Who to trust?



So much news is done so badly these days and so many news decisions are so poorly thought out that American journalism sometimes looks a lot like the water swirling down the toilet after a flush.

As this is written, the national media and newly elected President Donald Trump are locked in a pointless argument over whether his inaugural or an anti-Trump protest called the “women’s march” attracted more attention.

A president who sometimes doesn’t seem to care much for the facts and a national media regularly reckless with the same now want to engage in an argument over who has the “truth.” This can’t end well.

Sadly, the media has the most to lose. I admit to being biased as hell here. I’ve spent my life in journalism. I’d like to see it survive. But the business (and yes, it is a business) seems to have little interest in trying to protect the most valuable part of its product – credibility.

Journalism today is making the classic business mistake of focusing on the short-term when it should be thinking about the long-term.

Trump is a short timer. Whether he’s president for four years or eight years, it’s still a short time. The media on the other hand is in the middle of a fight for its economic survival, and the fight is not going well.

The news is finding it hard to attract people willing to pay for its product. The general response to the problem has been to become more reactionary and sensational – not to try do news better and smarter. Accuracy and thoughtfulness have suffered.

If you read much media, you’re sure to read something today that makes you go “can that really be true?” And if you investigate, it’s 50-50 on what you find. Journalism has always been an error filled business because accurate reporting is a tough job.

But it is today a more error-filled business than ever because journalists, in their effort to survive, have reacted poorly to market conditions. They have chased the quick, internet traffic of the moment with no thought as to what error after error after error in reporting  (real or legitimately debatable) might do to their credibility tomorrow.

And credibility is a huge part of the product journalism sells.

Just make it up

Sometimes the journalistic bungling is merely funny, as was the case in Alaska last spring when the editor of an Anchorage news website Tweeted to brag “No. 1: Moose gives birth in parking lot of Tikahtnu Commons shopping center” followed minutes later by “Most-read (on the website) at the moment.”

The only problem was the story was “fake news,” absolutely fake. The moose did not give birth in a shopping center parking lot though the “fact” that it did ended up being reported all over the world. The Alaska Dispatch News eventually corrected its story to say it had made a mistake “based on posts seen on social media,” as if there is no obligation for reporters to check things anymore.

But the Washington Post, which has a working relationship with the Dispatch, is to this day still reporting “Moose gives birth in Alaska store parking.” And it treats its readers with such contempt that the aforementioned headline appears above a video that clearly shows a moose not-giving birth in an Alaska store parking lot.

Given that the birth is not shown, why is anyone to believe the  birth happened there? Well, obviously because the Washington Post says it did. And that works if you believe the media.

But increasing numbers of people don’t believe the media because so much of what is there can’t be believed. (see above.)

“Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to a New Low” a Gallup poll concluded in September. The poll found 68 percent of Americans distrustful of the media. It was almost the polar opposite from 1976 when the Gallop poll found a record 72 percent trusted the media.

You might think this loss of trust would make reporters and editors start to worry about accuracy, credibility and public perception. There is no indication that has happened. Many news outlets continue to appear willing to skate on the thinnest of news ice.

A rigged election

Think about this for a moment: A whole bunch of the media now has its panties in a bunch because agents working for Russia might have leaked information – accurate information – that damaged the presidential campaign of Trump opponent Hillary Clinton. Some have gone so far as to tacitly endorse the suggestion that the Russians, if it was the Russians, “hacked” the election by enhancing political transparency.

So accuracy is now bad?

Isn’t providing accurate information, whether it reflects positively or negatively on any candidate, supposed to be what journalism is about? Does it now matter what the source of the information? Does accurate information somehow become less accurate because it came from an unapproved source?

Does no one in the mainstream media (or what Alaska’s Sarah Palin calls the “lamestream”) understand what happens when you abandon the clear principles of accuracy and transparency and replace them with some new, undefined standard? Are there really journalists out there who believe American voters should be denied accurate information because it comes from the Russians or the French or the Chinese, or for that matter candidate A’s opponent candidate B?

Look, not to be too much of a heretic here, but if Trump got elected because the Russians helped provide accurate information about Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, the story is not about the Russians; it’s about us and about the DNC.

