Fake News & False Idols

Journalist and press critic George Seldes once said, “The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself.” Born in 1890, he saw many of the contorted and collusive reporting of the era and struck back against it with his own truth-seeking publication, In Fact. Since then, however, it’s difficult to imagine journalism’s sense of immunity from self-examination has changed much.

It’s easy to rail on cable news outlets like FOX and CNN, and many do. However, mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post  generate an almost religious reverence. They are the old guard, the relics of a “golden age”, a bastion of a more honorable journalistic ethos, and there’s no better honor for a journalist than to write for these publications. However, a little bit of history goes a long way in debunking those ideas (e.g. the Times‘s lockstep acceptance of the Bush administration’s 9/11 narrative.) Mainstream media hasn’t become much better, simply more subtle in its flaws – flaws that aspiring journalists and news-savvy readers can easy overlook.

If that wasn’t problematic enough, the memetic cry of “Fake news!” is only likely to exacerbate the issue. It quickly derailed from a specific term for deliberately misleading blatant falsehoods (e.g. “SHOCKING: POPE ENDORSES TRUMP!“) to a dismissive slur for any kind of news that may be spun, or often just doesn’t fit within one’s worldview. For a hot minute, identifying fake news and turning a critical eye to the press was a much-needed analysis of the fourth estate. Now, the term is so laughable and overused, it’s actually more useful for discrediting and dismissing news criticism. “Hey, I think this story might be taken out of context-” “Uh-huh, fake news, right?”

Criticizing the mainstream media was never popular before, but it’s become a minefield now. Trump has made the press his enemy, and by extension, the press the ally of his opponents (read: most of America.) Criticizing media’s subtle but pervasive flaws without being branded a Trump supporter or a conspiracy theorist requires enough qualifiers and pussyfooting to make the effort seem, at the very least, exhausting. The best saving grace is the hope that the anti-media counter-culture morphs into something more thoughtful and constructive after Trump’s presidency.

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Taking the bad with the good

In Julianne Malveaux’s 2001 piece on Margaret Sanger’s legacy, she discusses both the powerful ways Sanger pushed forward reproductive rights as well as the lurking racism that accompanied many of her viewpoints. As Malveaux says, “I see Sanger as a tarnished heroine whose embrace of the eugenics movement showed racial insensitivity, at best.” While Planned Parenthood understandably downplays Sanger’s less palatable platforms, accepting and owning those faults is necessary.

Planned Parenthood has been able to partially deflect “attacks” on Sanger, Malveaux correctly saying “many of the attacks on Sanger come from anti-choice activists who have an interest in distorting both Sanger’s work and that of Planned Parenthood.” However, the fact of the matter is that we have, by and large, exited an era where only the best side of individuals can be remembered. Fighting that can only be counterproductive – instead, embracing flawed figures is the only way to own those mistakes and move forward.

No figure’s safe. America’s founding fathers are unsurprisingly riddled with many of the racist ideologies of the time, Mother Theresa was no figure of mercy, and Bill Cosby may be a rapist. If there is a well-known, widely-loved figure, chances are good that there is either enough ugly information out there to turn them from idyllic role model to human being, or that it has yet to be published. However, instead of casting every potential role model aside, this should be an opportunity to, in the best cases, learn to accept someone despite their faults, and in the worst, to separate an individual from their accomplishments.

Sanger’s work for reproductive freedom is no less impactful due to her support of racist doctrines, and neither is the work of America’s founding fathers. Shuffling these facts under the rug makes reality the enemy. Understanding important historical figures as complex individuals is the only way to avoid the cognitive dissonance between admiring their accomplishments and understanding their shortcomings.

Crowdsourcing accuracy and the issue of nuance

Arianna Huffington’s 2009 post about the power of reporting en mass offered encouraging insight into the power of new media as an instrument of resistance against imbalanced reporting from traditional media. It was reassuring on two fronts: first, that citizen journalism has a place of relevance in the modern day, and that it can actively sway people. Second, though, was the fact that not all imbalanced reporting is an intentional matter of agenda-setting, but can simply be a matter of ignorance.

