It’s not easy being a journalist these days.
Drastic and seemingly unending corporate cutbacks, in part driven by the decline of traditional print advertising, has thinned our ranks making the necessary work of the Fourth Estate that much harder to accomplish. As resources are narrowed, we cannot do the job as we once did. Given the prominent and necessary role a free press plays in a democracy, it is a situation that should concern everyone.
Our challenges are not only found in tension between traditional publishing and modern world’s expansive digital ecosystem. It’s also political.
The refrain of “fake news,” famously used by U.S. President Donald Trump and his cronies to delegitimize any reporting that isn’t fawning over their imagined excellence, is heard with increasingly frequency. It is common now for journalists to have the label “fake news” thrown at them when they run a story that someone doesn’t like for any reason.
If a story or column is critical of someone’s favoured political party, religion, sports team, or even movies or food, the journalist’s work is immediately criticized as “fake.” Errors in reporting happen, certainly, but reporters work hard to prevent them and when they appear, move quickly to correct the record. But the label of “fake” to used to say “fraud”, which is to say the entire enterprise is a hoax.
Those of us hanging in through these trying times do so because we believe in the importance of the work we do. Most of us view it as a duty as much as do we a job.
I have written about ways to distinguish “fake news” and “alternative facts” from real journalism on the Grant Rant before. (Read Lying with Volubility: A Survival Guide to Fake News.) Learning to navigate the labyrinth of deliberately created falsehoods masquerading as journalism online from legitimate reporting is more important now than ever before.
So it is more than a little disheartening, and endlessly frustrating, to see a column in a legit news source – in this case, PostMedia’s St. Catharines Standard, the paper I work for – claiming all journalism is little more than flea circus.
In several run-on paragraphs that are long on speculation and conspiracy theorist logic while being utterly devoid of facts and evidence, guest columnist Peggy White claims that all news is fake news. It’s not the websites that claim Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop, or that Barack Obama isn’t an American citizen, or whatever other idea some tin-foil hat wearing crack pot cooks up in his basement that are the problem, White claims. The real fake news is found in what otherwise gets labeled as the “mainstream media:”
It is not truthful news and is produced by an unreliable media organization. But the media organizations we are talking about are the main TV and paper organizations of Canada and the United States. These are not small ‘hole in the wall’ offices with a few laptops sensationalizing the news for readers. These large conglomerates were the organizations that we tuned into every evening to find out what was going on in the world and we believed them. What happened to the editorial boards and clear definitions of reporting of these networks and papers? Where are the ethics and standards, objectivity and non-biased reporting that are I believe the essence of freedom of speech?
There is just a tremendous amount to unpack in this one fact-challenged paragraph.
Professional standards haven’t gone anywhere. Newspapers still strive for accuracy, fairness and balance in their reporting every day.
Does White provide any evidence for her claims? Can she demonstrate, as any half-way competent journalist or columnist would, that news outlets owned by “large conglomerates” are faking the news?
Putting aside the deep irony of someone coughing up in a newspaper an unsupported claim about journalism while at the same time decrying the demise of “objective and non-biased reporting”, White doesn’t cite any examples to back up her claims. She is singing from the Trump hymnal. The news is fake and that is that.
Her shallow analysis continues with a direct admission of ignorance of the subject. But never mind that. The news is still fake.
I don’t claim to know why this has happened. It could be ratings for advertising dollars, moneyed groups behind the scenes or power hungry owners. I don’t know and will not guess the cause. Maybe the movie “Truth” might give us a clue when Robert Redford, who plays Dan Rather, near the end, says to Mary, the main character: “I was there Mary. I was there when the producers suddenly realized the news could make money.”
White preforms her little bait and switch here with all the subtly of a walrus playing a harpsichord. She doesn’t know why the news is all fake, she says, and won’t guess at the cause, and then does so anyway.
“Power hungry” moneyed groups? This doesn’t explain the troubles everyone knows is plaguing these “moneyed groups” that own large newspaper chains – declining print ad revenues and crushing debt accumulated in the process of buying newspapers.
The other cause? A quote from a movie in which a character claims that at some mysterious point, a producer realized the production of news could earn profits.
The actual fact is that newspapers and TV stations have always had owners who sold their product to subscribers and advertisers. Producing news, particularly investigative journalism, is neither cheap nor easy. This has been the case since the first newspaper was published and indeed part of the issue today is that the public demands it gets news for free. We place a low value on news culturally and suppose it can just be produced out of the ether.
But never mind that. White, writing with no sense of what a metaphor is, presents a movie quote as evidence that the news is fake.
Here are a few things that White, who says she doesn’t even consume news anymore because it is so fraudulent, might want to consider before claiming all news is fake news.
The only reason why she, or anyone in Niagara, knows a thing about what local governments, agencies, and other public institutions are doing is because of the work of journalists at the PostMedia papers, their competitors from TorStar weeklies, and a handful of independent journalists. These are the journalists who sit through council meetings, analyze government reports, and ask hard questions of those in power.
Was it “fake news” when I traveled across the country to follow the story of local missing woman Ashley Simpson? Is it “fake news” when my colleague Bill Sawchuk covers the ongoing issues with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, or when our colleague Karena Walter spends her nights covering city council meetings?
It is “fake news” when the Globe and Mail’s Robin Dolittle spends more than year examining how police in Canada handle sexual assault cases?
It’s not fake news when reporters hold government to account, ask hard questions, and dive deep into policy decisions.
It’s not fake news when journalists scrutinize the behaviour of elected representatives and how they spend the public’s money.
It’s not fake news when reporters question what the police do and why they do it.
It’s not fake news when journalists go out into the community to tell the every day stories of the people who live there, be they joyous or tragic, inspiring or maddening, mundane or meaningful.
It’s not fake news when informed columnists write stories to engage readers in the issues of the day they need to be engaged in for democracy to work.
What is fake news are hollow assertions informed, not by data or evidence, but by baseless conclusions that are woven together from nothing more than idle speculation and lint.