Our Chaotic, Biased, Dishonest News Media — Threats, Mistakes and What to Do About It
By: Tim Kaelin
When Walter Cronkite read the news in the 1960s and ‘70s he was “the most trusted man in America.” There were not very many choices in those days, the three networks, a few major newspapers, and then some local newspapers who depended on the AP and UPI for their national news. We believed them because they largely agreed and there was nothing else to believe.
In today’s age of the internet and social media, we have tens of thousands of news outlets. Trust of the media is down to 36%, everyone is accusing everyone else of fake news.
The cacophony of voices should create a massively robust news system with an ever-converging relationship between reported news and the truth. Instead, we have a media bifurcated between political parties, motivated by marketers who are interested in the eyeballs of like-minded, narrowly focused individuals. Giant pools of political bias have formed and feeding them what they want to hear is profitable. Unfortunately, integrity, objectivity, and honesty are not part of the profit equation. Facts and commentary become indistinguishable, and fiction is easily interweaved.
Today’s media has vast currents of fake news. Deciding which storylines are real and which are fake can often depend on your point of view. This applies top to bottom, the large media outlets, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, New York Times, etc. are not immune. Any given topic is victim to the spin from a myriad of news outlets customizing the news to a splintered audience. One can imagine these as influence vectors adding up to a public opinion that is informed, not by the resolution of chaos into truth, but in many cases by the highest bidder who can afford the most eyeballs.
This leaves us vulnerable, so readily manipulated that our enemies, from without and within, constantly do so with ease. We have seen where the Russians have experimented successfully with interfering in our elections. My own research tells me that China has done substantially more, but with subtlety such that it is not part of the public perception (yet).
But it is the internal threats that are the most influential. They include the acolytes of George Soros, the Koch brothers, well-funded political action committees (PACs) and so many more on both sides of the political fence. Our current crop of fact-checkers are incompetent and hold biases worse than the biases of those they check. And they have no lasting clout.
And worst of all are those who call for censorship. They are not concerned with facts, integrity, honesty, or objectivity. In almost 100% of the cases, they are calling for the censorship of the opposing political view, whether or not the news is fake is not even relevant. Winning public opinion at the cheapest cost is the goal.
And these calls for censorship are not just threats. They have been implemented by the likes of Google and Facebook, whose experience in deploying their software in totalitarian countries like Russia and China has been brought home to censor Americans. Add to that Twitter, Spotify, and so many more, silencing important voices because they happen to hold views that are not of the proper bias.
So you see, very few unelected men have the ability to control or massively influence public opinion. And with it, they control votes, resources, world events and lives.
What is the solution? How do we change the weakness to strength? How do we harness the power of tens of thousands of media sources with their points of view, their investigative abilities, their bulls&^%t detectors into a powerful media that defends America by arriving at truth?
I can tell you what is NOT the solution.
On February 7th, 2022 the FBI issued a “Summary of Terrorism Threat,” that said in part, the following:
“…heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM) introduced and/or amplified by foreign and domestic threat actors”
If you understand the implication of this, then these words are chilling.
It means now that the FBI will be the arbiter of what is real and what is fake news with the ability to investigate it as a form of terrorism. Remember that we already have such big guns as Facebook and Google censoring “fake news” that has often turned out to be not fake. Now the FBI will judge the news and if you do not have the proper biases (i.e. those of the current administration) you are a TERRORIST!
Another statement from this advisory should make you angry at the ignorance:
“…the proliferation of false or misleading narratives, which sow discord or undermine public trust in U.S. government institutions”
Forget about the first few words. The government’s interpretation of “false or misleading” depends on which political party is in office at the moment.
Realize that the purpose of the “Fourth Estate,” (one with integrity, honesty, and objectivity) is to keep an eye on the government, to comment and criticize, and to inform the public of the performance of elected officials so that, if it is necessary, they are prepared to throw the bums out in the next election.
In short, the true purpose of the media is indeed to “sow discord and undermine public trust in U.S. government institutions.” These are not acts of terrorism, they are part of the design of America, a self-correcting factor, a crucial feedback loop.
You already know this; you were taught this in your high school civics class.
But it only works if the job is done with honesty, integrity, and a certain measure of objectivity (biases are allowed, indeed they can’t be avoided – they will balance out). This is the weakness that must be overcome. It is the reason that the media is so easily bought and manipulated.
The problem is that the media is capitalist. Profits rule.
How about if we fix it with capitalism? Suppose we try this:
Journalists make money by writing for their fans. What if someone were keeping track of when they misrepresented commentary as fact, or when they manipulated data to express the opposite of what it was supposed to, or when they committed any of the hundreds of logical fallacies that mislead their audience. And what if this track record followed them and was presented such that the reader could see a reputation score before an article was read? Perhaps your newsfeed could even filter out writers with reputations falling below a certain point, effectively decreasing their eyeballs. Would these writers be upset?
The psychology is simple. Organizations like CNN, Fox, NY Times, and others are criticized constantly – another organization criticizing them will be ignored like the rest. But an individual article is the product of an individual writer. Forcing that writer to bear the responsibility of false or misleading material under their byline could be devastating. Perhaps CNN can stand the criticism, but can it stand calls to fire one of its writers who has a reputation for being consistently wrong? The avoidance of pain is basic to human behavior. Writers will be more careful and diligent industry-wide.
We need a profitable company (or several) that inserts itself into the media feedback loops and redirects profits away from bad writers and toward good ones. Not based on biases, but based on writing integrity. This is not an easy solution, but it will work. Capitalism usually does.
The FBI has neither the expertise, the objectivity nor the resources to do such a job. In fact, since the FBI is a rightful target of the media, any action the FBI takes is a conflict of interest. Never mind that the natural course for FBI involvement in this way leads to some of those nightmare scenarios predicted by Orwell.
I’ve always said that business is smarter than government. We can do this. Change my mind.