And if some reporters and editors are upset about Trump’s winning because there wasn’t enough dirt dug up on him, maybe they should take a good look in the mirror and consider how they covered the campaign.

It was all flash and no substance. Trump played the media like fish. They chased after every stupid, meaningless but inflammatory Tweet he made and largely ignored the substantive problems of a Trump presidency. The guy is all tangled up in global business.

The day he became president, Trump enterprises on four continents became prime targets for terrorists. Is it now going to be an obligation of the U.S. government to protect them all? If it doesn’t, how is it going to look if terrorists blow up the Trump Towers Istanbul or one of the other Trump Towers around the globe?

Could the U.S. end up going to war to defend the honor of a destroyed Trump tower? Who knows.

But that’s a question of significantly more substance than the media’s fixation of the moment: Arguing about the size of the turnout at the Trump inaugural versus the women’s march.

If you’re going to pick a fight with the President of the United States, why pick this one?

Who cares?

The New York Times has gone so far as to employ “crowd scientists” to estimate which was bigger.

And the Times is going with the women’s march as three times larger as its position in an argument no one can win because all of the counts are estimates, and the estimates are based on photographs subject to variables over which people can argue for hours.

“Some differences to note,” as CNN reported: “Trump’s speech was on the West Front of the Capitol, which was at capacity on Friday. It was cordoned off and empty on Saturday as protesters gathered on the Mall.

“On the other hand, the Women’s March filled the streets around the mall. Those streets were closed to Trump supporters.”

The conclusion of CNN reporter Z. Bryon Wolf was that “it’s going to be impossible to gauge” which was bigger. None of which stopped Meet the Press host Chuck Todd from accusing Trump’s press secretary of lying – uttering “a provable falsehood” were his exact words – with the claim “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”

There is absolutely no way of knowing whether the latter statement is true or not. Todd and Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway ended up in heated argument over Nielsen ratings of TV viewership and “alternative facts”, and never even got into the issue of how many people might have watched the inauguration online where ever more eyeballs are going.

Is it possible the inauguration drew the largest audience “both in person and around the globe?” Yes, it’s possible. There were likely millions of people who loathe Trump watching on their TVs just to see what craziness might happen in the nation’s capital.

Is it possible the women’s march in Washington, D.C. and companion events around the country drew more people into the streets? Yes. In fact that appears as likely as it is irrelevant. There is nothing to any of this that matters a whit.

America is today a deeply divided nation. Only the brain-dead would have been unaware of  this before the argument started over whose event was bigger, and the brain-dead are incapable of caring one way or another.

But that hasn’t stopped the media from drumming up a veritable Crowdgate as if it somehow mattered.

The media is losing

Challenging a new president over nothing doesn’t improve media credibility. No doubt there are those in the fervently anti-Trump crowd who love the coverage , but there are parts of the country where the confrontation is sure to be seen as nothing but an effort to “get Trump.”

Some might well see this sort of reporting akin to what Maggie Haberman, another Times reporter, described as “‘truthful hyperbole’ and (what) others might call lies. It is ‘an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.'”

She wasn’t writing about the media there, of course; she was quoting from Trump’s book – “The Art of the Deal.” But she could just as well have been describing a segment of the American media today, which brings us back to those crowds.

Estimating crowd sizes is wide open to that “innocent form of exaggeration,” and any sensible person knows it. Media estimates of crowd size are no better than the credibility of the estimators. If you can’t trust them, you can’t trust the estimates.

So what do we have here? An argument between an entity 68 percent of the country doesn’t trust and a guy who admits to engaging in truthful hyperbole.

Who do you believe? Pick either one because it doesn’t make any difference.

And that’s a problem. When the media pick fights with Trump over black and white in situations where the facts are all grey, the media loses. The media end up playing the game of news coverage Trump’s way, but maybe that was destined to be.

The media of the moment and Trump are a lot more alike than different. Along with that shared interest in truthful hyperbole, there is the shared opinion of indubitable accuracy.

“Admitting he was wrong is almost never in Mr. Trump’s playbook,” Haberman writes. Again, she could be talking about the media.

Just as an experiment, the next time you see a mistake in a local news story contact the reporter who wrote it, tell them what’s wrong, and see what happens.

