This Is Not Fake News (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a speech I gave to the Ethical Society of St. Louis on Sunday, July 16, 2017. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here  (You can listen to the audio here)…


What drives me crazy is when news outlets that were once considered respectable fall for nonsense just because it comes out of the mouth (or Twitter account) of the President of the United States. Remember when Trump said that James Comey had better hope there weren’t tapes of the conversations they’d had? CNN went into hyper-ballistic overdrive with panels of pundits arguing whether that meant that Trump had put in a secret taping system in the Oval Office like Richard Nixon once had. CNN does this whenever Trump tweets something. I turned it on one day last month and thought they had brought back the game show “The Hollywood Squares” before I realized no, it was just a tic-tac-toe board of nine so-called experts spewing their opinions. Not seeing Paul Lynde should have been a clue.

That’s where much of the bogus news goes to a new level. It’s not bad enough that the original source of the story is our country’s Liar-In-Chief, but then the opinion class takes over and runs with it. They’re no better than those Reddit users who fell for #PizzaGate in my opinion.

Instead of hearing what Van Jones or Jeffrey Lord think about the “Breaking News” story of the day — and when I’m in charge, I’m banning the use of that banner headline on television, since most of the “Breaking News” actually broke hours ago or doesn’t deserve that moniker in the first place — I’d rather hear a reporter going more in-depth with his or her questions, pressing for specifics. What ever happened to who, what, when, where, why, and how? For instance, when Trump says, “I’m hearing…” or “People are saying…” stop him and ask, “Who are you hearing that from? Give me some names.” If he won’t, then dismiss his claims as fake. And when he rails about reporters using “fake sources,” remind him that in the 1980s and 1990s, that could have been used to describe him, since Trump would call reporters to boast about himself while pretending to be an employee named John Miller or John Barron.

You’ll notice that when Trump refers to the “failing” New York Times or CNN of “Saturday Night Live,” he’s not basing that on any facts — ratings for all the cable news outlets, including CNN, are higher than they’ve been in a long time. The NY Times and other newspapers have seen their subscriptions soar, especially the digital ones. “Saturday Night Live” and Stephen Colbert have achieved their highest ratings in years — all by focusing on Trump and his fellow Keystone Kops in the White House. They are far from failing.

Too much of what passes for political news is a distraction from things that really matter. Katrina Vanden Heuvel wrote an op-ed recently on the media’s malpractice on Trump:

One of the great ironies of the political moment is that President Trump’s sworn enemy has become, if not exactly an ally, an enabler of his agenda. For all of Trump’s griping about “fake news,” the mainstream media’s prevailing focus on palace intrigue and White House scandals has come at the expense of substantive policy coverage, allowing Trump and the Republican Party to advance harmful, hugely unpopular policies without the scrutiny they deserve.

She goes on to list several policy issues that aren’t getting the attention they should, including climate change denial, unravelling Wall Street reforms, and health care:

At the same time, the wall-to-wall coverage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s bumbling testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was just the latest example of the media’s myopic obsession with all things Russia. While the investigations into Trump’s campaign and the president’s possible obstruction of justice are clearly newsworthy, they have denied oxygen to other issues that have a far greater impact on Americans’ daily lives.

But modern-day bogus news isn’t all about politics. On May 18th, Amanda Hess wrote a piece in the New York Times about “content discovery solutions.” In other words, companies that specialize in creating click-bait for websites. Hess wrote:

These companies occupy real estate at the margins of websites like CNN, Politico, and TMZ, and fill them with links to content landfills with names like Buzz-Hut, CollegeFreakz, Dogsome, and Timezoff. The links are often ads for stuff like bedsheets and dental implants that are disguised as news articles — or else barrel-scraping click-bait that tempts the reader toward still more ads — and because the thumbnails and headlines are written by the individual advertisers themselves, they range in caliber from straightforward sales pitches to gross body stuff. The links appear under the banner of “Related Content,” “You May Also Like,” or — their most accurate descriptor — “Around The Web.”

