As a freshman journalism major, I visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C. There, I learned about the intrepid investigative reporting of Nellie Bly, the sober political commentary of Edward R. Murrow, and the dogged, life-risking determination of reporters who covered 9/11. I looked at Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs that brought tears to my eyes.
But when I left the Newseum, I walked away with one of their postcards from the gift shop. It said, in bold white letters on a black background, “Trust me. I’m a reporter.”
Unlike the Newseum’s collected talismans of honor and importance, that snarky postcard hints at the public’s real perceptions of news media. Many associate journalism with slinky deception and half-told truths. Although Democrats, on average, are more likely to express trust in both local and national news media, only 34 percent say they trust national media “a lot,” whereas 11 percent of Republican express confidence in national news.
This crisis of confidence is not improving as news goes digital: Last year, the term “fake news” spilled into American vocabularies as fallacious news stories from little-known websites began floating around social media. One such story claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. It was shared over 100,000 times. A more recent example is this story, which claimed a Texas mosque was refusing shelter to Hurricane Harvey refugees.
But “fake news” has become a more fraught and confusing term since it first entered Americans’ vocabulary last year. In response to all the negative press he’s received (some of it, admittedly, rather breathless), President Donald Trump has called many national news organizations “fake news.” It would be nigh impossible to collect all such instances, but here are the accusations President Trump levelled at the press just within the last month:
The Fake News refuses to report the success of the first 6 months: S.C., surging economy & jobs,border & military security,ISIS & MS-13 etc.
Trump uses words like “fake” and “failing” to capture the skepticism and contempt with which he views the press. And he’s not alone: All over the nation, Americans perceive reporters from Washington with growing skepticism and confusion. As a “journalist,” albeit one who doesn’t work for a mainstream newspaper or magazine, I’ve listened to an outpouring of frustration, skepticism, and fury over the past several months from family and friends, readers and followers. The word “media” is rarely said without a sneer, smirk, or eye-roll, it seems.
We’d be fools if we didn’t see this as a problem—one we need to fix, if we can. But in addition to acknowledging the shortcomings and vices of modern journalism, it’s important that we begin to remind the public of an unavoidable truth: at least to some extent, journalism has always been this way.
The Dawn of Yellow Journalism
The term “fake news” isn’t new. Merriam-Webster notes that the very first instances of the term were published in the 1890s, during the heyday of yellow journalism in America. The term “yellow journalism” refers to sensationalistic reporting—full of hyperbole and melodrama—used to sell stories. It was especially popular in the days of newspaper men Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The two men employed an increasingly sensationalist style to win over readers: Their coverage “accentuated” drama and tragedy, while they occasionally printed “rousing stories that proved to be false.”
Thomas Arthur Gullason noted that journalism of the era thrived on “the familiar aspects of sensationalism—crime news, scandal and gossip, divorces and sex, and stress upon the reporting of disasters and sports”; “the lavish use of pictures, many of them without significance, inviting the abuses of picture-stealing and ‘faked’ pictures;” and “impostures and frauds of various kinds, such as ‘faked’ interviews and stories.”
But in the 1890s—as now—the public quickly grew tired of sensationalism and deception. They wanted truth. One publication wrote in 1898 that “The public is becoming heartily sick of fake news and fake extras. Some of the newspapers in this town have printed so many lying dispatches that people are beginning to mistrust any statement they make.” (Sound familiar?)
Things did change around the turn of the century: News organizations became increasingly responsible to the courts for instances of libel and privacy invasions. Many newspapers—including the New York Times—began to respond to the desires of the market, and sought to craft a more responsible product. Several wrote and adopted a code of ethics. Writers like Walter Lippman fostered a set of ideals for the journalism profession, encouraging newspapers and their reporters to fashion and share a correct representation of the world for concerned readers.
Lippman was especially concerned with the public’s understanding of the larger world—the mental map onto which people projected various world events. He knew that “men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities”—and that the state and coloring of our mental maps can, more often than not, lead us to think and feel in different worlds, even as we inhabit the same reality. Take, for instance, a Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican from the South meeting a New Yorker-reading urban liberal for coffee. Their mental maps, their understandings of the larger world, are incredibly different—and thus could drive them to friction and frustration.
In an increasingly globalized world, most information we use to make important decisions—as voters, especially—comes secondhand. “…What each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him,” Lippman argued. “…The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.” Going to war or striving for peace, seeking bipartisan reform or entrenching partisan divisions—all such actions fix on shared, or divergent, mental maps.
The Medium Shapes the Message
One would think that the growth of digital media would make divergent mental maps less likely: surely, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, livestreaming and podcasts, our mental maps would be more accurate and similar, not less so.
But here, the words of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman are coming back to haunt us. McLuhan famously wrote that “the medium is the message.” He believed our means of communication (radio, print, television, or internet) deeply affected the words and ideas we choose to share. In his classic book Amusing Ourselves To Death, Postman traced the history of communication through oral and printed history to the present day. He bemoaned the effects of broadcast television on the populace, arguing that its short-term, flashy ethos encouraged an ADD populace without real sobriety or understanding of the world.
