Real News, Fake News, or No News at All?
It’s up to media consumers to accurately categorize and process just what it is they’re reading, hearing and seeing
“And that’s the way it is . . .” — Walter Cronkite,
signing off the CBS Evening News, 1962–81
Readers of a certain age will recognize that iconic phrase as a cultural artifact born in a sociological milieu gone away forever, a time and place in U.S. history when the nightly news held a comforting sense of factual certainty and contextual reassurance. That calming ambience — partly illusory though it was — has since fragmented into an omnipresent environment of baseline doubt, reactionary mistrust, and accusatory malice.
Some of this antipathy toward those who would tell us how things are is well-deserved. There is no shortage of agenda-driven shills, selective town criers and opinionated provocateurs who get paid the big bucks to keep a certain something stirred, and I’m not talking about that aromatic pot of soup on the kitchen stove.
But this stir-and-stir-some-more dynamic is not a one-way street. If not for media consumers who trust only spins and opinions that feed their preconceived notions, such self-serving monologues and fake “interviews” with others already in the interviewer’s camp would be relegated to the realm of inconsequential toddler talk.
But more and more Americans, it seems, make important political determinations based on the confirmation bias loop reinforcing the themes and narratives already reverberating in their minds. The echo chamber is the original marketplace of unoriginal ideas.
It’s easy to dismiss something you don’t want to be true as “fake news” when you keep tuning in to hear someone with a loud mouth tell you, in effect, that you can’t trust anyone who challenges you to look at the issues of the day from perspectives other than the one your reliable narrative-pusher is supplying. After all, someone in the throes of addiction would rather hear a dealer say there’s more junk in the trunk than hear a rehab counselor talk about the importance of getting clean.
Sometimes, of course, the news really is fake. Look no further than the recent spate of bad reporting about Rudy Giuliani being told by the FBI that he was being targeted in a Russian misinformation campaign. Or the politically expedient conspiracy theory circulated in right-wing media circles that President Biden was about to lower the boom on beef consumption in the United States.
Oftentimes, the news is true, but those who want to obscure its truthfulness refer to it as fake as a tactical move in the ongoing feud between left and right.
Other times, what is being presented as news is not news at all but a barely disguised litany of cruel propaganda further contorted by the egomania, tunnel vision, and ulterior motives of the person or organization gleefully promoting divisiveness and ill will over collaboration and shared purpose.
All of us, regardless of political beliefs, should take the time and make the effort to understand the qualitative differences in the information we consume.
But regardless of who labels this or that as fake news, or what that label means to different people, the fact that the fake news trope has had legs as long as it has is problematic. Our current fake news milieu reveals not just an undercurrent of instability in what passes for consensual reality but a kind of inimical impasse that keeps the possibility of an informed, fair-minded discussion from becoming little more than oratorical quicksand dragging down everyone within earshot.
Intellectual laziness is too mild a term for this phenomenon, though that’s part of it. Willful ignorance comes closer, though not all who consume this genre of commentary understand that they do, in fact, have free will in the matter. They could change the channel, read a book, or take a walk — their options are limited only by their imaginations — but they stay glued to the same programming that makes their blood boil day after day, night after night.
Diplomacy and finding common ground is seen as weakness; bullheaded stubbornness is seen as strength. Changing one’s mind is seen as the ultimate surrender, on part with a kind of treason to the groupthink that holds them captive. Acknowledging defeat in any way is no more acceptable than giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
No wonder so many Republicans still believe, without a shred of compelling evidence, that Donald Trump was cheated in the 2020 election. And if Trump had prevailed, there would be no shortage of Democrats convinced that Trump and his minions rigged the election against Joe Biden.
What this troublesome blight on the Information Age boils down to was stated succinctly by one of Cronkite’s colleagues at CBS nearly a half-century ago:
“Remember that ignorant and biased reporting has its counterpart in ignorant and biased reading and listening. We do not speak into an intellectual or emotional void.”
— Eric Sevareid, 1977 farewell commentary on CBS News
Sevareid’s assessment is as true today as it was in 1977.
But could Sevareid, who died in 1992, have foreseen how ignorance and bias would one day be the kindling for a highly disruptive, highly profitable industry built on packaging arguments, anger and anxiety as news?
Could Sevareid have predicted that major corporations would have a guiding financial interest in percolating and perpetuating a kind of cultural poison passed off as news when it’s really nothing more than a cheap, unethical us-against-them brew of anger-based opinions, poorly informed speculation and cynical entertainment designed to incite the ignorant and the biased to who knows what kind of destructive thoughts and actions?
Could Sevareid, a contemporary of such journalistic legends as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Lippmann, have anticipated that a mutant version of the news with little to no redeeming social value — much less anything remotely resembling an altruistic impulse — would rise to the level of saturation and influence it has today?
Sevareid, like Cronkite, no longer has to grapple with these questions. May they both rest in the eternal peace accorded the dead. As for the rest of us, those of us still alive and mostly well, we “work in the dark” and “do what we can,” to borrow words from the 19th-century American author Henry James. Ours may not be a happy task, but it’s important that someone, at least every now and then, makes an effort to point out what is really happening.
And just what is happening? For vast swaths of the population, “news” is not what is real and verifiable but what their favorite media personality or publication declares to be worthy of attention. Increasingly, the news is just another commodity that has more to do with what someone wants us to believe is happening than what really is happening.
The question is not one of whether what passes as news in some quarters is nothing more than a cesspool of bad intentions, childish whataboutism and toxic misdirection. That question has been answered — it is.
The more important question facing us today is whether the ignorant and biased consumers of such blather have the capacity to abandon the pseudo-information and insult-driven fearmongering that, like junk food of the mind, provides enormous quantities of empty calories but falls far short as a sustainable source of the mental and intellectual nutrition we need to live healthy, balanced, and well-reasoned lives.
People who know better can steer others in the right direction, but in the final analysis, it’s up to every individual to accurately categorize and process just what it is that they’re reading, hearing and seeing.
This requires more effort than believing or doubting what you’re told, depending on the source doing the telling. It requires recognizing that facts are facts, spin is spin, and that many of the people and corporations feeding us a diet of lies and propaganda most certainly are not doing it for the edification of the human race.
Just as people interested in good health take the time to research the nutritional properties of the foods they eat, it’s well worth the effort to educate oneself on the inherent value of the media one consumes. There’s a huge difference between an opinionated jackass on a rant and the imperfect but sometimes noble profession of journalism, which still strikes gold on occasion but would do itself a big favor by getting back to such basics as the who, what, when, where, why and how.
Darren Richardson is an award-winning headline writer and copy editor who worked in daily print journalism for more than 15 years. He also created and served as the managing editor of The American Pundit political writing contest, which ran on Allvoices.com in 2012 and 2013. More of his political articles can be found below:
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‘Trump Defender Syndrome’ Clouds Judgment of President’s Supporters
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