We hold this truthiness to be self-evident
Like many people, I’ve been more politically engaged this year than in any previous election in my lifetime. And, like many, I’m overwhelmed by media choices, and their wildly fluctuating reliability — even though I’m a writer.
Encounters on social media have made me think more about how desperately we need media education and awareness of our own bias. In 2016, we can tailor our news experience, attempting to restrict it to reliable sources — but often, instead, we just recreate what we want to hear.
I’m sure people are out there writing books, as we speak, about this strange new world of political media: the overwhelming ecosystem of “independent” news sites, many of which do no original reporting, and even quote their media sources as though they were primary — a now-common “journalistic” practice; the ascension of questionable sites like Salon, Buzzfeed and HuffPo to undeserved levels of perceived reliability; the citations of blog posts as journalism; and the abject failure of just about every news organization to refrain from editorializing in the guise of reporting.
With that in mind, here’s a very elementary breakdown of one “story” run amok.
Last week, a conservative friend from college messaged me on Facebook: “Please tell me this isn’t true. Our system on both sides is horribly broken.” Attached was a story claiming Bernie Sanders had “sold out” and endorsed Clinton in exchange for getting a private plane.
(To her credit, she didn’t really believe it — I think she just wanted to commiserate about politicians in general.)
The link she sent was a rewrite of a story from Breitbart News which was in turn a rewrite of one from Buzzfeed. The Buzzfeed story had the advantage of original reporting: they had obtained an actual Sanders campaign memo, written just before the California primary, that laid out several possible scenarios for the rest of the campaign and its aftermath. (The memo is titled “End Game.”)
I’ve never been a campaign operative, but this document reads, to me, as a perfectly reasonable brainstorming. It’s an effort to face reality and figure out how to maximize the leverage of a candidate who, even though he’s lost, will still have the capacity for unusual political impact (because these memo-writers presumably work for the campaign and so it’s, like, their job).
The memo’s central concern is how to “keep his movement energized and in place” and “build progressive strength for future policy battles.” Strategies from conceding two weeks after California all the way to contesting the convention are laid out. There’s wargaming about the DNC platform (where, as we now know, Bernie had considerable influence). The memo also discusses Clinton in quite reasonable terms: “During this period, the campaign team could begin negotiations with the Clinton campaign…The conversations will also allow us to gauge the wishes of the Clinton team.”
The three journalistic iterations of the story, however, spiral downwards in terms of reliability. The original, from Buzzfeed, creates the narrative that the Sanders campaign was scheming to make “extraordinary demands” (that’s in the subhead) and that it “demanded” the private plane for fall campaigning for Clinton, thus allowing Sanders to continue “a lifestyle similar to the one he became accustomed to during the latter months of his candidacy.” Near the top of the piece it mentions “the extent to which aides remained aware of opportunities to take ‘credit’” — a word that in fact appears twice on only the last page, right after the phrase “request a plane” (italics mine).
(Never mind that Sanders would, you know, be campaigning for Clinton [“The Clinton campaign will likely have requests for how Sen. Sanders can be most helpful”] and that the DNC would pay for the plane. Whose plane would he take?)
Breitbart, meanwhile, riffing off Buzzfeed, goes for broke in its headline: “Bernie Sanders Memo Shows Demands: ‘A Plane–Or I Contest The Convention’.” That’s not even an actual quote, even though it’s in quotation marks. It blares, “Sen. Bernie Sanders will back Hillary Clinton in exchange for speaking opportunities at fall campaign rallies, a fully-funded campaign aircraft and a share of the credit for her hoped-for election…[in the memo] there was also a discussion of the threats the Democrats would have to consider as they decided whether to partner with Sanders.” But in the actual memo, there’s no hint of a quid pro quo.
The Breitbart piece is insidious — after the freak-out headline, it settles down and starts throwing out details about the Rules Committee and the platform, effectively putting on its poker face again, lulling readers into thinking it’s soberly reporting facts. (The Pew Research Center documents how Breitbart is, in fact, “more trusted than distrusted” — but only by readers who are “mostly” or “consistently” conservative.)
The third story — the one my friend sent — is from a click-bait outfit called the Conservative Tribune, and moves straight to divide-and-conquer: “EXPOSED: Here’s How Hillary Bought Off Bernie… Sanders Fans Will be Horrified.” It adopts a sort of adorably scolding attitude throughout (“For someone who claimed to be an outsider, he sure knows how to play the political game well”).
