A text from a friend and former colleague, along with Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan’s final column, got me to thinking.
I know … dangerous.
The friend wondered, about an ad promoting letting readers decide the truth, if it was wise letting everyone come up with their own version of reality.
Sullivan, in her column urging journalists to change how they cover campaigns and cast aside the practice of covering every speech, rally and debate (essentially being stenographers) in favor of being “dedicated truth-tellers, using clear language, plenty of context and thoughtful framing to get that truth across,” used the phrase “reality-based press.”
Whoa. Sad thing is, she’s not wrong.
More than cost (and all those channels I never watched but had to pay for anyway) was involved in my decision years ago to abandon cable. There was also the rise of “news” channels that seemed to be more about commentary (which should be clearly separate from news) and promoting a party line more than making sure viewers are informed on the news of the day. It was more “Here’s what the political party we like thinks about this news, and here’s how you should feel. Don’t worry about thinking; we’ve got you covered.” And it’s much worse now.
You might say, gosh, thanks, President Reagan, for scuttling the Fairness Doctrine and setting us on this path, but the truth is that the Fairness Doctrine applied to broadcast licenses; it would have had no effect on cable channels (it did, though, help fuel the right-wing talk-radio boom, which helped lead to many of its “stars” getting shows on cable and lowered the bar in other divisive ways). You’d think that common sense and real journalism would take precedence, but with cable … . Plus, you can easily find channels that will confirm whatever beliefs you have and ignore all the rest.
It’s not like anyone’s forcing you to watch all the channels and get a wider perspective on things. But you really should … get a wider perspective, that is, which is why you should read newspapers.
According to the Arkansas Press Association Publisher Weekly’s July 21 edition, “The U.S. lost 360 newspapers between late 2019 and the end of May 2022. All but 24 of those shuttered papers were weeklies, many in economically struggling markets. Most of the communities they served did not get a replacement in digital or print form.
“The U.S. has lost one-fourth of its newspapers since 2005 and could potentially lose one-third by 2025, creating vast areas without local news coverage. More than 70 million U.S. citizens would be affected by these losses.”
Into that vacuum step pink-slime outlets, which are now in all 50 states and look like local news sites. In reality they’re part of partisan “news” networks heavy on propaganda and light on revealing their funding sources. They, like cable “news” networks, cater to those with the same mindset who aren’t necessarily enamored of actual reality.
But that’s what newspapers thrive on, whether they’re center-right, as this newspaper is, or center-left like The New York Times (both according to Media Bias Fact Check), or right in the center. Reporters write about things that have actually happened, not conspiracy theories or tales that can’t be verified … unless that alternate reality slips into actual reality, like on Jan. 6, 2021. Opinion is reserved for the opinion pages (reporting a news source’s opinion isn’t the same thing, so don’t even start), and is clearly marked. (In our newspaper, reviews or analysis that appear on the news pages are also clearly marked in the physical paper/digital replica edition as well as online.)
Actual reality isn’t much fun a lot of the time, with deaths of loved ones, political races that don’t end as we hoped they would, etc., but it also has a lot of good things we’d miss if we were buried in hyperpartisanship. It isn’t up to newspapers to provide you with proof of your favored reality; we can only give you what exists.
Pink-slime outfits don’t care; they’ll creatively interpret news (for a price) to smear or prop up political candidates, place similar not-quite-legit stories on all sites in their networks, and plagiarize and often change pieces from legitimate news sources. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen my column pop up somewhere with slightly different words, or looking like it was translated into another language then back into English.)
It’s enough to drive you batty.
In June, this newspaper ran a column by Sullivan about pink slime, which takes its name from the meat-processing byproduct/filler. She said legitimate nonpartisan operations have stepped in in places (The Arkansas Advocate is a notable one here, and just started digital publication last week; it includes some former co-workers), but noted that it’s not always easy for consumers to tell the difference.
Alan Miller, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, told Sullivan that readers should pause when a story raises their blood pressure: “Don’t let your emotions take over. If something makes us angry, anxious or excited, that’s when we are most vulnerable to being manipulated.”
He also recommended doing your own research by looking for fact-checks or credible challenges, seeing if other news outlets have covered the story, finding the original source and, probably most importantly in my book, asking yourself if it sounds too good to be true.
I mean, assuming you’re based in reality.