The Citizen’s Guide to the Media Pt. 1

The State of the Media

The Citizen’s Guide to the Media is a series I’ll be writing for Whale Oil blog, with the aim of empowering readers to build up their personal bullshit-detecting toolkit, so as to sniff out the fake news, the click-bait and the propaganda from the real news. This first installment is a brief overview of where we’re at, in contemporary media. I’ll also pepper the series with case studies, here on A Devil’s Curmudgeon, as I go along.

Thrusting the term “fake news” into the public discourse has turned out to be a spectacular own goal for the mainstream media. Originally intended as an attack on independent and conservative media, the term has instead been turned back on the mainstream media, especially in the U.S., who now find themselves routinely derided as “fake news”, everywhere from Facebook comments, to Breitbart, and even the respectable pages of Forbes. This tactical turnaround was lead by President Trump himself, whose often seemingly inarticulate, jump-cut rhetoric masks a masterful grasp of communications strategy. From the moment Trump dismissed CNN’s Jim Acosta with a brusque, “You are fake news”, the mainstream media were toast.

But then there’s fake news, and there’s Fake News. There are stories that are literal Fake News: obviously outrageous falsehoods cooked up to generate clicks, but then there are also deliberately misleading stories about real events, biased reporting by partisan media outlets, as well as just plain old cock-ups, and the “fog of war” of the contemporary 24/7 media cycle.

But the problem is that the fake news meme has become so pervasive that all of these are now routinely labeled “fake news”, and dismissed by a skeptical public as if they were all one and the same. Even facts that merely rub against the grain of what an audience wants to believe are waved away as fake news.

Because fake news has achieved an awful synergy with the other defining feature of contemporary politics: hyper-partisanship. Particularly since the Trump election, the biggest names in mainstream media have thrown all pretense of impartiality to the wind. Audiences have responded accordingly.

But super-skepticism has not translated automatically into a more critically discerning audience. More often, an audience which is supremely skeptical regarding information it doesn’t like – reflexively dismissing it as fake news – is at the same time equally gullible regarding information that it does like.

The implosion of the mainstream media has lead to a concurrent explosion in “alternative media” . The Young Turks, Vox, or Occupy Democrats, on the left, or Breitbart, the Daily Wire, or Rebel Media on the right, have become enormously popular. Cenk Uygur, Ezra Klein, Milo Yiannopulos, and Ben Shapiro have become bona fide stars. Partisan followers tend to accept uncritically the word of each, just as millions once implicitly trusted the likes of Walter Cronkite.

But, whether this trust is deserved – and often, it is not: most “alternative media” producers have no training as journalists (the relevance of this will be discussed in a later segment), and are often in fact political activists first and foremost – that doesn’t let audiences off the hook. Now, more than ever, media literacy, and a critically analytical media audience, are vitally important.

The media have, justly, forfeited the right to merely expound the “truth” by virtue of their assumed authority. But the converse also holds: audiences can no longer passively consume information without question, even from trusted sources. Instead, audiences need to develop their own bullshit-detecting kit.

Fortunately, just as the internet has provided the platform for the proliferation of fake news, it also provides all the tools audiences need to winnow the wheat of fact from the chaff of fake news and propaganda.

The fake news narrative was especially galvanized with the publication of a list of “fake news” websites by Melissa Zimdars, a minor academic. One of the great conceits of the left is that their opinions are uniquely “scientific”, or “academic”, so the imprimatur of an academic, however unknown and non-peer-reviewed, was eagerly seized upon.

Yet, despite its flaws – even its own headline (by Zimdars’ admission) was “misleading and clickbait-y”, meaning that the list itself technically belonged on the list – it was unnoticed by most that it also included a much more useful “Guide to identifying dodgy news”. Indeed, Zimdars has since removed the list itself, but the “guide” remains, and, although much of its bias is obvious, it remains a useful start to building a bullshit-detecting toolkit.

Over the next few weeks, the Citizen’s Guide to the Media will build on this, and many other freely available resources, as well as take readers through the workings of the media.

The alternative is to let corporate giants and computer algorithms do the filtering for us. But we’ve already seen mounting evidence that corporations like Google and Facebook readily manipulate data in order to present a world-view they prefer. So, the question becomes: who do you want to get to decide what’s “fake news” or not?

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