Post-truth journalism


Feelings, nothing but feelings…

In commenting on the dying credibility of the American mainstream media last week, Matt Taibbi, a one-time reporter for a variety of left-leaning publications and an award-winning columnist for Rolling Stone, might have summed much of what is wrong in one sentence:

“Audiences have a right to demand reporters lie awake nights in panic, and every good one I’ve ever met does.”

The observation was astute, but the second verb tense is arguably wrong. It might better read “every good one I’ve ever met did.”

At age 53, Taibbi comes from the tail end of a different generation of journalists, and somewhere out there, the last of the old-school reporters tottering toward their graves will identify with his fear of having made a mistake.

Maybe, somewhere too, there might be a younger reporter who at least understands how these sorts of feelings could develop. But most have risen above this burden of sleepless nights because, as all the “fact checkers” now employed by news organizations will assure you, accuracy is not a mainstream journalism problem.

The mainstream is inherently accurate because it says so.

The mainstream is the keeper of the truth, and all that “misinformation” and “disinformation” is coming from non-mainstream sources or social media where, God help us, anyone can blather on about anything and might find others willing to embrace the blather.

The mainstream is now overrun with fact-checkers trying to stem the tide of miss and diss, which is more than a little ironic in that nearly all elements of the mainstream long ago ditched their own, in-house fact-checkers whose sole job was to fact-check mainstream stories to make sure they were truthful.

Those old-school fact-checkers, who were often time-consumingly thorough, disappeared as the internet took over the news only to be replaced by the new fact-checkers focused on illustrating the foolishness of non-mainstream sources of any and all sort.

Reuters, a news service that dates back to 1851, last fall devoted someone the time to “Fact Check-The Earth is not covered by a dome or ‘firmament’.”

“Users on social media are saying people on Earth are living under a dome, also called a ‘firmament,’ without providing evidence to support the claim,” the news organization duly reported. “Experts told Reuters that the idea, which originates with proponents of the Flat Earth theory, is false and that there is ample evidence of rockets reaching space without hitting a dome.”

These experts, one might presume, would include anyone who looked at photos of the earth taken from the moon and said, “Ah gee, it actually is a sphere flying through space as Aristotle concluded about 2,400 years ago!”

That some people want to believe otherwise is fine. The great thing about a free country is that anyone can believe anything they want.

But one might think journalists would have better things to do than fact-check bizarre beliefs like this unless they happen to be writing a Dave Barryish column to contribute a little humor to the day.

We could all use more humor.

Short of this, couldn’t journalists just leave this sort of fact-checking to State Farm Insurance which made the point in a short and more entertaining form in a TV commercial about a French model a decade ago?

Mainstream disinformation

Taibbi’s complaint, it must be noted, isn’t with this incessant and often nonsensical “fact-checking” of non-mainstream sources by the mainstream, but by the latter’s seeming disinterest in fact-checking itself, in particular the failure of MSNBC to correct blatant factual errors in the midst of its efforts to save the nation from former President Donald Trump.

“This may not seem a big deal, but at the time (2017) it was still weird and something of a pioneering move for a major news organization to just refuse to fix a clear error,” Taibbi wrote.

There were, no doubt, extenuating circumstances.

Trump Derangement Syndrome was gripping much of the mainstream in 2017 and would continue to do so until Trump was replaced by President Joe Biden, the man who in 2020 warned against rushing out pandemic vaccines then being worked on by Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” only to less than a year later order federal employees to get injected with the vaccines emerging from the Warp Speed program in order to “protect themselves and avoid spreading COVID-19 to their co-workers and members of the public,” according to the official statement.

By then, there were already good reasons to believe the vaccines wouldn’t stop the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and within months a peer-reviewed study published in The Lancet would be reporting that ” fully vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections have peak viral load similar to unvaccinated cases and can efficiently transmit infection in household settings, including to fully vaccinated contacts.”

But that’s a tangential story about “lamestream,” as lamebrain Alaska polebrity Sarah Palin used to call it, reporting, and it’s not worth getting into now.

So let’s get back to Taibbi who was once a mainstream hero and is now something of a mainstream pariah.