At the time Amusing Ourselves To Death was written, Postman’s son Andrew recently wrote for The Guardian, “Americans watched an average of 20 hours of TV a week. … But it wasn’t simply the magnitude of TV exposure that was troubling. It was that the audience was being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based.”
This is the problem the internet has exacerbated: It’s not that we have limited information. It’s that we have so much information, it’s difficult to discern what’s true and what’s false—while the very nature of the internet itself fosters distractibility, a partiality for glamor and clickbait, and a loathing of dense, informative copy. According to recent studies, the American attention span has dropped since the advent of the internet. We now have shorter attention spans than goldfish.
This environment fosters fake news. In a sense, it’s exacerbated media trends that had declined after the yellow journalism years. But now, things are a little more complicated: Because fake news doesn’t just refer to falsity. It also refers to “bullshit.”
Our New ‘Fake News’
I don’t use the term “bullshit” in a lighthearted or irreverent way. I’m using it according to Henry G. Frankfurt’s definition, laid out in his short book on the subject. Twelve years ago, Frankfurt sought to explain the rising prevalence of the word in the English vocabulary. He rightly saw that “bullshit” doesn’t just refer to something that’s false. Bullshit isn’t a lie. It’s a bit more nuanced than that:
Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: The liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing, too, is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. [Emphasis added.]
According to Frankfurt, “bullshit is something that is constructed absent of any concern for the truth,” Gordon Pennycook recently wrote for Aeon Magazine. “This is quite different from lying, which implies a deep concern for the truth (namely, its subversion). Bullshit is particularly pernicious since the bullshitter adopts an epistemic stance that allows for a great deal of agility. For the bullshitter, it doesn’t really matter if he is right or wrong. What matters is that you’re paying attention.”
When Trump attacks the New York Times or other outlets as fake, it isn’t because they’re spreading outright lies. It’s because the way in which they report the truth suggests—by way of omission, selective quoting, or obsessive focus, for instance—a version of reality that Trump believes to be misleading.
And he isn’t always wrong: Many mainstream media outlets enjoy finding “gotcha” quotes, and fixating on them. Trump is an expert at producing such quotes, and thus dominating the media coverage. But in this sense, both he and the media are producing bullshit: They are less focused on sharing truth or falsity with their audiences than they are in coopting and dominating the national spotlight.
Meanwhile, thousands of other issues—issues that would truly grow and cultivate our mental maps—fall by the wayside. Slaughter and devastation in Yemen, human rights crises in Syria, bipartisan reform efforts on Capitol Hill, grassroots political efforts in our local backyard: all these issues are oft-omitted from journalism’s front page (or home page)—because, as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst knew, dry reporting doesn’t sell newspapers. Sensationalism does.
This is the reason C. John Sommerville, in his book How the News Makes Us Dumb, argues that the sensationalism and bullshitting of modern news can’t be fixed. “We should be under no illusions about the fact that the point of news is profit and not, say, ‘truth,’” he writes. “If the goal were enlightenment, there would be days when the paper would have to be several times bigger and others in which publishers wouldn’t bother printing one. If one admits that the media are mainly in the business of selling something, of getting people interested, then one begins to erase the line separating the New York Times and the National Enquirer.”
Part of this, Sommerville argues, stems from the fact that the newspapers are daily. (Which makes one wonder what he thinks of the second-by-second reporting that’s become common in the internet age.) Important, world-changing things don’t necessarily happen every day. But the profit of the media world depends on news being a consistent, everyday occurrence—thus, Trump’s tweets and Taylor Swift’s dating habits become fodder for reporting. As Sommerville puts it,
“If you insist on news, there is only one kind: an addictive substance that you never get enough of. And we have become jaded, requiring an ever-increasing level of excitement. It had better be good or our minds may wander. The industry, like any good entrepreneur, does its best to give us what we want, and what we want is a limited number of stories that we can follow for a few days and that involve us in some way. What we get is a teeny bit of our world, vastly enlarged to fill our vision.”
The Journalism That Pays
Of course, the other question that looms large in this debate is the impact of advertising on the media: Most newspapers and magazines have used advertising to survive—both in the days of Joseph Pulitzer, and in the industry’s jump to website-based news today. But in effect, that means newspapers throughout the past have concerned themselves with catering to advertisers, rather than in serving their readers. Today, measuring a site’s success in clicks and eyeballs (rather than in thoughtfulness and finesse) has much to do with the moneymaking appeal of traffic to advertisers.
But this model is increasingly becoming unsustainable. Ad revenue is no longer the steady source of income for newspapers that it used to be. Facebook and Google (among other internet giants) provide much better prospects for advertisers. Meanwhile, Ben Thompson writes for Stratechery, “newspapers are paying the price for having long ago divorced the cost of their content from the value readers place upon it.” Most consumers haven’t felt newspaper subscriptions worth their while.
There are some signs that this is changing: since Trump’s election last year, subscription rates for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal have all boomed. The Times garnered 130,000 new subscribers last November: 10 times their normal monthly rate. Vanity Fair picked up 13,000 new subscribers in one day.