Hess mentions some of the headlines designed to get you to click through, including “Sandra Bullock’s Son Used To Be Adorable, but Today He Looks Insane.” The associated 70 pages you’d have to click through didn’t include a single photo of Bullock’s son. Then there was “18 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Committed Suicide,” teased with a picture of “Friends” star David Schwimmer who not only didn’t commit suicide, he isn’t even dead. Others in Hess’ article: “33 Amish Facts That Will Make Your Skin Crawl,” “30 Things The Ocean Is Hiding From You,” and “The Unusual Link Between Your Toes and Alzheimer’s.”

These sound almost like the headlines The Onion’s writers create, but without the humor. I’ll admit that it takes some will power not to click on teases like that, especially when you can do it in the privacy of your own home, not like the days when you had to purchase the Weekly World News in front of other people at the supermarket. Incidentally, those tabloids are still pretty popular, with their bogus news stories about UFOs that destroyed our nuclear weapons, Kardashian drug rings, Elvis sitings, and so-called “new information” about the deaths of Jon-Benet Ramsey, Natalie Wood, and Michael Jackson — and those were all in the last week!

It’s not just the tabloids that try to entice you with shocking teases. For example, last week, I found a story in the Daily Beast with the headline “How U.S. Marines Are Using ‘ESP’ to Weaponize Intuition.” Below it was the sub-headline, “The Daily Beast has obtained, via the Freedom of Information Act, the Office of Naval Research’s sense-making training manual — a how-to guide for extra-sensory perception.”

The sentences The Daily Beast used to promote its piece are very misleading, for two reasons. One is there’s no such thing as extra-sensory perception — no one has ever been proven to have that paranormal ability. The other is that the article, by David Axe and Matthew Gault, says exactly the opposite of the headline — but you wouldn’t know that unless you dug more than a dozen paragraphs in and read this:

To be clear, the sense-making manual isn’t asking Marines to somehow evolve psychic powers. Rather, it encourages them to be mindful of their surroundings, trust their instincts and construct narratives to explain other people’s behavior. Gary Klein, a research psychologist and consultant whose work inspired the Navy’s sense-making project, told The Daily Beast he prefers to call the process “naturalistic decision making.”

“I was worried about how this could be viewed in a sensational way with ‘spidey-sense’ or something that sounds like ESP or something paranormal,” Klein said. “That’s not what the military’s interested in. They’re interested in developing expertise and the core part of expertise is tests, knowledge and the ability to make sense of situations.”

So, what the manual actually trains Marines to do is make sense of the situations they find themselves in. There’s nothing about reading people’s minds or sending thoughts telepathically or anything extra-sensory. Rather, it trains Marines to use the five natural senses they do have, along with critical thinking skills.

That’s very different than the nonsense promised in the headline. Unfortunately, many people browsing through The Daily Beast will come away with the wrong impression, a reinforcement of pseudoscience that the editors should have known better to steer clear of.

So, how do you avoid this avalanche of bogus information? Believe it or not, I recommend you consume less of it. I don’t mean simply not falling for the click-bait I just mentioned. I mean watching, listening, and reading fewer information sources every day. Let’s face it, there are only a small quantity of things that happen in the world every day that actually interest you. Part of that number is made up of pictures of your friends’ babies, pets, and meals on Facebook and Instagram. Another part is the major news stories of the day, which you can have summarized in 90 seconds every day on “CBS This Morning” or any hourly radio newscast. You’ll get the basic info you need to know. Then admit that the rest of it consists of stuff you’re ingesting only because you’re bored, or trying to kill time at work, or because you can’t overcome your addiction to that phone that’s seemingly in your hand 12 hours a day.

I give you this advice because it’s exactly what I have done. When I used to have a daily radio show, I had to jump into the information ocean repeatedly throughout the day to catch whatever would make an interesting talking point for that day’s show. Now that I’m only on once a week, doing a show that’s dedicated to everything but the hard news of the day, I have pulled back dramatically on my news fetish. I am anything but an information luddite, but I’m happy to find other things to do with my time than bathing my brain in the fetid backwash that exists in our information overload.

I strongly suggest you cleanse yourself of it, too.

Just don’t do it by following directions from Gwyneth Paltrow.