During his recent work with the “Twitter Files,” Taibbi reported finding “federal efforts to censor both left and right-wing organizations,” according to AllSides, sometimes in cooperation with social media,  universities and private foundations, and sometimes not.

That Taibbi worked with Elon Musk to investigate Twitter’s muzzling of those who Tweeted the “wrong” things, along with his calling out mainstream mistakes, have made him a mainstream outcast.

The mainstream loved Twitter when it thought it could manipulate and control the narrative there. Now that Musk has taken over this arm of social media, National Public Radio (NPR) has announced that it is abandoning the platform.

It has its panties in a bunch because Musk’s Twitter labeled NPR as “state-affiliated media.” Affiliated, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, means“closely associated with another,  typically in a dependent or subordinate position.”

NPR is not in a subordinate position to the “state,” ie. the U.S. government, or at least not to the state’s political leaders. It showed that well by going after Trump’s lies as much as any other news organization.

But NPR does appear somewhat dependent on the state. Its leaders argue the organization gets less than 1 percent of its funding directly from the federal government, but what they don’t make clear is that NPR gets a significant amount of federal revenue money laundered through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which describes itself as “the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.”

So maybe Twitter should have described NPR as “affiliated with the steward of the U.S. government’s investment in public broadcasting.”

CPB supports nearly 1,500 locally owned and operated public television and radio stations, and as it points out, “NPR is principally funded by (these) member stations, distribution services, underwriting and institutional grants and individual contributions.”

The CPB is asking Congress for about $128 million in public radio grants for the next fiscal year. Much of that money will filter back to NPR. This website would be happy to be affiliated with such a sugar daddy or sugar mommy.

Is it fair to call NPR “dependent” on the state? Probably not.

But it is in a relationship with the state as a significant funder, and much of conservative America now sees NPR as something of a lap dog for the Biden administration and a left-leaning bureaucracy after years of going after the Trump administration like a pit bull.

NPR is not helping its credibility in this regard by playing cute about how much government money is funneled its way, and this less-than-honest behavior is among the issues driving Taibbi’s concern about media credibility.

There is no denying this is an issue, either, but it’s not the real issue or at least not the biggest issue. The biggest issue goes deeper and stems from the transition of journalism from a business focused on facts to a business focused on feelings.

The various “truths”

Several years ago, a young reporter at the Anchorage Daily News offered me an example of this transition, but I confess that at the time I didn’t fully understand the depth of the problem.

The reporter had written a story in which one of the sources provided information that was clearly wrong. This was not the reporter’s fault. The reporter was young and knew none of the history connected to the story.

I didn’t know the history intimately but knew enough to know the story was wrong. I told the reporter where the history could be found and provided contact information for a former reporter who knew the history well if going back to dig up the history was too much trouble.

Unfortunately, the incorrect information was not considered worth correcting because, according to the reporter who wrote the story, the source’s claims “might not be your truth, but it’s her truth.”

This is now something of a standard.

Facts have been replaced with individual truths based on feelings and memories, the latter of which are as worthless as a woodpecker with a rubber beak.

Just ask the Alaska old timers who can assure you the weather was always warmer and it was always colder; it always snowed more and it never snowed so much; it used to rain all the time, and it hardly ever rained, etc., etc., etc.

These are the new “truths” on which journalists depend. Couple this sort of thinking to the fundamental decline in the collective knowledge that used to fill America’s newsrooms, and it becomes easy to see how the product being produced often just turns to shit.

If there are subjects on which you are knowledgeable, it is now often painful to read mainstream journalism coverage of those subjects.

News organizations that used to encourage reporters to become experts in the subject matter on which they reported, now randomly throw general-assignment reporters into the breach in the belief knowledge doesn’t matter.

News avoidance

Against this backdrop, there are good reasons that Poynter, a think tank for a news business doing little thinking, last year described “an epidemic of news avoidance.”

Summarizing a global poll conducted by the England-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, an affiliate of  Reuter news, Poytner’s Rick Edmonds observed that “only 42 percent of those surveyed said they trust most news most of the time. (And) as was the case a year ago, the United States finishes dead last among the countries with just 26 percent expressing trust, a three-point dip from 2021.”

If you are in the news business, the numbers in that poll are deeply disturbing with 42 percent of Americans simply avoiding the news and only 26 percent of the consumers of news believing much of it.

A healthy skepticism of whatever is reported these days – be it coming from the mainstream or some other stream – might be a good thing, but avoidance now nearing a majority of the population is not a good thing, especially in a society where many are pushing the idea everyone should get out and vote.

Democracies are not strengthened by a majority of uninformed voters.

As someone who got into the news decades ago in the belief that knowledge matters, this is all, frankly, depressing as hell. Truth be told, I started writing this commentary a week ago, and got so depressed that I couldn’t write anything.

I can’t remember a time since my 20s when I went a week without writing anything. The depression wasn’t helped by a retired journalist friend, someone who regularly defends the New York Times, sending me his critique of that once reliable news organization’s coverage of Conocophillip’s Willow project on Alaska’s North Slope.

“First, you CAN find balance in this article, but it’s buried,” he wrote. “The author mentions or pays lip service to all the credible justifications for doing Willow….BUT then the story is topped with egregious misstatements that are almost breathtaking.”

A point-by-point takedown of those misstatements – or what can simply be called “factual errors” – followed but we can probably start and end with the Time’s claim that Willow is set to happen in “the nation’s single largest expanse of untouched wilderness.”

A quick look at a Google satellite image of the area in question would have put paid to the wilderness idea. Willow is next door to a massive oil field with roads running all over the place.

A wilderness “adjacent to the Prudhoe Bay complex? Home to old-time Umiat plus one of the largest existing oil fields in the US called Alpine?” that old journalist asked. “How about a town of 500 people with snowmachine tracks leading in every direction and pickup trucks/car traffic tooling on its streets beneath utility poles and power lines? Or a spider network of ice roads maintained by gigantic trucks? Or a 75-year-old homestead with a big airstrip (Helmericks’)? Or maybe the annual supply ice road to Utqiagvik? Not to mention the Kuparak oil field just to the east and the old DEW line radar station at Oliktok Point to the northeast?”

And this assessment wasn’t coming from some far-right Alaska advocate for development everywhere. It was coming from a Trump-despising greenie who happens to be in that declining minority of former and working journalists who still believe facts matter.

Suffice to say, Willow isn’t getting drilled “in the nation’s single largest expanse of untouched wilderness,” which technically isn’t wilderness at all.

The area in question is part of the National Petroleum Reserve that the late President Warren G. Harding set aside in 1923 as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy. 

The largest expanse of untouched wilderness in Alaska, for the record, is likely the old “Inland Empire” within the nearly 150,000 square mile Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area home to but 5,600 people. 

This is an area so wild that it’s scary. It’s doubtful a Times reporter has ever heard of it and surely couldn’t find it on a map. Few people live here and even fewer visit.

The North Slope Borough, which stretches across Alaska’s North Slope to include the Petroleum Reserve and Prudhoe Bay, is home to nearly twice as many (slightly more than 11,000 people) but covers only about 60 percent of the land mass (88,700 square miles versus 147,800).

Unfortunately, your average Times reporter assigned to write a story about a proposed Alaska oil development wouldn’t know this because most reporters these days aren’t expected to know diddly about the subject matter they are covering.

And why should they given that the journalism business is less and less about facts and more and more about feelings?

Willow is far away in Arctic Alaska and for those in New York City everything outside of Anchorage (and maybe even Anchorage itself with its bears and moose running wild in the streets) surely feels looks like it could be described as “the nation’s single largest expanse of untouched wilderness.”



17 replies »

  1. Ah Matt and Yelon’s now nothing burger ‘files.’ It would have served them better if they had found flies, blow flies. The only interesting part of this zed is Yelon’s summary execution of Matti for not quite performing and of course, ensuing denials of not-death and betrayal. Nobody except loons gives a shit what a couple of nepo’s think. Meanwhile, wonderboy has turned tweeter into a blue-checked infestation of actual card-carrying nazis that just want to bring it all down – for grins.

  2. Taibbi gives me hope. Independent journalists like him are doing the best work right now.

  3. “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.” ~ NOT Mark Twain – google it.

      • Article is right on . Thank you.
        Without quality information you can’t make quality decisions. Democracy can’t function ect .

