is one of the first web sites I ever visited. The first time I was on it, I was connecting with 2400 baud modem using a dumb terminal. It was text only, no graphics. Their web site hasn't changed all that much. It is content over color. It is still my go-to source for all things bullshit but it takes time for them to actually fact check, so it isn't always on top of things. You might have to wait a few days to get an answer. They started off just tackling urban legends, but now, in this political environment, a lot of it is current events. Another good resource is, but it is strictly politics.

It did not occur to me how big of a problem fake news was until the results of the 2016 election came in. People believe crazy shit. Hillary is a murderer, she is running pedophilia ring out of a pizza joint, Obama is a secret Muslim, Elvis is alive, the Earth is flat .... I could go on. But a lot of the fake news isn't obvious. I've fallen for them as well. Some of their websites are very convincing.  A friend of mine posted the John Birch Society's web site on Facebook telling all his friends "to get informed." He still doesn't believe me when I tell him what an awful source of "info" these people are, but their web site is quite convincing regardless of how paranoid and conniving they are. Another friend posted a story from the Washington Times. I told her that this publication was founded by the "moonies" (the Unification Church) and she shouldn't confuse it with the New York Times or the Washington Post. That didn't go over well either. Even though you might piss off your friends, shouldn't you still point out that they are posting bullshit? Yes, I say, but of course, I thrive on this shit. Conflict is my friend.

It actually should be easier to figure out what is fake news now that we have the Internet. More of it exists, sure, but we have more tools at our disposal to weed out the crap.  All you have to do is take a few minutes to verify a story and certainly, you need to verify it if you plan on sharing a story on social media. The traditional sources are still the best, however imperfect, they at least attempt to get things correct.  Sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune, at least have editors and fact checkers. They are not perfect and are leaner than ever thanks to the Internet, but they still catch most of the nonsense. In the era of the 24 hour news cycle, there is a race for the scoop. Some complain these publications are more liberal or conservative for their like. This is only true if you reading the editorials or Op Eds. If you are simply reading the news, these are great resources. Their political leanings don't come through in the actual news articles. If you read something really wacky on the net, first thing you should do is check these sources. If it is true, they might not have the story yet because they are verifying the story. Getting it right is worth the wait.  NPR's On the Media created a breaking news handbook to assist people with this problem. I suggest you check it out the next time a breaking story hits the airwaves like a shooting or a terrorist attack.

Many lists of fake news outlets have been published recently. The one on Wikipedia is a good one. One obvious way notice that you are on a fake news site is that their addresses look like those of the legit news web sites. ... don't go here, but notice the "co" at the end of the address.  Or notice ... again, not .com, but .ma.  What isn't on this list is what is commonly called clickbait. Clickbait web sites have sensationalist and spurious headlines to get you to click on them. They usually sell advertising based on clicks so the articles themselves are usually not as bad as the headlines but since most people don't read entire articles, but headlines, they don't have to be. The most notorious of these are Occupy Democrats, USUncut, Infowars and Unworthy. I see these in my Facebook feed and I cringe. Don't click on these regardless of how outrageous the headline. They make money every time you do.  

I aslo avoid television news, especially Fox News and MSNBC. They are both incredibly bias, Fox News more so but they are both awful. PBS is the only one I will give any time to mostly because they are probably the least sensational and more concerned about reporting the truth. They actually have an ombudsman who does internal criticism and auditing to make sure they maintain their balance. I've yet to find any other television news network provide a name of their ombudsman. I've read vague references but nothing solid. Fox News does make reference to occasional "mistakes" but it does seem odd how all their "mistakes" are mistakes that make Democrats look bad.

I get most of my news from newspapers. I have an electronic subscription to the New York Times and my wife does to the Washington Post. I listen to a lot of podcasts and to NPR (National Public Radio). Like PBS, NPR has an ombudsman that keeps them in check. It does lean towards liberal but mostly in tone and not in content. Consistently they had more Republicans on the air than Democrats and are quite fair when they are on.  I also like, but they are biased on the left and they make no effort to hide this. They are not a news site, but mostly editorial. For print magazines, I occasionally read The Economist and Harper's Magazine.

The Pew Research Center published this graph that is a pretty good visual for the landscape of American news: 

I would put Fox News further to the right closer to Drudge, but they do have some reasonable programs like Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday so that might push them closer to the center. Also, I'd take Breitbart off because they aren't even news ... at least move them over to #10. This graph is also a little old. The Colbert Report no longer exists and since Buzzfeed published the Trump urine story a few weeks ago, I would think they would be dropped from this list. 

Reader beware ... you are the ultimate arbiter of truth. If you doubt its truth, then don't share it. It can stop with you. It doesn't matter if you believe with the sentiment or wish it to be truth, if it isn't true, then don't share and stop reading it. Just stop. 

No comments: