I was invited to the Fourth of July “Freedom at the Arboretum” event at Finch Arboretum to deliver a speech about the media. The following is an abridged version. Here is the full speech.
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.
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.
Conservatives can watch Fox News and hardly ever be exposed to liberal ideas. 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 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!”
So given this backdrop of intense partisanship, 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 mainstream media do 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.
Opinion Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at email@example.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.
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