The Big Lie of Mainstream Fake News

A supporter gestures at the press as Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Cincinnati

Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing political commentators are now making mileage with the absurd delaration that the mainstream press is “the real fake news.” As a group, these political arguers have long been uniform with the claim that the mainstream press is “liberal,” but this new meme takes that a step further by proclaiming that nothing from the mainstream can be believed, because “they just make it up.” (Limbaugh) This is a textbook example of blaming the messenger for the message delivered. However, the press is not blameless in its failure to properly investigate some of the messages it carries. Welcome to the new world of professional journalism.

It was nearly fifteen years ago that I first began describing the rise of blogs and blogging as a response to the falling lack of trust in the American press. This was a clear harbinger of something really wrong with the function of America’s Fourth Estate. Nearly every year since, we’ve seen Gallup research produce record-setting lows in press trust among Americans – it keeps getting worse – and one of the most important takeaways from the election of Donald Trump is that the press has now become nearly irrelevant when it comes to influencing culture. Each press entity is now simply another node on the aggregated information superhighway.

We need to go back to the nineties to better understand this, for the truth is it goes back that far, back to the early days of the web and even before that. Let’s be clear, geeks invented the web, not news people. A key part of this invention was the method of communicating, which was real time and in reverse chronological order, also known as blog presentation. It is the basic form of all social media, too, and it could have been the media’s.

Dave Winer

Dave Winer was the real pioneer in all of this, and his “Scripting News” remains the longest running continuous blog on the entire net (1997, although its roots go back further). The biggest blunder in the collapse of media today is the refusal of so-called “professional media” to adopt the communications concept associated with networked humans – simple blogging software. This allowed other people – those not associated with contemporary “media” – a voice in the public square that was never there before. The demand for this voice has been incredible, for those who were silenced by the information gatekeepers of the time were suddenly able to object publicly to that silencing. One simply cannot comprehend the mess that the press finds itself in today without accepting this, because blogs and blogging were a reaction to the narrow perspective of the professional news media. A blog is a simple content management system, which can be – and is – used to run “news” websites beyond the information mainstream. They are, in fact, now tributaries to that main stream, and this genie will never return to its bottle.

There has been no end to the analysis of the failure of the press since the election, but I’ve yet to hear anybody say, “You know what? They’re right. The public is right. We blew it, and we need to get off our pedestals and admit it.” The right is now peddling the claim that the mainstream media is the real “fake news” with which we ought to concern ourselves. In so doing, these political hacks are securing for themselves the self-serving position that THEY are the real arbiters of truth, that THEY are the fact-checkers, that THEY are deserving of trust, and that THEY are the media that matters. The claim is made easier by the refusal of the press to operate in any meaningful way beyond its hierarchical norms, so the reaction of distrust continues the same as it has for the last forty-plus years. The claim of mainstream fake news would be laughable were it not so dangerous, because right-wing media is political propaganda by default, while the press has traditionally been led by curiosity, skepticism, a check on power, and an ethics code that prohibits such nonsense. Those things don’t matter in a world where perception is reality.

Moreover, the imagination of the right wrongly creates a left-wing conspiracy, one which includes the ludicrous notion that the mainstream press functioned as a part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign team. The convenience of this claim goes unnoticed, because the right is using it to justify whatever political claims it chooses to make for itself, including those listed above. After all, if it’s acceptable for the liberal media, then it’s “acceptable that we do it too.” The problem, of course, is that the claim that the press was a part of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign – hence, “we can be a part of Donald Trump’s campaign” – is a logical fallacy, even if the press is tilted toward the progressive. One is entirely political; the other is reporting the news. That reporting may be utterly bad, but it isn’t even loosely organized, as these right wing political commentators would have us believe.

However, let’s admit that being partially biased is a bit like being partially pregnant, so a little goes a long way. This is not to suggest that there’s a vast, left-wing conspiracy underway within the press, because there’s no need for such coordination when the very definition of news pushes media to the left. If it’s progressive, it’s news, because new concepts are, well, new. The job of the press is to run it up the flagpole for reaction, which is always the second-day lead. Conservatives react defensively, and so the idea presented almost always advances. There’s nothing “fake” about it, although it is certainly progressively biased.

The problem is that the press doesn’t see this behavior as biased, so there’s no need to provide any differing narrative. It really is biased, however, and that’s why we were so easily able to provide evidence of it during my days at The 700 Club in the 1980s. Before Fox News, there was CBN News. Both are utterly political responses to the liberal drift of the country that the press plays a natural role in developing. But to claim it is fake? That requires a level of deception not before seen in our culture, one that will reverberate deep into our future.

