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Reprinted from www.emptywheel.net

I've been getting into multiple Twitter fights about the term "fake news" of late, a topic about which I feel strongly but which I don't have time to reargue over and over. So here are the reasons I find the term "fake news" to be counterproductive, even aside from the way Washington Post magnified it with the PropOrNot campaign amidst a series of badly reported articles on Russia that failed WaPo's own standards of "fake news."

Most people who use the term "fake news" seem to be fetishizing something they call "news." By that, they usually mean the pursuit of "the truth" within an editor-and-reporter system of "professional" news reporting. Even in 2017, they treat that term "news" as if it escapes all biases, with some still endorsing the idea that "objectivity" is the best route to "truth," even in spite of the way "objectivity" has increasingly imposed a kind of both-sides false equivalence that the right has used to move the Overton window in recent years.

I've got news (heh) for you America. What we call "news" is one temporally and geographically contingent genre of what gets packaged as "news." Much of the world doesn't produce the kind of news we do, and for good parts of our own history, we didn't either. Objectivity was invented as a marketing ploy. It is true that during a period of elite consensus, news that we treated as objective succeeded in creating a unifying national narrative of what most white people believed to be true, and that narrative was tremendously valuable to ensure the working of our democracy. But even there, "objectivity" had a way of enforcing centrism. It excluded most women and people of color and often excluded working class people. It excluded the "truth" of what the US did overseas. It thrived in a world of limited broadcast news outlets. In that sense, the golden age of objective news depended on a great deal of limits to the marketplace of ideas, largely chosen by the gatekeeping function of white male elitism.

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And, probably starting at the moment Walter Cronkite figured out the Vietnam War was a big myth, that elite narrative started developing cracks.

front pages from Newspapers 1784, 1804, 1821-- they mainly reported shipping activity
front pages from Newspapers 1784, 1804, 1821-- they mainly reported shipping activity
(Image by Rob Kall)
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But several things have disrupted what we fetishize as news since them. Importantly, news outlets started demanding major profits, which changed both the emphasis on reporting and the measure of success. Cable news, starting especially with Fox but definitely extending to MSNBC, aspired to achieve buzz, and even explicitly political outcomes, bringing US news much closer to what a lot of advanced democracies have -- politicized news.

And all that's before 2002, what I regard as a key year in this history. Not only was traditional news struggling in the face of heightened profit expectations even as the Internet undercut the press' traditional revenue model. But at a time of crisis in the financial model of the "news," the press catastrophically blew the Iraq War, and did so at a time when people like me were able to write "news" outside of the strictures of the reporter-and-editor arrangement.

I actually think, in an earlier era, the government would have been able to get away with its Iraq War lies, because there wouldn't be outlets documenting the errors, and there wouldn't have been ready alternatives to a model that proved susceptible to manipulation. There might eventually have been a Cronkite moment in the Iraq War, too, but it would have been about the conduct of the war, not also about the gaming of the "news" process to create the war. But because there was competition, we saw the Iraq War as a journalistic failure when we didn't see earlier journalistic complicity in American foreign policy as such.

Since then, of course, the underlying market has continued to change. Optimistically, new outlets have arisen. Some of them -- perhaps most notably HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Gawker before Peter Thiel killed it -- have catered to the financial opportunities of the Internet, paying for real journalism in part with clickbait stories that draw traffic (which is just a different kind of subsidy than the family-owned project that traditional newspapers often relied on, and these outlets also rely on other subsidies). I'm pretty excited by some of the journalism BuzzFeed is doing right now, but it's worth reflecting their very name nods to clickbait.

More importantly, the "center" of our national -- indeed, global -- discourse shifted from elite reporter-and-editor newspapers to social media, and various companies -- almost entirely American -- came to occupy dominant positions in that economy. That comes with the good and the bad. It permits the formulation of broader networks; it permits crisis on the other side of the globe to become news over here, in some but not all spaces, it permits women and people of color to engage on an equal footing with people previously deemed the elite (though very urgent digital divide issues still leave billions outside this discussion). It allows our spooks to access information that Russia needs to hack to get with a few clicks of a button. It also means the former elite narrative has to compete with other bubbles, most of which are not healthy and many of which are downright destructive. It fosters abuse.

But the really important thing is that the elite reporter-and-editor oligopoly was replaced with a marketplace driven by a perverse marriage of our human psychology and data manipulation (and often, secret algorithms). Even assuming net neutrality, most existing discourse exists in that marketplace. That reality has negative effects on everything, from financially strapped reporter-and-editor outlets increasingly chasing clicks to Macedonian teenagers inventing stories to make money to attention spans that no longer get trained for long reads and critical thinking.

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The other thing to remember about this historical narrative is that there have always been stories pretending to present the real world that were not in fact the real world. Always. Always always always. Indeed, there are academic arguments that our concept of "fiction" actually arises out of a necessary legal classification for what gets published in the newspaper. "Facts" were insults of the king you could go to prison for. "Fiction" was stories about kings that weren't true and therefore wouldn't get you prison time (obviously, really authoritarian regimes don't honor this distinction, which is an important lesson in their contingency). I have been told that fact/fiction moment didn't happen in all countries, and it happened at different times in different countries (roughly tied, in my opinion, to the moment when the government had to sustain legitimacy via the press).

But even after that fact/fiction moment, you would always see factual stories intermingling with stuff so sensational that we would never regard it as true. But such sensational not-true stories definitely helped to sell newspapers. Most people don't know this because we generally learn a story via which our fetishized objective news is the end result of a process of earlier news, but news outlets -- at least in the absence of heavy state censorship -- have always been very heterogeneous.

As many of you know, a big part of my dissertation covered actual fiction in newspapers. The Count of Monte-Cristo, for example, was published in France's then equivalent of the WSJ. It wasn't the only story about an all powerful figure with ties to Napoleon Bonaparte that delivered justice that appeared in newspapers of the day. Every newspaper offered competing versions, and those sold newspapers at a moment of increasing industrialization of the press in France. But even at a time when the "news" section of the newspaper presented largely curations of parliamentary debates, everything else ran the gamut from "fiction," to sensational stuff (often reporting on technology or colonies), to columns to advertisements pretending to be news.

After 1848 and 1851, the literary establishment put out alarmed calls to discipline the literary sphere, which led to changes that made such narratives less accessible to the kind of people who might overthrow a king. That was the "fictional narrative" panic of the time, one justified by events of 1848.

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Investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler writes the "Right to Know" column for ExposeFacts. She is best known for providing in-depth analysis of legal documents related to "war on terrorism" programs and civil liberties. Wheeler blogs at emptywheel.net and publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon and theProgressive. She is the author of more...)
 

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