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Thursday, February 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Gary Crooks: (full speech) Fake news, real news and political bubbles

UPDATED: Fri., July 7, 2017

Today is very close to the anniversary of The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. Thought I’d rework it for my selfish purposes on this occasion:

“Twelve score and one year ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all news is created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great uncivil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, without birth control, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war where we type apocalyptic words into brightly colored boxes and post them on Facebook. It is altogether fitting that we do this since the media sucks and our sources — our proud, patriotic sources — live in our bubble. They speak the truth that we bravely share and “like”.

“The world will little note, nor long remember that the brave men and women who report these truths have no sources, no training, no editors. Nonetheless, the news they so nobly advance is in service to a greater cause. And that is partisanship. Glorious, patriotic partisanship. A partisanship that ensures a new birth of freedom – and that government of like-minded people, by like-minded people, for like-minded people shall not perish from the Earth.”

Before getting into the importance of real news over fake news, I need to touch on the issue of partisanship, because it provides the backdrop against which this issue can be better understood.

Research shows that the nation is more divided than it has been in a very long time. Democrats have moved to the left. Republicans have moved to the right. It’s become difficult to find moderates in both parties. Republicans have bludgeoned their moderates with terms like “RINO,” Republicans in Name Only.” Democrats don’t have such a handy term, at least not one that I can repeat in polite company, but the neoliberals that carried a more centrist Bill Clinton into power are on the run. The intra-party fights between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were unlike any seen in a very long time.

So not only are the parties farther apart, but party identification has become a more significant cultural identifier, similar to race and gender. And the criticism of people based on their party ID has become more like racism and sexism. People quickly fill in their gaps of knowledge about a particular person with stereotypes about liberals or conservatives. This is true even when the topic is apolitical. A Republican is more likely to hold a higher opinion of, say, a movie or restaurant recommendation if it’s made by a fellow Republican.

The same goes for Democrats.

Similarly, it’s become less likely that a Democrat and a Republican will get married. Every day decisions have become politicized, whether it’s where you live, where you shop, what you eat or what you read, or, maybe, even where you celebrate the Fourth of July.

Conservatives can watch Fox News and hardly ever be exposed to liberal ideas. And on the flip side, liberals can watch MSNBC for their daily affirmation. Want to block out the other side completely? That’s easily accomplished by choosing friends based on ideology and filtering what you read on the Internet.

Is it any wonder social media has become such a battleground, when each side arrives with their own facts and their own reality?

The mainstream media is a fair target for criticism, but you have to ask yourself this when you dismiss it as a legitimate source of information: Compared to what?

It’s like complaining about the refs at a Gonzaga basketball game. Yes, they make mistakes, but are you fairly evaluating and remembering the calls that went your way? Is it a reasonable solution to hand the whistle to a passionate Zag fan – face painted in red and blue — and say, “You call the game”?

You might want to check with the other team on that, if you’re still on speaking terms.

If you prefer partisan sources of information, then hold them to the same standards you apply to the mainstream media. If you don’t, then at least admit that what you want is confirmation of your biases, not objective reporting.

Admit that the way you determine whether a story is valid is the degree to which it meets your preconceived notions.

Admit that the standards for reporting, fact-checking and confirmation are lower for pieces that make you feel good and higher for the ones you dislike.

Admit that when your favorite sources for “news” fail, you don’t lower your opinion of them. You don’t perform the equivalent of canceling your subscription.

Admit that you don’t expect corrections or explanations for why these reports fell short or why nothing ever came of their incendiary claims or wild predictions.

Admit that you go to them because they make you feel better.

Admit that you place a higher priority on feeling good than on your publicly professed desire for objectivity.

Admit that when you say you want a truthful story, you don’t mean contacting the other side for comment or raising issues that undermine your preferred narrative.

Admit that isn’t really journalism you desire – at least not the kind that journalists are taught – when you say to journalists, “Do your job!”

Admit that you want ammo. You don’t want to change your sights or your target. You don’t want to recalibrate. You want to reload and fire.

I write opinion pieces. Objectivity is not a goal. It’s not the goal of any opinion writer. Hence, the term “opinion.” My biases are bound up in what I write. And yet, I am sometimes complimented for being something I’m not. I hear, “Thank you for being objective.” I get this from intelligent people after they’ve read pieces brimming with opinion on the Opinion Page.

The thinking goes something like this: It must be objective because it’s the truth. It must be the truth because I agree with it. And I’m all about the truth, therefore I’m all about objectivity.