Who even today, for example, will argue to an unbelieving people that the term “conservative” is no longer appropriate to describe the extremism of the Republican party? The GOP is now so far right that it more resembles the Nationalist Party, one that is merely a breath away from Facism. Who will be the acceptable critics when the press that represents the new right continues to lead the public deeper into totalitarian responses to legitimate questions? This is the behavior of those who will do and say anything to destroy any group they see as hostile to their agenda, and that is the very definition of totalitarianism. Who will fly the warning flags that were put in place by our Founding Fathers to guard against autocratic rule and assure liberty? If constitutional questions are dismissed as fake news, then we, the people, are without hope against the ruling class.

Milton: “License they mean, when they cry ‘liberty.’”

 

EDITOR’S BONUS HEAD SHAKE: Rush Limbaugh actually states that his commentary is satire.

Another media disruption ahead

caitlindeweyCaitlin Dewey is a canary in the coal mine of the web, and she’s singing a warning to everyone. I sense what she’s saying, and I’ll bet you do, too. Profit through disruptive advertising and the damned reliance on platforms are slowly sucking the air out of our grand experiment in connectivity.

Caitlin is the digital culture critic for The Washington Post and one of the hippest web denizens around. She’s a brilliant and funny writer and also produces a weekly must-read newsletter (Links I Would Gchat You if We Were Friends) that I’ve been enjoying from the beginning. When she speaks, we need to listen, and here’s a part of what she wrote this week:

Friends, I am homeless. Not physically. I mean this in a virtual sense. I *write* about Internet culture, and I feel like I have no home base on the web. I tweeted about this last week in the context of Twitter, which I haven’t been on too much since. (Trust me, when you’re off Twitter, you miss n-o-t-h-i-n-g of significance.) But it also applies to Facebook, which I’ve never been too active on because it creeps me out. And Instagram, which I’ve tired of since the ads hit my account. Even Pinterest, which I unironically love and have long considered a form of relaxation on par with watching HGTV, is drowning in bad ads and “promoted” pins and other crap that ruins it for me.

I dunno, guys — am I getting old? Am I the world’s least-suited Internet writer? There has to be a place for people like me, but maybe it’s not yet on “THE CYBER.” I like Snapchat alright. Reddit is good. Idk, I have Goodreads? Like are the mainstream social networks all terrible now, or is this just me?!

It’s not just Caitlin, and it’s interesting that she’s seeing this and writing about it today, for the canary-in-the-coal-mine analogy is accurate. The Evolving User Paradigm is a relentless taskmaster that sits still for no one. Change is a constant online, but advertising based in the modernist mindset requires controllable equilibrium, and therein lies the rub. Closed platforms are required for what’s viewed as “success,” but as we learned as far back as AOL, they cannot sustain user interest forever. Chaos will win everytime when web denizens grow beyond the highly managed boundaries of platforms. Caitlin Dewey isn’t unique; she’s just way ahead of the curve in terms of use and understanding of the internet. Others will get there, too, and eventually everybody.

The first round of digital media innovation, which has created the commercial web that Caitlin is lamenting, is on the verge of collapsing, because the innovators have given away possibility in the name of old fashioned profit, and who could blame them? The problem is that the inevitable end of pouring new wine into old wineskins is explosive ruin, and that’s what’s been happening over the last twenty years.

Madison Avenue knows only mass marketing, which relies on basically two strategies:

  • Accompany content, which is the method of operation for print media.
  • Interrupt content, which is the method of operation for broadcasting (and increasingly the web).

So despite elaborate and sophisticated data used to create highly efficient targeting, advertisers still fall back on these two strategies, and it’s what’s destroying the experience to which Caitlin refers. Both are clumsy and the enemy of participation, and neither will sustain the status quo for long. It’s also what creates the addiction to platforms, a.k.a. apps, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – she calls them the “mainstream social networks.” THE network can do so much better, and that will be the next level of innovation.

davewinerBlogging’s most original thinker Dave Winer has already figured out ways to build simple open source outliners and other tools that stand alone in a browser, and I always pay attention to Dave. Moreover, Dave is seeing the same thing Caitlin is suggesting, which adds to the weight of the prophecy above;

When Jerry (Garcia) died in 1995, I wrote:

Like the big tree that fell last March, the death of a huge human being like Jerry Garcia frees up a huge amount of space. Once there was a tree, now there are seedlings. After the sadness, there will be huge creativity.

Same would probably be true if Facebook ever relented and stopped stifling the web and embraced it instead. Then the growth could flow through them instead of around them. Ultimately I think the web will go on, treating Facebook like the outage that it has chosen to be.