        Currently the appearance of good guys loosing is a distortion of vision.

        People reaching the bottom regarding trust of media is an extreme win .

        We have been worse than loosing as we were blind for decades perhaps centuries.

        Being aware of the problem and recognizing that most media isn’t worth reading is the first step.

        We are starting to get onto better footing after decades of having our heads filled with garbage without even knowing. ( that was when we were loosing)
        Partially thanks to independent media .

        People are starting to question and recognize a need to become informed and involved.

        Independent media is laying the groundwork for knowledge.
        Yes it’s going to take a long time . Can we come back from the hole our government and government associated media has put us into?
        Idk . We are more informed and more people are questioning.

        Remember- the groundwork for a win is usually set by a loss .

        Triumph and disaster are imposters . Treat them the same .

        Per greeks – both are transient.

        I personally have found I learn little from success and rarely is it a catalyst for improvement.
        I always learn massive from what people consider disaster or loosing or failure.

        Craig you have fought a long battle for the truth.
        Be proud !!

        We who are uniformed and misled- thank you.

        Fight on ! May your successes and influence inspire and educate others to take up where you lead.

        The tide is turning.

        Thank you.

  4. Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” because he honestly didn’t know. Few do, especially in a world where a man can become a woman merely by saying so. Who needs a news media in such a world? Indeed, the fewer words issued in such a world, the better. Truth has become silence, because all words are lies.

  5. Just for kicks I randomly searched for an NYT article about Alaska oil from 1976. A year when I thought objective reporting might still be a thing. Notice how opposing points of view are presented verbatim. There is no editorializing, just a straight news story. It may not be a perfect article when viewed through the lens of someone like Craig, with formerly ink stained hands, but it seems far better than the propaganda put out today.

  6. The article in the Times about Willow was written for an audience who has been led to believe that think Willow is a “carbon bomb”. People who think Willow is a “carbon bomb” have zero understanding of facts. The fact that Willow will produce around 180,000 barrels of oil a day does not register to these people for what it is, which is an extremely small amount of oil on the US market and an even smaller amount on the global market. That Willow will make almost no impact on the amount of oil produced in the US on a daily basis, where 20,000,000 barrels of oil equivalent are produced each and every day…that’s less than 1% of US output, is not a fact that these people feel matters. The world as a whole produces about 90,000,000 barrels a day, Willow represents 0.2% of global output. Willow could never be the “carbon bomb” these people feel like it should be, it’s not even a carbon fire cracker, it might more accurately be described as a noticeable snap of the fingers in the nextdoor room.

  7. My wakeup call about the inaccuracies in the mainstream happened when I read and saw stories about the Alaska Pipeline construction filled facts I knew not to be true.
    The worst was a “60 Minutes” piece that claimed fraud in a dollar amount greater than the entire pipeline budget, if I recall correctly.
    As a person who hasn’t invested my career in the news business, I can laugh at it an ignore it. Although I do occasionally yell at the TV or computer screen.
    Hang in there Craig. You are fighting the good fight.

  8. When is a news service not a news service. How old does the news have to be before it is no longer news? Any newspaper you read now days is probably close to a couple days old. And unless you have had your head in the sand you probably have read or heard it already. And it was probably not news, rather it was “spin”.

  9. A month ago I ran into a Native guy at Alaska Industrial Hardware in Anchorage. He said he drove down from Barrow (his words, he didn’t use Utqiagvik). Said he drove because his kids had a basketball tournament in WA, and driving to Anc and back was a lot cheaper than flying his family. So let that sink in … A Native driving a Ford F350 through “untouched wilderness” to get his family to a basketball game.

  10. Well done! Par for the course for Medred! Thank you for reminding us to question everything bought & paid for by special interests & to think for ourselves.

  11. Alaska needs more has-been journalists to talk about other has-been journalists, who specialized in promoting liberal pap and called it NEWS, over their entire careers.

    Where’s Howard Weaver?

    • California – but I’m sure you knew that – where he’s gone all “progressive,” which is a long way from “liberal,” or the shining thing liberal once was:

      “Not the leftish “progressivism” of American university campuses or the rightish “ultraliberalism” conjured up
      by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”

      JFK was probably the last true Democrat “liberal.”

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