Odds are that it will be nothing.

Alaska’s largest online news site not only ran a false news story about a mountain goat harassed to death by people in Seward last summer (the goat drowned in Resurrection Bay; no one knows why), but later featured the bogus story in its year-end wrap up of the “most read” of the year as if well-read false news was some sort of achievement.

Admitting wrong is not in the playbook.

The big lies

And thanks to the internet, this problem of bad reporting uncorrected has now traveled far beyond  anyone’s local news into “Big Lie” territory of a global nature. Google News and other big news “aggregators” have become a huge echo chamber in which lies can get repeated over and over until they become their own truth.

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed,” Adolph Hiter wrote in “Mein Kampf” in 1925. He eventually lied his way to the leadership of the Nazi party and then “Führer” of Germany on his way to trying to rule the world. As many as 80 million people ended up dead as a result. 

Today, the “big lie” of old has been replaced by the “everywhere big lie.”

Both Google and Facebook have paid lip service to trying to do something about these lies of  “fake news” and “false news,” but they seem at times to be as much promoters as adversaries.

Google up that bogus story of “moose born in Anchorage parking lot” and see how many dozens, if not hundreds, of hits you get. eventually corrected its reporting error, but its story still pops up this way on Google:

“Moose gives birth in parking lot of Anchorage hardware store – Alaska……/moose-gives-birth-in-parking-lot-of-anchorage-…

“May 31, 2016 – A baby moose was born in the parking lot of an Anchorage Lowe’s on Tuesday, to the delight of store visitors. ‘I just seen a brand new baby moose 15 minutes old born in a Lowes parking lot!!!’ one onlooker posted on Facebook, along with several photos of the mother and newborn.”

The moose story is a small thing, but it is symptomatic of the  bigger problem. The internet today is full of false news repeated over and over so many times that a lot of people start to believe it’s true.

Some of it comes from fake news sites. More of it comes from what we once all thought of as legitimate news organizations.

The entities one used to able to depend upon for accurate news are often as guilty of falsehoods as the purveyors of “fake news,” who usually stretch things to the point where an intelligent person can see the stories are either fraud or satire. The supposedly legitimate media makes things sound far more believable even if they’re not.

As a journalist friend texted after the bogus baby moose story in Anchorage:

“I’d love to hear CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian explain where she got this information: ‘Shocked and amazed patrons looking to buy hardware got to view a live moose birth.’ People should be called out on this sort of bullshit. If ‘journalists’ are allowed to stretch the truth this far on something that’s relatively insignificant, what else might they be fabricating?”

When journalists – not media-hating conspiracy theorists on the left or right, but reasonable journalists – start asking these kinds of questions about journalism, where are we?


3 replies »

  1. Credibility is the essence of news reporting journalism. And what is unfortunate is that the one medium that stood to loose the most for innacurate reporting is print news. For example Nathaniel at ADN, intentionally mislead readers saying that state workers loosing merit pay under Walker’s proposed legislation constituted just under 1/4 of the state workforce when in fact the number affected by the proposal is just under 10 percent.
    There are other examples of agenda driven journalism coming out of the ADN, but too numerous to cite here given time constraint.
    I have some of the best paper delivery and I’m sorry the delivery folks are loosing my business, but Rogoff has trashed a once great newspaper.

    • i wouldn’t assume that was intentional on Nat’s part, Clint. way too much reporting these days has become nothing but stenography. somebody tells you something; you write it down and you don’t ask questions. ADN reporters have in the past gotten into trouble for asking “too many” questions of people in authority. Nat might well have written down what he was told without checking and felt noble for doing it given that Walker is a buddies with his boss Ms. Rogoff. and this type of mistake is sooooooooooo defensible at ADN: “well that’s what they said. i just wrote down what they said.” end of argument. “oh well, if that’s what they said….”

  2. “Does accurate information somehow become less accurate because it came from an unapproved source?”

    When it becomes the basis of rumors, exaggerations, and more fake news about what’s actually in the emails (who actually reads them all?), then yes, it kind of does become less accurate. Kind of like the timing of Comey’s announcements on the “other” email issue.

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