In a comment to this post on Facebook, Dave also stated: “I have a BAD FEELING about Facebook because they are being such bad net citizens.”

My friends, the promise of a horizontal society available via the network will survive attempts to wrestle its chaotic nature to the capitalist ground. Investing in such attempts may produce results for a season, but none will be lasting, especially when growth is a necessary element of such. It’s not like IRL, where control is obtained from the top-down, and I’ll continue to keep my eyes on the visionaries of our time.

Where they inject reality and clueless people with money piss all over it, get your popcorn ready, because the show’s about to begin.

The blogosphere, circa 2012 (Hint: it ain’t dead or dying)

One could argue, I suppose, that blogging has always been a cry for attention, but then you’d have to admit the same for all forms of media. As Dave Winer so brilliantly points out, “the readers are the product, and the customers are the advertisers,” so who can blame content creators for wanting attention? It’s one thing to have an idea and to put that on paper, but it’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest unless somebody else reads it. However, when money is exchanged for content creation, everything changes, because the paradigm moves from just being read to the number of people reading. This is called mass marketing. Media has always thought it was the content business, but Dave rightly discerns, attention for advertisers is the real business.

Much has been written over the last few years about blogging and blogging’s future since the dawn of social media. The latest is Jeremiah Owyang’s “End of an Era: The Golden Age of Tech Blogging is Over.” I won’t attempt to deconstruct this view, because others with greater credentials than mine have already done so. I do wish to comment about what’s happened to blogging, however, because 2012 will be my 10th year with The Pomo Blog.

There are many definitions of blogging, but mine most closely resembles, again, Dave Winer’s. He’s writing here about how some tech blogs, most notably TechCrunch, moved from being “blogs” to being media companies writing about technology, like CNET.

It’s understandable because they earn their salaries based on how much they please advertisers. It’s like the hamster-farms they write about — the readers are the product, and the customers are the advertisers. Bloggers, as I use the term, are the product without bothering with the advertisers. It’s people and their ideas, for better or worse, and nothing more than that.

This is The Pomo Blog. You won’t see any advertising here, because this blog isn’t about attention; it’s about ideas and the challenging of assumptions. It’s a teaching vehicle, and the student is me. That’s all it is, and this brings me to the social media disruption.

Technology spawned the personal media revolution — the “Great Horizontal” to which Jay Rosen refers — which has given voice to the formerly voiceless. Telling the world what you think only requires time. Everything else is free. If you follow closely (from a distance) all that’s taken place with this in the past ten years, however, you’ll find thousands of people who’ve interpreted this as a way to “make their mark” and pursue dreams that aren’t so horizontal as much as they are hierarchical.

I always used to argue that bloggers were not really competing with traditional media companies until I began seeing the various A-list, B-list, C-list rankings. It was clear that some people were in it for the rankings, and in that sense — and just as Dave asserts — they were trying to generate a mass following. But regular blogging takes time, so when social media came along, these people fled the blogosphere to find the audience — the “Klout” — they were seeking elsewhere, because, well, it was more efficient and a whole lot easier to grow a reputation using connected social media.

Personal branding burst onto the scene, and we started seeing stories, posts, tweets about how to advance our personal brands. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post “How to ‘be somebody’ on Twitter” that was based entirely on practices I had observed from those whose primary purpose on Twitter (and especially when tied together with Facebook) appeared to be growing an audience. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with that, but it has separated the wheat from the chaff in terms of blogging and the blogosphere.

I’m not suggesting anything untoward or disingenuous about this. It simply is what it is.

What I am trying to suggest is that this wing of the blogosphere has indeed vanished or transformed into plain old fashioned media designed to accrue an audience, and as long as this continues to be its goal, I’m not sure it’s all that sustainable, because their product — the audience — isn’t as necessary as it once was. That’s because the people who used to want that product — the advertisers — are now using the same technology to route around inefficient middlemen and go directly to the customers they seek. Further carving up the same old pie nets only smaller pieces and more confusion for the people who have the money in the first place. Any business model today based on traditional advertising has a rude awakening ahead.

I’ll never disrespect or discourage anyone for crying for attention, but if the end game is an audience for advertising, you might want to rethink your future.

(Disclosure: The Pomo Blog wouldn’t be here had it not been for the direct assistance of Dave Winer in getting me started.)

Why I’m abandoning TechCrunch and Techmeme

Farewell TechCrunch and TechmemeI’m separating myself from two old friends today, and it’s pretty painful. TechCrunch and Techmeme have both served me well over the years, keeping me informed on the cutting edge of news in the tech sphere. I can honestly say that these two websites have played a major role in my knowledge level, and I will miss them.