Part of this boom may have to do with big media companies’ branding themselves as watchdog journalists, ready to take on an unpopular President. It may also have to do with the fact that many sites (the Wall Street Journal, especially) have decided to finally enforce their paywall in earnest. But in addition to such factors, it’s worth noting that subscription services are surging in many other realms of business. If and when consumers find a product they deem worth their while, they’re happy to pay for it on a monthly basis. As TechCrunch notes, “there’s a whole new generation of consumers who are comfortable subscribing for services — Spotify, Netflix, food boxes, productivity apps — as long as they stay timely, relevant and focused.”
It’s those latter three factors that the media must now endeavor to stay on top of, if they’re to successfully get (and keep) subscribers. To that list, I’d add one other important ingredient for news media, one that Thompson has noted in his articles at Stratechery: journalists must offer original, unique content.
That’s no small task in our overwhelming online news world. But the very overwhelming nature of that world, one might argue, pushes consumers toward newsletters, magazines, and newspapers that can serve as expert sources, sources who can cut through the muck and mire and offer reality.
The News You Click On Is the News You Deserve
It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.
All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.
Newsprint gave journalists a degree of freedom from this. For one, subscribers were less likely to visit their publication for one or two stories, and more likely to read a huge chunk of the paper—regardless of the incendiary or mundane nature of that news. They had “skin in the game,” so to speak. What’s more, newsprint journalists had no way to measure the relative amount of eyes on any given page of the newspaper—but they did want to make the front page. Which, in times gone by, was dedicated to straight hard news stories, not incendiary op-ed rhetoric.
But today, news websites have entirely changed the way we write and curate news. People blame journalists for these trends with good reason—but it’s worth remembering that they write what readers will click on, because their livelihood depends on it. Yes, the profession should be more “noble” than this. It should strive for greater things. But the profession is also impoverished, to a considerable degree. It’s deeply dependent on the whims of its readership. So unless and until the public demands something more—not just via words, but via action and “clicks”—things will likely remain the same.
That means, too, that the news you fund is the news of the future. As the public slowly begins to admit that news is never free—that they’ll either have to pay for their newspaper, or see it go under—they will also realize the impact their dollars can have on the industry as a whole. And a media industry that’s more accountable to the public isn’t a bad idea. The largest danger I can envision is that news will become (as it’s already currently becoming) more partisan. But among Americans who tire of the incessant politicization and punditry of the modern media, there will always be demand for thoughtful, balanced journalism.
‘The Truth Will Set You Free’
It’s a hard time to be a journalist. I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way. It’s a sentiment I share with gritted teeth and deep frustration, even guilt. There’s little glamor or nobility in the profession—especially when you see reality as more complicated than a simple “anti-Trump” or “pro-Trump” dichotomy. A lot of media personnel enjoy shouting matches on Twitter more than they do investigating corruption (be it local or national in scale); many are more interested in writing clickbaity headlines than they are in writing nuanced, thoughtful stories. The stories I strive to write, no matter the time or work I put into them, seem ill-suited to the complexity and nuance of the moment; at best, it seems many journalists (myself included) are preaching to their collective choir. At worst, we’re writing incendiary pieces that inflame the rancor and frustrations of “the other side.”
Throughout the past year, I’ve considered dropping out of the media landscape numerous times. There are days, weeks even, when the prospect of gardening in my backyard and ignoring the larger world is the most palatable thing I can imagine. As everything seems to turn into a partisan shouting match, and truth feels ever more illusory, what’s the use in writing? Do more words help, or do they just make things worse?
As a writer and journalist, I believe it is my calling to seek out truth, and to share it whenever and however I’m able. One of my primary inspirations to become a journalist was Ephesians 5:6-11 – “Let no one deceive you with empty words … Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”
Empty words—and their resultant unfruitfulness and deception—are things Christians ought to actively fight against. We should be on the front lines fighting bullshit: Because we believe truth is knowable, we believe in exposing darkness, and we believe truth oughtn’t be exploited for personal profit or material gain.
This is why I disagree with Sommerville, who argues in his book that we’d be better off without news altogether. The important thing is to have the right sort of news: local news, first and foremost—because it touches most intimately those matters we should know and act upon—and thoughtful commentary, secondly, such as the kind one can still find in magazines like Harpers, and journals such as the Hedgehog Review. This offers us a less instantaneous, more thoughtful takes on the news. It avoids much of the bullshit propagated by other media sources.
Perhaps fighting fake news is as simple as avoiding the news on Twitter, and setting aside a portion of our budget for the magazines and newspapers we truly believe to be important. I think it will also take a lot more conversations on a personal, private scale: a willingness to bridge the mental-map divide between our two Americas (often defined as urban vs. rural, left vs. right, or populist vs. elitist). But regardless, in both the media world and amongst the industry’s consumers, real change will require a renewed passion and allegiance to truth, despite the prevalence of bullshit and bombast.
“One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable,” writes Frankfurt. “His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference.”
In an increasingly sensationalistic age, we need journalists who still believe in truth, and who are determined to share it. Our medium of communication may have made this harder, perhaps harder than ever before. But it is not yet impossible. It just requires some determination, and an allegiance to the truth that transcends personal gain.