I never get that from people who disagree with a piece. No, they criticize me for being biased. For not being objective. For having an opinion … on the Opinion Page.

So what is going on here? And why should you care?

You should care if you worry about fake news. The president uses that term all the time. “The Fake News New York Times! Fake News CNN.”

Notice he doesn’t say, “Fake News Raw Story.” Or, “Fake News Daily Kos.” He also doesn’t say “Fake News Fox”, or “Fake News Infowars” or “Fake News Breitbart.” He’s more likely to refer the “National Enquirer” without criticism than The Washington Post.

But, as we know, he’d rather be on the cover of Time magazine than the Enquirer, even if he has to fake to make it.

He does this because mainstream outlets are the real threat to him or any politician, because they are more likely to be believed. And they are more likely to be believed, because of the institutional processes in place for vetting stories. The MSM does run corrections. We do fire people for making mistakes. Our actions point to a belief that the goal is objectivity. The goal is getting the story right.

Let’s look at the recent CNN controversy. They retracted a story that ran on its website. It never aired. They fired three people and issued a public apology when they determined the story didn’t meet its journalistic standards. The story could still be true, so why do that? Because the standards are there to protect the institution’s credibility, and credibility is more important than any single story.

What are the standards of your alternative news sources? What is the mission? If the mission is to advance a particular set of beliefs, you should always be aware of that.

Here’s spokeswoman’ Sarah Huckabee Sanders response to the CNN retraction: “I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism. I think that if we have gone to a place where the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”

Left unsaid, is that is precisely where the White House hopes to go with its constant cries of Fake News.

If Trump – or anyone on either side of the political divide – can successfully undermine the truth by saying the MSM has torched the tenets of journalism, then who’s to say we’re any more credible than Fake News purveyors or peddlers of intentionally slanted coverage?

If political players can get you to believe that all information is equal, then it is easier for them to lie. It is easier for them to deny the truth.

Then it’s easier for Alex Jones to be believed when he says the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. It’s easier for a presidential adviser to refer to alternative facts. It’s easier to claim the media is just reporting something to make money.

And spreading falsehoods has never been easier or more fruitful.

Last November, Buzzfeed conducted an analysis of social media. Here’s what it found.

“In the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.

“During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook. Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7.4 million shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.”

Trump’s attacks on the media are well-known, but Snopes, the urban-legend-debunking website, has reported a huge spike in fake news aimed at the left. Brooke Binkowksi, the managing editor of the site, says a lot of this fake news fits the wish-fulfillment category. Headlines like: “Trump about to be arrested.”

The Palmer Report has become a favorite source for liberals. Bill Palmer started it as the Daily News Bin to debunk false claims about Hillary Clinton. He has since repurposed it as a news site, but the headlines often go farther than the “reporting.” And many people on social media only read the headlines. Other items are just flat false.

One Palmer story said a grand jury had been empaneled in New York to investigate Trump and Russian collusion. It bounced around social media and people retweeted it with comments like, “Big, if true!”

Democratic Sen. Ed Markey mentioned it on CNN. Problem is, it didn’t check out. Markey eventually apologized.

As The Atlantic reported: “The story had no reliable sourcing, and not a single credible news outlet touched it – but it had been fervently championed by The Palmer Report, a liberal blog known for peddling conspiracy theories, and by anti-Trump Twitter crusaders like Louise Mensch.”

If you’re a liberal or progressive thinking fake news is only a right-wing phenomenon, read The Atlantic article titled” “How the Left Lost its Mind.”

It notes that “nearly 20 percent of the stories posted by three extremely popular liberal Facebook pages – Occupy Democrats, The Other 98%, and Addicting Info – were either partly or mostly false.”

Binkowski, of Snopes, has good advice for readers. If a headline provokes a visceral response, take a breath and think about it before sharing. The goal of a Fake News headline is just that. To make you mad or fearful or elated. The goal is to get you to say, “I knew it!”

Also, ask this question: Why is this the only site reporting such big news? Won’t I look dumb if I’m duped? What about my credibility?

Binkowski believes the antidote to fake news is more real news:

“We have to bolster the immune system of journalism, because that’s going to be the only way out of this possible authoritarianism and inundation with fake news. People are so fearful, and that’s what’s driving this. People are afraid. The world is changing. It has changed. There’s all kinds of people around with different looks and different names and they look different and they talk different and it doesn’t help when you get this constant line of BS.”

I want to close with this quote from Thomas Jefferson, who probably got it from Melania Trump, who got it from Michelle Obama. Anyway here it is:

“The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.”

Thank you. And happy birthday, America.

Opinion Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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