However, I can’t keep up with either. My RSS reader is overwhelmed with the stuff they crank out, most of which, frankly, is completely useless reading.

There is this belief in media that more is better. More produces more page views, and page views produce revenue, and so it goes. But this strategy disrespects customers, because I simply don’t have the time to keep up. And rather than stare at 100 unread items a day from each, I find myself simply marking them all as read and moving on.

Twitter is more than capable of keeping me connected with what’s really important.

I’m not sure if there’s an answer. Perhaps if Michael Arrington would personally oversee a specific RSS feed of “important” content, I would subscribe to that, but as of this morning, I’ve dropped both of these sites, along with The Inquistr, from my RSS reader.

Maybe it’s a sign of changing times. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that time is the real scarcity in the life of any consumer today, and tactical revenue maneuvers designed to capture more of that scarcity cannot possibly win in the long run.

Farewell, old friends. Farewell.

Professional Journalism is its own worst enemy

Step aside son. This is a job for PROS.I’m angry.

Professional journalism will never save itself unless it gets off its pedestal. Since this is a nearly impossible human task, I have no hope that the answers to forces destroying professional journalism will ever come from inside the institution. It’s just not going to happen. We have seen the enemy, and he is us (but we can’t admit it).

I come from a unique class of television professional journalists, having worked in the industry both before and after it was taken over by corporations, corporate lawyers, shareholders, and the rules of being a profit center. I can honestly say that it was all about gathering the news before (see my 1998 essay “The Lizard on America’s Shoulder“), but it drifted to the industry of managing audience flow afterwards.

This was brought to mind this morning after reading yet another Chicken Little account of the collapse of professional journalism, and I need to point out a few things (again). “Without professional journalists,” wrote Tom Glaisyer and Sarah Stonbely for CNN.com, “who are paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest, the very health of our democracy is in peril.” This statement is absurd on two grounds. One, professional journalists aren’t paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest. They are paid to help their owners make a profit. That’s not cynical; that’s simply the truth. Two, and this is the most damaging, the people, the audience whose trust they assume, know it. Puh-leeze!

That which is important has taken a back seat to that which is easy and that which will attract, for the core mission of any business is to make money. In today’s business climate, things are really problematic, which applies even more management heat to control costs and earn more, more, more. The bottom line runs everything, and those who write stories warning of dire consequences for journalism and democracy are not examining the facts and, therefore, simply demagoging for attention. C’mon, people. Read the signs. People are sick to death of what we’re feeding them, and they’re revolting. That’s the problem, not our precious mission.

Once again, here’s the Gallup data. We’re at an all-time low in press trust. Note that the decline in press trust began in 1976, not 2000 or 2004.

Gallup trust in media 1973-present

Glaisyer and Stonbely’s piece (which you should read, BTW) concerns the FCC’s recent report on the state of the news, specifically television. That, of course, they govern, but the problem is much deeper than just TV. Moreover, the FCC report is highly biased, because the government has the deep pockets voices of the Telecom industry tickling their ears about using those public airwaves for broadband. Nevertheless, the article drones on about journalism.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is impossible to ignore the inequalities created by changes in media or the harmful effects of the loss of journalists, newsrooms, and oversight. Local communities are suffering from a vacuum of relevant local news and accountability in news coverage.

I’d argue that the opposite is true and that communities are beginning to be served as never before — from the bottom up — by people who aren’t bound by the same corporate necessities of the pros. If I lived in Lewisville, a neighboring suburb near me, I’d be VERY grateful for the work of Steve Southwell, for example. Steve’s blog, whosplayin.com, has kept the heat on a school board that needed heat and has since been largely replaced by informed voters. How were they informed? Steve. Is he a professional journalist? He makes enough money to pay for his hosting, so I guess so. Did he go to school for it? No. Does he work for a big media company? No. He simply performs, as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and many others call “acts of journalism” that have resulted in elected officials being held accountable.

Steve’s not alone. This is taking place all across the country, mostly in small ways so far, but journalism is alive and well in the U.S. Only the fatted calves of corporate journalism are being whacked.

The Great Horizontal is responding to the Gallup numbers, because they know that we’ll never do anything about it.

The diminishing power of sources

who really runs the press?The Great Horizontal is Jay Rosen’s new term for the era-shifting communications disruption that J. D. Lasica first termed the “Personal Media Revolution.” I like it. It’s the ability of everyday people to use the tools heretofore reserved only for deep pockets, whereby they can communicate back “up” to media and, of course, with themselves. So low are the costs for entry today that you’ve heard me say “everybody is a media company.”

