This election was an ugly beast, with the Wikipidiots in full bluster on social networks, keeping the folks at Snopes working long hours sifting through the dross, seeking the flotsam of truth amid a sea of lies. Social media has devolved into an atavism. It unintentionally recreates 18th-century political machines, replete with virtual thugs deliberately trying to lie, cheat and steal for their candidates. Many of us have weighed in on the donnybrook, throwing figurative hooks and jabs at one candidate or another, acting for all parts the hormone-addled, hyper-emotional pubescent children who first populated the anti-social networks to begin with.
One common cry of foul was that mainstream media (MSM) wasn’t covering the true story. Let me set you straight: The reason MSM doesn’t report the stories so many people cherish is that actual, so-called mainstream media outlets are bound by these pesky things called “facts”. You may have heard of facts. They used to be the deciding factors, the trump card that ended arguments.
Related: Speak Your Mind, But Know Your Facts
But here in what I’ve heard called the “post fact” age, a spoilt manchild (or womanchild, if you prefer) can present an opinion as a fact. For the first time in modern history, if one dislikes an inconvenient fact, one can simply howl, “I disagree!” and generally find a website that supports your stupid position. So let’s say, you assert that 9 x 7 = 63, someone can scream: “I disagree! I happen to know that 9 x 7 = Swan. And here’s a link that proves it, www.SchizophrenicsSpewNonsense.org. Boom. Case closed!”
A guide to the MSM.
So, despite no one asking me to, please allow me to help: Mainstream media includes published newspapers, magazines, radio and television news outlets. Journalistic ethics and the law bind these news sources; if they deliberately and knowingly say something that is untrue, they can be sued for libel. Reporters have been fired and even had to return Pulitzer prizes for fabricating stories. A reporter can even be fired for something a layman may see as fairly innocent offense like embellishing a quote. Are these media biased? Of course, but not nearly to the extent that people believe.
When I worked as a reporter at a weekly news magazine covering small town politics I was routinely left hanging by politicians who didn’t return my phone calls requesting a quote on an article I had written. I could accurately write that a politician “refused to quote,” “did not answer (repeated) phone calls,” “could not reached for comment” or “did not answer a request for quote by press time,” depending on my mood or how I felt about him or her. Personally, I didn’t care one way or another about politicians but — mainly out of self-interest, after all I had to work with these people week after week — I generally tried not to get them angry. I would generally use the innocuous “could not be reached for comment.”
Related: Here Is How to Impress the Press
The vetting process (a procedure used to ensure that what is printed or broadcast is, in fact, true) can be extensive, even at a small news outlet. A story is submitted and is edited, which involves a lot more than looking for typos and deviations from the publication’s style guide. Facts are not only checked but challenged; language that is hyperbolic or inflammatory is routinely softened and made lame (I would have said lamified, but that wouldn’t have made it to print so why torment my already beleaguered editors?). This first process is an important step in ensuring that the story is true and not clouded with the author’s emotions or personal biases. The process is repeated several times depending on the size and reputation of the publication (and previous infractions of the author). There is such a thing as editorial position, and some outlets tend to be more left or right leaning, but truly mainstream media try their best to remain committed to the truth.
And now, the other guys.
The advent of the World Wide Web (and yes, that’s the www prefix on a web address, for those of you who have been living in the Unabomber’s shack for the last 40 years) has brought a lot of quasi-news outlets: blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, memes, click-bait and out-and-out lies. These pseudo-news outlets are not vetted or peer-reviewed and almost always have an overt agenda. I myself am proprietor of a self-important crap factory (a blog) where I pontificate on the state of worker safety. I can write whatever I want there because it’s my opinion and as a sweaty classmate from my high school days used to say, “You can’t argue with opinions.” (The only smart thing he every said.) Despite many of the sort-of-news sites’ best efforts to look like legitimate and impartial media outlets, they are not vetted. So, effectively, they are one person’s opinion, and you know what they say about opinions they are like belly buttons (okay, okay, I know), everyone has one.
The danger I have seen in Facebook and other social networks in this election is that people, good people, smart people can no longer tell the difference between real news outlets and opinion outlets. Opinion outlets, especially ones that proffer opinions that align with our point of view, are seductive because we want to believe them, even if that wish is hidden deep in our hearts, buried below our cognitive thought and well out of the reach of our reason.