For the most part, this appears to be just as relevant today, as newscasts frequently include citizen-recorded footage on breaking stories. Moreover, the increased dominance of social media as a news source has allowed citizens to sidestep the mainstream news curatorial process. However, lacking that curatorial process has some serious flaws which become apparent in any issue deeper than contesting whether something did or did not occur.

For example, the supposed leak of Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of “fully intact baby corpses” went viral among hard conservative circles, horrifying viewers despite a carefully edited presentation designed to deliver a simple, largely nonrepresentational video. When far-right newsrooms got a hold of the footage, they didn’t do much due diligence to give it proper context, but there’s a reason outlets like the New York Times only aired pieces debunking the claims associated with the video.

Not every incident of mass hysteria is agenda-driven, either. Reddit’s massive overreaction and witchhunt-esque accusations weren’t part of a partisan smear campaign, but were just a matter of citizen journalism-turned-vigilantism. It was an incredible amount of effort, but because the issue was so complex, they ended up doing far more harm than good. Had it simply been left to the newsrooms, no editorial team would have let things get remotely that far.

All that said, I have high hopes for the power and purpose of citizen journalism and crowdsourced content. Having entered an era of alternative facts and bald-faced presidential lies, we can only hope this spurs more critical analysis of all claims and stories. Otherwise, any story worth telling – from the New York Times or your Twitter newsfeed – might be drowned out by cries of “Fake news!”

Upworthy’s mixed past and present

When I first started seeing Upworthy’s posts hit my Facebook timeline around 2013, it looked a bit different from today. It focused on the same types of stories – social justice, civil rights, etc. However, every story, every headline was dripping with sensationalism and clickbait. “Someone Gave Some Kids Some Scissors. Here’s What Happened Next” doesn’t try to describe the actual contents of the story or engage with readers on an intellectual level. Instead, it uses human curiosity and emotional gut response to drag the reader onto their site. It’s exploitative and infantilizing, and was the main reason I’ve avoided the site like the plague. Sites like Upworthy Generator (which randomly creates Upworthy-esque articles) suggest I’m not alone in that feeling either.

The worst part is that the site’s content wasn’t always as schlocky as the headlines may lead you to believe. That article I linked above actually has some interesting elements to it, questioning whether children should be trusted more than they currently are. Unfortunately, the headline screams so loudly of desperation that, at least in my eyes, it eliminates any potential of credibility when I’m deciding to click on something.

To their credit, in 2015, Upworthy’s cofounder apologized for their headlines and pledged to focus more on quality content – though it’s likely that was simply a business-minded response to Facebook’s new clickbait filter algorithms. Looking at their site now, progress seems mixed. On the one hand, a bit more effort seems to be put into their articles, even the ones which are basically posting someone else’s content: “Before you click ‘send’ on anything else, read this comic. It’s important.” has a few paragraphs before and after the comic which talk a bit about the author and topic. In 2013, Upworthy probably would have embedded the comic and moved onto the next post. And for a less backhanded compliment, their articles do feature more original and important content, like “Betsy DeVos is our education secretary. Here’s what to do next.” It may be in list format and not exactly Times-level in terms of professional tone, it strikes a good balance between being informative and easy to read.

On the other hand, it’s clear the apology about their headlines was a little less than sincere. Mawkish headlines like “An actor got real about his most unflattering photo. His honesty will move you“and “People are loving a mom who got fed up with the ‘anti-homeless spikes’ in her city” still fetter every page, and it’s hard to think of “Watch Audi’s bold, touching, and totally feminist Super Bowl ad” as anything but audience-savvy shilling. I appreciate the steps Upworthy has taken to be more than a site for feel-good fuzzies, but it’s clear it’s still got a ways to go before every article won’t require a grain (or ten) of salt.