This has, of course, brought out the worst in the journalism profession, because it is their ox that’s being gored by all of this. I’ve written many times about the arrogant presumption that “real” journalism is done only by the pros, and that this amateur “movement” is simply unreliable poppycock. The ultimate demonstration of this for me came at a gathering of media thinkers in Chicago a few years ago during which a video by NBC News anchor Brian Williams was played. He “welcomed” the group by warning of the dangers of the Great Horizontal, and he did so by referring to a blog about nasal hair. There was widespread chuckling in the room as Williams mocked the content of the blog, comparing it to the “real” stuff produced by professional journalists. I was embarrassed for Williams, although he thought he was making a valid comparison.

While journalists kick and scream, there’s something incredibly significant taking place as the hegemony of the industry is disrupted. Those who really run the news — the sources — are finding it increasingly difficult to realize the results of their manipulation. This can only be good for journalism, those who practice it, and especially for the culture itself. For too long, outsiders who know the rules have applied them to their best interests, and the result is a convoluted and confused system of ethics that serves not the industry but those who use the industry to get their way. All of that is changing — and will continue to change — as the Great Horizontal marches forward.

Whether it’s the ease of social media or the more complex local blogs, those who are getting into the game have a sense of mission-simplicity that is refreshing, passionate and oftentimes very raw. These people — like the rest of the people formerly known as the audience — view with transparency attempts to control, in any fashion, the way they think and present their thoughts.

In 1990, I was news director at KGMB-TV in Honolulu. I got a magazine (The Animals’ Agenda) in the mail from an animal rights organization that contained a section called “Activist Agenda.” This particular month’s was penned by Richard Krawiec (“a nationally-published freelance writer and author of the novel Time Sharing”). It was called “Dealing With The Media: Advice From A Journalist.” This article is a veritable “how to” of media manipulation, using the rules of objectivity and common sense. It’s smart.

Try to cultivate reporters who will take a real interest in your issues. Read local publications regularly and identify writers who cover animal topics. Keep those writers informed of your activities.

Think local. Why picket a traveling circus if there’s a terrible zoo in town?

Be visible. Cook vegetarian dinners for the homeless. Do street theater. A person dressed in a costume is inherently more interesting to the media than someone sitting at a booth. But don’t overdo the tactic to the point of looking like clowns.

Most of all, be realistic. Don’t expect the writer to produce a public relations release. Criticism is all right as long as it’s offered because you’re taken seriously.

Taken seriously. That’s the mission: to be moved from Hellin’s sphere of deviancy to the sphere of legitimate debate. It happens every day in the world of professional journalism, because people with an agenda know how the game is played. This may be what professional journalism prefers, but it’s not what journalism is really all about.

Wade Roush published an interesting article this week about the end of the embargo, another manufactured “rule” of professional journalism by which those with connections, those in the know can get the most bang for the buck out of their news releases. Embargoes come from “sources,” and Roush has never been a fan.

Frustration…has led a few organizations to attack the system. In 2008, notably, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington declared “Death to the Embargo” and said that henceforth his publication would work to undermine the system by agreeing to embargoes, then breaking them at random. They’ve done this with gusto, and Arrington’s campaign has worked. Embargo promises, at least in the business and technology space I cover, are now tissue-thin. If TechCrunch—now a division of AOL—doesn’t break the embargo on a given story, someone else emboldened by its example often will.

Ah, tech media, those scruffy newcomers to the game who don’t always (rarely?) play by traditional media’s rules. They, too, are a part of the Great Horizontal, for many — if not most — of them wouldn’t have launched had it not been for the low barriers to entry offered by technology today. After all, they invented the blog as a way to communicate online, and it runs circles around the portal method preferred by traditional media.

And blogs will continue to disrupt. The Nieman Journalism Lab offered another illustration of what’s happening with an article this week appropriately titled: A place for Homicide Watch: Can a local blog fill some of the gaps in Washington, D.C.’s crime coverage? Of course they can, and I believe that local blogs will be springing up like weeds over the next ten years as the Great Horizontal continues to move forward.

And one of the neat things about blogs and bloggers is that they don’t always play by the nice-n-neat rules of the professionals. They go straight to the street without the checks and balances that we take for granted and that we rationalize are necessary for a professional press. We’re learning that a lot of that is crap, and while I’ll admit that the chaos we face is a little disconcerting, maybe we need a little chaos to rid ourselves of a world where corporations and those with money can buy influence from the press (oh yeah) and those with smarts can manipulate their way in.