Understanding “Alternative Facts”

Here’s a little perspective on the matter before us: Marketers have been lying to us since the days of the snake oil salesman. I’ve told the story before of the TV commercial I witnessed many years ago during the grapefruit diet fad. The ad was for so-called grapefruit pills that would help people lose weight. At least that was the assertion of the creator of the commercial. One scene featured a guy washing a horse who turned to the camera and actually said, “It’s so darned easy, it’s GOT to work!” If the FTC ever wanted to crack down on false advertising (they won’t), it would open the eyes of consumers everywhere.

There are many, many ways for marketers to lie. There’s lying by omission. When tissue companies, for example, sell the same sized box with fewer tissues inside for the same or slightly reduced price as before, they are lying to increase profits while giving the impression of holding the line on consumer costs. Welcome to the world of Madison Avenue and the secrets of mass marketing.

Well guess what? People are slowly catching on to these lies, and they’re sharing their knowledge with their families and friends, some of it via social media. It’s getting harder and harder to get away with such, even though there are still a substantial number of folks who’ll believe that it’s so darned easy it has to work. This is where we find ourselves today with all forms of mass media in the worlds of politics and news.

I have an ongoing study, for example, of events in the Middle East, thanks to my family living in Amman, Jordan. There are publications working to deconstruct the Zionist narrative that has been the public face of Israel since 1948. We all need to learn more about narratives, and especially those that undergird even our most basic assumptions of life, for very often these narratives are propaganda and very definitely false, at least to the point where they deserve regular review and often deconstruction.

All of this is to say that KellyAnne Conway’s “alternative facts” is really a fruit of what’s been taking place for years, that is the struggle of those who need to maintain narrative control in a media environment that questions narrative as self-serving propaganda. This is the beauty of our newly connected universe, for it’s impossible now for an institution (and government is certainly an institution) to maintain its own version of truth at the expense of those at the receiving end of their “service.”

This is going to get much worse in our culture, until we all learn that such falsehoods begin with lying to ourselves. Shakespeare wrote: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, that thou canst not be false to any man.”

May that day come quickly.

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.

Going, going, almost gone

It’s time to update my graph of the Gallup organizations “media trust” measurement. In 1997, Gallup switched from taking this pulse every three to every year, and the graph they produce today only begins in 1997. However, I’ve never felt that was appropriate, for it misses a big part of the story, and so my graph goes back to 1973 and is spaced every three years.

galluptrust2016

2016 is an off-year to include, so I’ve projected this year’s numbers forward. That’s because the drop-off between 2015 and 2016 is significant, and I don’t expect it to rebound. Here’s Gallup:

Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year. (Emphasis mine)

The culprit is the election and more specifically the Donald Trump campaign, which has been very effective at accusing the press as being party to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the accusation is accurate; in politics, perception is truth.

It’s fair to say at this point that the illusion of objectivity in the press is history and that transparency is all that’s left. Americans will never again heed the press as “the voice of God” as we did in the days to which Donald Trump wants us to return. This alone should convince Trumpers to look beyond the slogans, but it probably won’t.

Meanwhile, any media outlet believing it does its work with the public trust is operating daily under a highly fallacious assumption.

How to clear your Facebook feed of political crap (that you don’t like)

The acrimony on display this political season is just the beginning, and no where is this played out more than on Facebook. For reasons I have stated both here and elsewhere, I’ll not be voting for Mr. Trump. Moreover, my vote includes animosity and disrespect for those so-called right wing media outlets that create or forward the utter nonsense that created him in the first place. It’s their right to do so, but I think it’s a blight on American culture.

That said, there’s a way to filter such garbage from your Facebook feed that will have a lasting result. Here’s something posted by one of my Facebook friends. The identity has been removed.

fbfeed1

Note that the source of the “report” is a site called “Web Daily.” Here’s the first graph of the link:

Ever since Barack Hussein Obama first took office, he has faced accusations that he is a Muslim secretly posing as a Christian just to get to the White House. While he has always denied being a Muslim, a disturbing new video released by Fox News host Sean Hannity suggests that he is indeed a follower of Islam.

Now, I know this to be absurd and entirely void of fact. So how did it wind up as a link from my friend, and more importantly, what can I do about it?

First, Web Daily makes no claim to be a “real” news site. It offers a two-paragraph “Legal Statement,” which begins “Information on this web site may contain inaccuracies or typographical errors. This information may be subject to changes or updates without specific notice.” The site is operated by WorldNewsDaily.com, a member of “Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors.” Thus, nothing the site produces and makes available to Facebook can be believed whatsoever. Nothing.

So the question is, why would I ever want to see ANYTHING from this group of people? The answer is I wouldn’t, and Facebook makes it easy for me to insure that I’ll never again see anything from this website. The option is shown below.

fbfeed2

This is much better than unfriending or unfollowing (for a time) my friends, and the biggest reason is I’m now divorced from only the company providing the link. That this is lasting is especially sweet, because I can promise you, I never wish to see anything from the likes of WorldNewsDaily or WebDaily’s Facebook pages.

I predict this is an issue that all people who use social media will have to resolve, and my hope is that it can be done intelligently. Of course, there’s always the possibility that some of my friends don’t care if the report is factual as long as it fits their agenda. How brutally cynical of me!

I could never believe that.