The outrage is equal-opportunity — it refers to Clinton’s “coronation” — but is focused on Bernie, and is exactly the kind of comfort food you want when, say, you’re worried about the legitimacy of the orange-haired Republican candidate: “That’s right, the leader of the socialist revolution, a self-proclaimed outsider, an environmental activist who thinks global warming is a greater threat to mankind than Islamic terrorism…sold out his millions of devoted disciples for a big plane that pollutes the atmosphere and a couple speaking slots.” Note that, although the piece has the tone of a child playing dress-up in adult political clothes, it’s actually pretty deft: that sentence, for instance, manages both to pooh-pooh environmentalism and excoriate Sanders for “polluting.”
It’s a lot of virtual ink spilled over a months-old memo — which, incidentally, appears to me to be the small but real story. Was the memo really discovered left behind in the hotel where the Sanders camp was staying? If not, who leaked it? Why? Why are no authors or recipients listed? And if the memo was found before the California primary, why did Buzzfeed not write about it until July 24? By the time the story appeared, Sanders had endorsed Clinton and very little of the memo was news — so they had to make some up.
(And it should go without saying that a Clinton supporter could find the same kinds of distortions coming from, for instance, US Uncut, The Inquisitr or any number of Bernie-leaning sites, or from conservative sites like Glenn Beck’s The Blaze; Berners from Clinton junk sites such as Daily News Bin or The People’s View; and conservatives from liberal or progressive sites. The lust for clicks is omni-partisan.)
To intelligently consume any of this private-plane “news,” you’d have to click on the link to the memo, and take the time to read its four pages and digest the information and tone. The lion’s share of that work — reliable reporting, responsible analysis — used to be the job of journalism, but that ideal is in danger of becoming quaint, with even the most mainstream sources succumbing to obvious bias in what is supposed to be “straight” reporting. Bernie supporters will know multiple examples: there was NPR’s coverage of Sanders, including Diane Rehm’s “research” based on a Facebook comment, and the NYT’s editing-after-publication to water down a Sanders piece. The well-documented anti-Sanders bias even sometimes slipped into actual inaccuracy, as in the case of the Nevada chair-throwing, covered widely by all networks outlets including, again, the New York Times (NPR, in that case, was the only outlet to issue a correction after the story was disproven).
But instead of trying to pick up the slack, we’re making it worse in our bubbles. I’m as guilty as anyone: during the waning days of the Sanders campaign, I stayed up late many nights surfing the web until I’d accumulated enough “data” to reassure me that Bernie still had a chance, however small. I knew what I was doing, but it was too tempting to avoid.
In penance, I’ve started to pay a lot more attention. I research sites. I try to give everything, from the Times on down, the smell test, and to read primary sources, when they’re available. (And I also make a big effort, when writing pieces like this, to link only to sources I think are relatively unbiased.) But how many people have the inclination or the time to do the massive amounts of due diligence required in this media culture?
Making it even harder, many of the most egregious offenders are disguised to perfection. Blue Nation Review, for example, has a lovely design and classy, academic-looking fonts, but is headed by David Brock (of Correct the Record fame) and Peter Daou, a former Clinton campaign operative. Unmasking affiliations like that, of which there are many, takes a bit of energy — plus, crucially, a willingness to remain skeptical, even and especially when a site is saying what you want to hear.
You have to be vigilant — which is hard if you’re in a hurry, and aren’t we all? A prominent environmental activist fell for a divide-and-conquer hit piece when he retweeted without (I assume) checking the source. Just the other day I saw that a National-Book-Award-winning author, in high dudgeon, had posted a link on Facebook to “appalling” “news” that turned out to be a) from a blog masquerading as a news site and b) four months old, and long since debunked. But because of her fame, by the time I saw it, it had already been liked and shared hundreds of times, spreading the misinformation anew. If a person like that can’t or won’t bother, how in the world can we expect average voters, who don’t have time to verify everything they read, make educated choices?
The truthiness of both the media and the candidates have become nearly indistinguishable. It’s exhausting to never trust anyone we hear or anything we read, but we probably shouldn’t — so thank goodness for Politifact, Snopes, and Factcheck.org, invaluable tools for anyone trying to consume journalism in a responsible way. We can also try for a well-rounded news diet: follow MSNBC AND Fox. Read The Nation AND the National Review (which, incidentally, just published a piece called “The Conservative Media Chamber is Making the Right Intellectually Deaf”). Know what people on all sides are saying. We can’t rebut arguments we haven’t heard. More important, we can’t go forward as a functional nation without understanding the motivations, fears, and hopes of the other side.
As voters, all we can do is quit falling for the lies — not to mention the half- and quarter-truths — no matter how cleverly disguised. And we need to call them out when we see them, even — especially — when they’re the lies we desperately want to believe.