The Business of Fake News

An example of what national networks deemed newsworthy based on their hierarchy of values in 2016.

The Internet and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have democratized the news business. Anyone can now participate as self-proclaimed media, regardless of their credentials, viewpoint, and moral integrity.

As media consumers, we hope that the criteria for acceptability are the veracity of the story and quality of reporting, but that’s not always the case. In today’s “post-modernist” culture, where irrationality and emotionalism are embraced as valid windows into knowledge and truth, wishes often take precedence over facts both for reporters and their audiences. And with the abuse of truth and facts culturally rampant at this time, the result has been a competition amongst those in the news supply business to manufacture headlines, and sometimes entire stories, in order to have them go viral and to trend.

The business goal remains the need to attract eyeballs and drive traffic to deliver advertising revenue. It’s been a long time since the delivery of news programming has been considered a public service. For some networks, news is their entire business.

As we’ve experienced recently, the manufacturing of untruthful or twisted news stories for political purposes (formerly known as propaganda) by mainstream media seeking to claim the moral and professional high ground, has become big business, and a frenzy for economic survival.

Over the past 18 months, traditional mainstream media outlets have been turning marginal political news stories into major “breaking news” events. Most are laughable at their shallowness and blatant disregard for logic and coherence. What then typically follows are highly speculative and arbitrary panel discussion and analysis of speculative events devoid of facts that are presented as “factual opinions” intended not to inform, but to influence and persuade audiences to adapt a very specific ideological point of view.

What is presented as real (i.e., not-fake) news, is all too often scripted propaganda, repeated hour after hour, day after day, sometimes for weeks on end, as an impending or actual national political or moral crisis.

What audiences get to watch are the same small groups of network-employee panelists posing as opinionated experts on every subject, and message-loyal insiders posing as objective experts but revealing themselves as apologists for specific political parties and/or candidates.

This is not a rant against CNN. They are not the only news network that has willingly and smugly chosen this road. Living in Canada, CNN is made available by my cable provider in packages at a far lower cost, while Fox News is bundled in only at the most expensive tier, so I see much more CNN than Fox News. In fact, it would cost me almost $70 more per month to get a package that includes Fox News Network. I have no doubt that there are equally valid examples of bias by each of the other cable news networks.

In the Era of Fake News, Facts are Facts, and so are Opinions

The problem of being tagged as fake news has become so acute at CNN the they have taken to running “Facts First” ads proclaiming that apples are not bananas, and that whether seen from the right or the left, or the viewer is distracted by chattering teeth, an apple is still an apple.

CNN’s media public relations blitz to fight off growing public perceptions of the news network as a purveyor of non-factual news coverage highlights a growing level of concern at the network about their declining brand status and positioning as the most trusted name in news. Adweek reports that as of October 2017, Fox News has been the most watched cable news network for 190 consecutive months, although CNN’s audience seems to have been on the rise recently.

Fake News and Manipulating the Manipulators

Donald Trump has significantly raised social awareness of how big corporate media manipulates the “news” and opinions of the public. What we still see by those who control the news is not honesty and truth in reporting, but rationalizations and equivocations. We also see more vigilance by media watch groups – each with their own agenda – exposing untruthful reporting as it happens on social media platforms in an effort to hold reporters and reporting accountable for intentional manipulation.

News network on-air personalities are more akin to celebrity actors in a long-running play – characters like Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report propagating truthiness – rather than real people who, for the most part, have no clue as to what’s really going on behind closed doors and beyond the carefully scripted press releases and leaks aimed at public manipulation and press complicity in a long-running campaign of power and money politics.

What we see is a daily narrative of public manipulation to keep us tuned in and turned on to a specific political agenda aimed at the further closing of the American mind.

What Should We Make of News Business Wars?

What are we to make of it when the off-air statements of on-air personalities are used for political purposes and are presented as news stories of national significance when what’s really going on is trivial and inconsequential from a news-value standpoint?

What are we to make of New York Times journalists and editors who indicate that they manipulate stories to drive their own or the agenda and biases of their executives to drive sales without regard for professional ethics and respect for their customers, employees and shareholder? What are we to make of ideologically-driven organizations that expose them, for that matter?

What are we to make of on-air personalities who in their tiredness and sorrow at the end of a long election-night, speak as if they and their news network had failed to win the election, in spite of everything they did to throw themselves behind one candidate and actively campaign to defeat the other?

CNN executives and their complicit on-air news readers were willing to bet their good reputation on it, and they lost. That the network has taken to running ads to counter the fake news accusations is evidence of their attempt to rebuild brand credibility. The key to succeeding will be demonstrated in a change of underlying values and behaviour reflecting fair and objective reporting, not partisan political activism, and not advertising slogans.

We live in a world where network news has adapted the business model of supermarket tabloids, and where a large portion of the population gets their political news from the people they trust the most: comedians pushing mocking, sarcastic, cynical and admittedly biased monologues on their late night talk shows. This is not a good template for promoting civics on a national scale. Manipulation and boorishness is about as low as one can go on a scale of admirable personal characteristics. This low common denominator is the playing field that many media outlets seeking consumer respect and trust seem to be fighting to own. At the same time they continue to repudiate self-responsibility and claim they are travelling the high road and it’s the other guy who is at fault.

There’s nothing new about fake news other than the nomenclature. And there’s nothing new about news agency attempts to manipulate audience perceptions, as CNN has begun to do with ads proclaiming that apples are not bananas; that facts come first.

