Fake News and the art of doubt

I’ll start this the way that most of these types of posts start. I normally don’t write about politics, mostly because I don’t want to add to the noise and I’d rather spread joy. But, also because having an outward political opinion and keeping a job usually don’t go hand-in-hand, and today happens to Amazon Prime Day, so…yeah…(I needed those makeup brushes y’all, all 32 of them). However, what I will speak on is a conversation that I have been having with journalists since the phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” entered our vernacular.

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article called “Trump Jr. Was Told in Email of Russian Effort to Aid Campaign.” The article alleged that Donald Trump Jr. exchanged emails with Russia before agreeing to meet with a representative of the Russian government to discuss ways to sabotage the 2016 Presidential Election. And today, Trump Jr. tweeted screenshots of those emails for the world to read. However, I am not interested in discussing these emails, their relevance, impeachment, or collusion. I want to talk about not being able to believe what you see.

The Trump campaign, and subsequently the Democratic and Republican parties, has done a masterful job of disseminating doubt. From the moment Trump questioned Obama’s country of birth to today, he has leveraged the power of the media, on every airwave and every screen, to cast doubt in people’s minds about the messages that are being pushed in their faces in our 24-hour news cycle world. Other politicians, in both parties, have followed suit in order to win recent mid-term elections. As a freelance journalist who primarily writes about arts & culture, I’m used to people not believing what they see, but when we’re talking about domestic and world news it becomes a different story.

When I heard about the Times article and read it, honestly I thought, ‘what difference does it make?’ The reason why is because we have so allowed people’s perceptions to become their realities that nothing that does not align with that perception matters anymore. If you are a person who despises Trump, you will say “Finally! Proof for impeachment! They colluded with Russia. Clinton should have won,” and if you are someone who supports his presidency, you will say “The New York Times is an anti-democratic liberal propaganda machine that has it out for the President because they are mad that the former senator from their state lost!” And there it is. There are only alternative facts on both sides and no one cares about the truth, only what is true to them. Even with Trump Jr. tweeting photos of the emails, there’s a way to spin that. Those emails don’t really prove anything, his Twitter account was hacked, someone who hates Trump leaked them. He was smart to tweet them because he got ahead of the story. The ways to raise doubt are innumerable and so is the frequency.

Now, I’m not letting the media off the hook here. They helped create distrust in themselves, especially in the early 2000s when there were a handful of high-profile cases where journalists at reputable newspapers fabricated stories. Cable news (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc) is also a huge part of the problem as they have done another masterful job of conflating the words “news magazine” and “talk show” with actual news. Most of the time, these networks are obliged to advertisers, and the news they tell is the news they sell. Lack of diversity in newsrooms didn’t help, because people in marginalized communities couldn’t believe the stories they were reading about their own communities, and no one ever interviewed them. In addition, in all aspects of the news, the notions of objectivity and fair and balanced reporting are somewhere with the baby and the bathwater. As newsrooms began to shrink by the thousands 10 years ago, journalists did a piss poor job of advocating for, and helping the public to realize the importance of, journalism. They assumed that because they had always been there, they were entitled to be there, which is why they are now drawing pictures of Sean Spicer giving press conferences.

This brings me to the conversations I have been having with some journalist friends. As much as I give journalists a hard time, I also moonlight as one, and let me tell you that it is clearer than ever that people don’t understand what journalists do and how they do it. There seems to be this impression that journalists sit at their desks and create tales in the same way as novelists. This is fake news. Generally speaking, a reported story for a reputable news outlet has a minimum of three credible sources who have exchanged emails, had phone conversations with, and/or met in-person with the reporter. Sometimes, those people refuse to go on the record. At that point, most reporters try to find someone who will, but if they can’t, they use that anonymous source. Anonymous sources are only used when the information they have to offer is so essential that it cannot be attained elsewhere. An article can take anywhere from 12 hours to 12 months to write, depending on its scope, and in the end, the paper trail of spreadsheets, documents, emails, audio recordings, and notebooks is long and windy. For a publication such as the Times, the fact-checking process for an article like the one published yesterday, is probably grueling.

I’ll give you two examples from the world of fluff that I write in, and not to sound arrogant, but I’m a good reporter. I wrote an article for a local magazine about the National Museum of African American History & Culture. After reading it, my editor highlighted all of the sections where he either had questions, or thought we needed to cite the source. I then had to go back and answer his questions, add in a couple more sources, and even had to go back and do some extra reporting to answer one of his questions. From there, the article went to a copyeditor and a fact checker.

Another example is an article I wrote for a national publication about artist and arts administrator salaries in regional theatres across the country. I started off by asking actors in different cities which theatres paid the most and which theaters paid the least. None would go on the record, because they were afraid of losing work in the future, but they all gave me leads and tips (mostly through Facebook message conversations). I then interviewed artistic and managing directors of theatres across the country about the wages they pay actors. I checked figures to the best of my ability against their Form 990s, which are the financial forms that all 501c3 organizations must complete. Once I turned in the article, we went through three rounds of intense edits to ensure accuracy.

Those are just two examples, and journalists who work on politics, local government, education, and science articles can offer a whole lot more insight about how reporting works. That said, I also am sure that this pandemic distrust in the media is more rampant than ever, it’s not new, and it’s not going away. After all, how do you know I’m being forthcoming about my process if I haven’t published the notes from my interviews? There’s that doubt creeping in…

But, here’s the truth: Hillary’s emails, Trump Jr.’s emails, and who met with Russia or emailed Russia matters, but it is also a distraction. Americans will spend so much time outraged (4-8 years, maybe), that they won’t notice that healthcare, agricultural, environmental, education, and economic reforms are not happening. Who helped you when you needed time off to heal from a health crisis or care for a loved one? Where was your elected official when you lost your house and job and had to file for bankruptcy? What jobs that pay $15 or more per hour and don’t require a college education have come to your community? When did it become acceptable for the people who make between $65,000-$250,000 per year to have to shoulder the debt for everyone, with no reprieve? What laws have been passed to help your family in the past 15 years? Name them. The issue is not fake news, the issue is fake people making fake promises.

So, where do we go from here? To the polls in 2018 is a good idea, but it’s not where we start. We start with a recommitment to the truth, no matter how much it disturbs our perceptions. We start by bringing back humanistic value and truly believing that every human life matters. We start by seeking out information on our own and not believing only what we are fed. We commit ourselves to questioning why someone else’s perception disturbs our own. And most of all, we commit to valuing discernment (which is a measure of trust) over doubt (which is a measure of distrust). If we become a discerning public, instead of a doubtful public, we hold the power. Then, we can start a fruitful discussion about policy, instead of a flailing discussion about perception.

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