Read the Damn Newspaper or: How I Learned to Stop Being Such a Garbage Citizen

Let’s begin with one simple premise: Fake news articles (and the people who disseminate them) are the fucking scourge of the planet.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about fake news websites and the degree to which they may or may not have had an influence on the outcome of the 2016 election. While I’m not a proponent of the idea that this phenomenon was the reason that we now find ourselves 60+ days out from a Trump Administration (political campaigns have a lot of moving parts, and there’s hardly ever a singular inflection point in a race that makes or breaks victory … no matter how closely Michael Dukakis resembled an over-militarized bobble head during that fateful tank ride,) there are some troubling statistics — not the least of which being that the top 20 fake news stories outperformed real ones during the final weeks of the election.

Did I say troubling? Because what I meant to say was “fucking terrifying.”

As someone who has worked in both journalism and political communications, the very idea of baseless smut masquerading as news is abhorrent enough to me. Normally, I’d be content to be quietly enraged by this: Stoically stew during my morning commute while my favorite political podcasts discuss the issue, or maybe make my friends suffer through a few Dewars-fueled rants at our local watering hole.

And I was well on my way to doing just that — until a fateful Facebook encounter on November 19th, 2016.

It was the day after the cast of Hamilton had taken it upon themselves to use their curtain call to send a message to Vice Presidet-elect Mike Pence. And as anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media over the last two days can attest, Trump-supporters lost their collective shit. My feed was suddenly jam-packed with people asking where “civility” had gone, and slamming the troupe for their “disrespect.”

Coincidentally, these self-enlisted Morality Police were precisely the same folks who had spent the greater part of two years supporting a candidate who called Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers,” chastised a senator and war hero because “he was captured,” and went out of his way to mock a disabled reporter. It was this last offense that I chose to remind one of my Facebook friends of as I added my two cents:

And that’s when all hell broke loose.

Someone I didn’t actually know volunteered to “correct” me —by way of a piece from Catholics4Trump.com. Via some convoluted interpretations of Trump’s hand motions and the writer’s belief that Trump had never once laid eyes on the reporter -based in part on Trump’s own account of the incident …

“I didn’t know what he looked like. I didn’t know he was disabled. I didn’t know it, I didn’t know it at all. I had no idea. So I started imitating somebody — I didn’t speak to the guy — somebody that was groveling.”

-the investigative muckrakers at Catholics4Trump.com had concluded that it was all just one big fabricated smear from the media.

This notion is, of course, bullshit.

The fact is that Donald Trump had full knowledge of Serge Kovaleski’s disability — as the two had met each other on countless occasions throughout Trump’s career:

“Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” Kovaleski told the Times in November. “I’ve interviewed him in his office,” he added. “I’ve talked to him at press conferences. All in all, I would say around a dozen times, I’ve interacted with him as a reporter while I was at The Daily News.”

So there it was: Face(book) to Face(book) with someone who, by way of a propaganda website (one that literally included the word(s?) “4Trump”)was wholly convinced that Donald was framed. ‘How deluded was she?” you may be asking yourself? Well, even when confronted with the above facts, she still chose to cling to the bullpucky she’d seen on the internet:

Ignoring the fact that she felt the need to drag the great Paul Newman into her Coo-Koo for Cocoa Puffs grasp for straws, this incident is by no means rare. She may be the one person I know of who (at least in part) based her presidential decision making on the cancer that is fake news, but she certainly isn’t alone.

It’s easy to shrug off the fake news controversy, but like so many things of late, we must resist the urge to let it become the new norm. From the modern media’s obsession with polls and horse race politics, to the constant spin of super PAC-driven campaign ads, voters already face an uphill climb in pursuit reaching some semblance of truth — and we don’t need a pandemic of false facts further gumming up the works of our democracy.

We live in a world where basic coding skills and easy to use website generating tools make it simpler than ever for charlatans to package their opinions and cockamamie un-tuths in to what looks like news:

And while we’re at it, it’s not just online print you should be wary of. Find a couple of camera-ready mouth breathers, sit them behind a shiny Ikea-esque desk, slap a chyron on the bottom of the screen, and even a certified nutter like Alex Jones (the guy who believes that 9/11 and Sandy Hook were inside jobs, HIV was created by the US government, and that President Obama wants to round up American citizens and toss them into FEMA concentration camps) can have his own news-ish broadcast:

So what’s an ailing republic of jaded voters to do? This debacle is systemic, and while Mark Zuckerberg has proposed some fixes from the programming side, addressing this problem begins at the personal level. Here are a few of my thoughts for where to start:

  1. Read, read, read for the love of God read: I can’t stress this enough. Read and ingest everything. Every source of news you can get your hands on. We live in an age of almost limitless media, and while that’s fertile ground for myth peddlers like Catholics4Trump.com, it’s also an opportunity to sample from a wide variety of print, online, and TV journalism.
  2. Consider everything — even from people who piss you off: I don’t agree with everything that Glenn Beck says, but I make a point to listen to him on my morning drive to work. Nor do I agree with everything promoted on the Facebook page ‘Being Liberal,’ but I follow them and read a lot of the information they share. It can be tempting to wall ourselves off into an ideological bubble that confirms everything we already think (social media makes that easier than ever,) but it’s a temptation that we need to resist. Confirmation bias is a dangerous thing and it’s what leads people to distrust the media if/when they broadcast facts that don’t fit our preconceived notion of reality. Allow yourself to be challenged, which brings me to my next tip …
  3. Allow yourself to be convinced: As anyone who’s ever been in a Facebook argument will tell you, nobody is ever persuaded to change their mind. Rather, the two sides leave the skirmish feeling more ideologically entrenched than they did before. A large part of it has to do with that dastardly confirmation bias, but another huge chunk springs from the intellectual wall that we’re all too quick to put up when someone we disagree with confronts us with incontrovertible facts. In such a situation, many may find themselves thinking “This seems right, but it simply can’t be! He’s a (insert party here) and I’m a (insert opposing party here,) and everyone knows they’re all (insert sweeping generalizations here.) And if I agree that I’m wrong about this, what does that say about all of the other issues that I’m ‘right’ about?” If you’re like me, you’ve experienced this ideological crisis of conscience many times before, but the fact is that it’s a direct consequence of the political balkanisation in our country and it needs to stop. Challenge yourself to be wrong, learn new information, and be better because of it.
  4. Think before you share: Hmmm, that article claiming Barack Obama spends his weekends playing Call of Duty with ISIS seems sketchy … but what harm can it do if you share it? Answer: a lot. When you decide to share some information that you find to be interesting, you are playing the role of a reporter for anyone whose feed you happen to be on. You have a responsibility to your friends, your community, and your country to make sure what you’re putting out is accurate. So be skeptical: Do a quick Google search on the topic and see if any of the big names (NPR, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CBS etc.) are talking about it. You may not fully trust all (or any) of them, but when no one of credit is echoing the facts of the piece you found on Breitbart or Mother Jones, there’s a 99.9% chance you have a steaming pile of horse shit on your hands … so don’t share it, mmkay?

In a nutshell: Do the damn homework of being an American. Our founders spilled a lot of blood to give you a right to free speech and journalists a right to a free press … and I don’t think they were doing it so you could turn Catholics4Trump.com, Redheads4Trump.com, or MidLevelRetailManagers4Trump.com in to your sole source of information.
So make them proud, drag your eyes across some words every now and then, and stop being a garbage citizen.