While the “fake news” meme is relatively recent and popularized by Donald Trump’s stump speech accusations and presidential tweets, fake news itself has been around since newspapers figured out that fear and anxiety sells. It’s no secret that the role of cable television news is to keep viewers in suspense so they continue to watch, not to keep the citizenry informed of the most important stories of the day. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is the hands-down master at this with glorious lines like “Stay tuned, there is more historical breaking news unfolding when we return.” Unfortunately, it now seems that every new Donald Trump tweet counts as historical breaking news. Perhaps Wolf has been crying wolf far too long and it just doesn’t seem credible anymore.

It’s not facts that manipulate. CNN is right. Facts are facts. But there’s more to it when it comes to advocating for what those facts mean and how others should interpret those facts. Interpreting the meaning of facts is messy when the western world is in the middle of an ideological war, both with itself and with external adversaries. When the population remains uninformed – or worse, misinformed – of what is going on, there is no proper context within which to integrate selectively presented facts.

The presentation of ideologically-based and ideologically biased opinions that have little logical connection to the facts is intentional manipulation – it is intellectually dishonest. And when it is dishonest in this way as a means of audience manipulation in the form of ideological propaganda to subversively control public discourse – it is fake. Opinions and facts are both important, but one can never legitimately replace the other, and encouraging the confusion of the two under the pretext of being the champion of facts and truth is blatantly wrong.

The Thoughts of a Conscientious Journalist

What got me thinking about this topic is a passage I recently came across in the book Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon, published in 2001, in which the authors provide an overview of “the crisis in the journalism profession.”

In the early 1990s, broadcast journalist Ray Suarez, who later became a senior correspondent for PBS’s News Hour, was in a quandary about whether to stay in the profession or quit and put it behind him. His recollection about his dilemma as told to the Good Work authors, reminds us that the manipulation of audiences by newsroom producers and executives is not a new phenomenon, and how those who control the presentation of the news may be led to assess the value of “facts” to promote their own agendas.

I quote at length Mr. Suarez from Good Work for the insight he provides:

When video games first started to become hot, a family sued the major makers of video games in the United States for some unbelievable amount of money…because their kids would get seizures. And about half-way into the reporting of the story, I realized that we were talking about one-tenth of one one-hundredth of one one-thousandth of the kids who played video games. But TV has a tendency to play everything like, “Here’s a possible danger of video games.”

And I called in, sort of to telegraph my concerns ahead, sort of in advance for this fight that I knew we were going to have, about the way we were going to play this story. And I said…it’s irresponsible to give people the idea that video games are dangerous, or, in the way that television usually does, it teases “could be dangerous” to your family, making no guarantees but getting you to salivate and listen. I said, we’re talking about a tiny number of American children, a tiny number. And once you find out that your kids have this, which you may have already known before they ever sat down to play one video game, because all kinds of computer and TV monitors shoot impulses to the eye at this number of times per second…. If they play anyway, and have seizures, well whose fault it that?

We’re talking about a story that we’re going to play as a hot, big story, that isn’t a story. Because we all tell stories that have impact with large numbers of people, so what we’re trying to do is just cross our fingers, put them behind our back, and we’ll tell them at the end, oh, and by the way, your kids probably are okay. I said, I don’t want to do that. I think it’s cheap, I think it’s not true, I think even, no matter how many times we couch it and qualify it, it will leave an untrue residue in the minds of people who watch the story. So what are we really doing? We’re just winding people up. We’re not telling them good information. (7-8)

Suarez lost the battle. “There’s only so much in the way of showboat integrity that you can afford to have,” he says, “because if you have a contract and the contract says certain things, and one of those things is, you have to do what you’re told.” Suarez was making plans to get out of the news business when a new opportunity arose for him to join National Public Radio.

I have no doubt that Suarez’s story plays out with other actors on a frequent basis. There is no shortage of brave and hard-working journalists and news reporters of high integrity, many of whom are doing their best under trying and subtle or not-so-subtle coercive conditions. And there are others who admit they gleefully participate as propagandists.

In the end, we are each responsible for our own assessment of the news. As in business, we must remain vigilant of the facts and make our own determination of what is real and what is fake. Most importantly, the onus is on each of us to tease out what is personally meaningful for our lives and wellbeing, and disregard the rest.

Our lives are too short and there is too much to be done to waste much time debating the mostly trivial matters that cable news network propagandists want to use to trap us in their web of fear and anxiety. Let’s recognize their tactics for what they are, and remain vigilant to avoid the propagandist manipulation by the hidden motives of others.

Addendum: Two weeks after I posted this, CNN and other news agencies ignited renewed controversy about the biases and integrity of journalists and their enthusiasm for citing nov-vetted anonymous sources and pushing ideological speculation and conclusions and bypassing the accepted norms and practices of the journalism profession. Glenn Greenwald writes smartly about this particular event regarding speculation about collusion between Donald Trump and Wikileaks here: https://theintercept.com/2017/12/09/the-u-s-media-yesterday-suffered-its-most-humiliating-debacle-in-ages-now-refuses-all-transparency-over-what-happened/.

Barry Linetsky is a Partner with The Strategic Planning Group, a Toronto-based consultancy. He is the author of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) and Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong). His articles have been published by Ivey Business Journal and Rotman Magazine. Visit his website www.BarryLinetsky.com to find original articles and blog posts on Walt Disney and other management topics. Follow Barry on Twitter @BizPhilosopher and on LinkedIn.

© 2017, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved

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