If the idea that all news is fake somehow shocks you, then you haven’t paid much attention to the world around you for the last 40 years or so. It wasn’t always this way. In the not so distant past, journalism truly was our “fourth estate,” and journalists actually did their bit to keep government more or less honest. This reached it’s peak in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was Walter Cronkite who was the only person with enough cache to convince Americans that the war in Vietnam was not going well and American lives were being sacrificed for a feckless foreign policy. It was valiant newspaper editors who risked everything – even imprisonment – to publish the Pentagon Papers. It was intrepid reporters who blew the cover off the Watergate conspiracy. It was a dogged reporter who went against his own political bias to doom Gary Hart’s candidacy.
Sadly, the Gary Hart story was the last hurrah for journalism. Already, political bias was creeping further and further into our evening newscasts. Reporters were feeling their oats and network news executives were feeling the heat to make their divisions profitable. The combination of the two was a slow turning of serious telejournalists into entertainers. David Brinkley gave way to Sam Donaldson. Walter Cronkite was replaced by Dan Rather. Barbara Walters was moved from interviewing monkees for Today to co-anchoring the evening news.
Likewise, newsprint reporters were no longer satisfied with reporting on the dull, mundane day-to-day things. No, now they had to be the news as much as they reported on it. One, John Anderson, even mounted a presidential campaign in 1980. Getting the above-the-fold, banner headline wasn’t just a matter of of industry prestige. It became both the means and the end, the potential springboard to fame and glory. Woodward and Bernstein had done it. Why shouldn’t they?
Of course, that was a generation ago. In the intervening years, the emergence of the internet as a news source not only intensified the drive for eyeballs. Before, the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times might have competed somewhat, but each had it’s own region. No more. Now, each of those papers was not only competing nationally with each other (as was every newspaper and magazine), but they found themselves in virtual warfare with the television networks and he newly emerged 24 hour cable news stations. Stories became more salacious and the telling more over-the-top as each source competed for those same eyeballs.
There had always been reporting errors, of course. Human beings are fallible, and that includes the ones reporting the facts. But whereas before, editors had been dogged in protecting their brands by ensuring accuracy, now they found themselves forced to protect their brands by ensuring they got a story out first, even if it meant having to make corrections later.
But even that bit of true editorial control fell apart in 1998. Newsweek had uncovered and sourced a story about President Clinton and a 21 year old intern, but refused to run it because the editorial board hadn’t been able to talk to the intern herself.
That intern was Monica Lewinsky, and the story was broken by a previously fringe newsman, Matt Drudge, on his internet blog. It wasn’t so much a blog as a news aggregator (as now), but the moment his site announced that bombshell story – which eventually led to the first impeachment of a president in 130 years – news was changed forever. Getting a story out first was no longer a big deal, it was the only thing that mattered. Editorial standards were demolished. It wasn’t long before reporters were openly editorializing on-air. Cable news became less news, and more talking heads arguing about the “issues.” As networks and news organizations began to target their editorial slant to be either pro- or anti-Clinton, the audiences that viewed their content sorted itself likewise. What was once a non-partisan fourth estate had fully migrated into becoming the propaganda arms of the two major political parties.
The lack of any true balance or bias in news reporting for the last 20 years has led to where we are today. Everyone in the news industry is either spinning the news around an editorial cyclotron to extract the content most craved by their target audiences, or just simply creating “infotainment” to reinforce those preconceived notions. It’s how you get CNN declaring the President is about to have a heart attack. It’s how you get MSNBC declaring the President has early-onset Alzheimer’s. It’s how you get Breitbart declaring that Hillary Clinton had a secret stroke.
It is how you get fake news, and how you get news arguing over what qualifies as fake news and what isn’t fake news. Here’s the only thing I know for certain: if Ben Bradlee were around today, here’s what he’d tell current reporters. Go back to reporting the facts, and nothing else. Leave the editorializing for the editorial pages (or in the case of television, the editorial segments). Leave the creative writing for writing novels. The message he would have the suits would likewise be similar. News is about disseminating information, not ratings, not clicks per page – just information.
Until that message gets through, though, here’s what you need to do. Break out of your bubble. If you’re not a reader (and if you are not into reading, then I really need to thank you for reading this!) and getting your news from television, then please, vary your sources. Watch a little of everything. You’ll note the four or five points in each story that CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, etc will agree on. The rest of it? That’s the spin, the emotional tug. The same thing goes for reading newspapers. And if you can’t at least double-source a story, you can bet that it’s the ultimate in fake news: the contrived story.
You can do this, America. And that’s the real No Spin Zone.