Two major online news factors for young people

pew-readersNew Pew Research reveals that young people prefer to READ news online rather than watch it. This is being presented as a revelation (Younger adults prefer to get their news in text, not video, according to new data from Pew Research), but it’s really just another example of news organizations’ history of not paying attention to reality. The new report doesn’t tell the whys, and doesn’t even speculate. Please allow me to give you two important reasons why young people prefer reading news to watching it:

Over fifteen years ago, then J. Walter Thompson CEO Bob Jeffrey said, “Time is the new currency.” Many of us at the time applied the idea to online media, especially after we learned that viewers were using DVRs to avoid commercials, and the not-so-secret reason was that they “didn’t have time” for commercials. Therefore, the first reason young people would rather read news that watch it is you can do the former a whole lot faster. Don’t try to dazzle me with your storytelling genius; just give me the facts, so that I can determine (for myself) if I wish to explore further.

The reason media companies prefer video is the nice ROI on ads. Madison Avenue likes video, and that means media companies do, too. Unfortunately, nobody in either of those two chairs gives a ripple chip about what the audience might think and don’t think twice about irritating those viewers with pre-roll ads. Therefore, the second reason young people prefer reading to viewing is the annoyance and wasted time of advertising that is meant for a different medium.

All of this is doubly significant on mobile, which is THE go-to platform of young people (and beyond).

There are other factors. For example, prime time for news remains the hours at work, and the disruption to the office of someone watching a video is untenable.

Many of us have known for a very long time that news clips with attached (or detached) pre-rolls wouldn’t work to grow revenue, just like we knew that recorded newscasts on demand wouldn’t be a significant revenue source either. This is the Web, people, not TV. We’re not on a stage with a captive audience. We still need to get over ourselves and start honoring those eyeballs that we need so badly. And PLEASE can we stop feeding them ads that were created for TV, not the Web?

Observations from the debate spectacle

debateFor as long as there have been televised debates, I’ve watched them. I’ve seen all the great moments, from Nixon’s sweating face to “I won’t use this debate to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience” and to “I knew Jack Kennedy; you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Last night’s was clearly the most intriguing and entertaining of them all, and I have a few observations.

One, Mr. Trump’s sniffing was REALLY annoying and was remarkably inappropriate considering the guy’s experience with television. I’d rate it on a scale with Nixon’s sweat in terms of making the guy seem, well, offensive and disgusting. There are now accusations of cocaine use, and I don’t expect that will go away. Aesthetics are the penultimate point of putting candidates side-by-side on television, and here Mrs. Clinton was the clear winner. This is especially important given the mileage the Trump campaign has gotten with portraying Mrs. Clinton as not having either the look or the stamina to be president. Towards the end of the debate, Mr. Trump looked awful. The skin around his eyes was red, and he presented a gaunt persona, and it was so obvious that it turned the accusations of Mrs. Clinton’s lack of stamina completely upside down.

Two, any time a person uses the phrase “there’s no question about it” as evidence to win an argument, the listener can rest assured that there is most certainly a question about what’s just been said. Mr. Trump was the only one to use that line.

Three, many years ago, I helped organize a blogger meet-up for a client in San Francisco. The general manager ordered commemorative t-shirts, and loaded the order with 2X and 3X sizes (and very few smalls) in the stereotypical assumption that all geeks are overweight basement dwellers with empty bags of Cheetos on the floor. The opposite is true, and the manager was rounded criticized by the bloggers for such thinking. Donald Trump’s pronouncement that the DNC hacker could have been a 400-pound guy in his basement is solid evidence of ignorance and a willingness to act on stereotype.

Four, I think the debate was clearly and unequivocally won by Mrs. Clinton on both levels of content and presentation. That she was prepared was obvious, and has been noted elsewhere this morning, she clearly got under the skin of Mr. Trump.

However, there are two observations I wish to make about Mr. Trump’s performance and, especially, how well he played to his supporters.

One, he said that the “mainstream media” was a part of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign team. This is a claim that rests entirely on the fallacious assumption that “the press” is biased in favor of progressive thinking at the expense of tradition. As I’ve written in my new book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, this is an artificial claim that we used at The 700 Club in the early 80s to justify placing our right wing “news” on the same level of credibility as everybody else doing news. Prior to the debate, Mr. Trump actually identified moderator Lester Holt of NBC News as “a Democrat,” when in fact, he is a Republican. This is further evidence of Mr. Trump’s own bias, ignorance, bad instincts, and willingness to apply fallacious assumptions in public speaking.

Two, one of the real treasures of living in red state Alabama is homegrown SEC sports talk show host Paul Finebaum. And one of the keys to his program – like many sports radio shows – is the regular callers who play certain redneck roles that Mr. Finebaum exploits to have fun while passing along his commentary. I don’t question his love for these people, but in terms of language, intelligence, and unbridled passion for their football teams especially, they do stand out as a contrast to Finebaum’s wit, sarcasm, and brilliant mind. It makes for good conflict, which makes for good talk radio.

In the early summer of 2015, I was in my car and listening, when one of these callers switched subjects in order to pass along to Paul his “discovery.” He was really excited and through his thick southern accent said, “Have you seen this new guy who’s running for president, Paul? You need to look into him, onaconacuz (Alabamaspeak for “on account of/because”) he’s the smartest guy I ever done heard!” Finebaum probed for more, and the caller kept referring to Donald Trump as smart, while offering his wealth as proof. It would have been hilarious had the guy not been so serious, and it was then that I knew that Mr. Trump had already breached the wall of the rural southern mind. I also knew it meant trouble for other Republican candidates who were counting on normal red state support and behavior.

Today, I’m seeing that same attitude being played out among Facebook supporters who fit the mold of southern Republicans and are granting Mr. Trump victory in the debate. It’s enough to make me believe they watched a different program, until I realize that, of course they would think he won, because, after all, Mr. Trump is so incredibly smart.