Don’t rely on Facebook, friends.
With friends, family and colleagues of all political stripes on Facebook (and in actual real life), it’s been fascinating — I’ll admit, borderline addictive — to follow the posts on my home page news feed about the Trump executive order on immigration.
The views run the gamut. The vast majority are sad or outraged — “this is not America.” Some say the Trump order was misunderstood, distorted or falsely whipped up as anti-Muslim. Others embrace a blanket ban on Muslim immigration, citing debunked claims and surveys that many American Muslims favor, and Islam requires, support for violent jihad and Sharia law. A few parrot versions of Donald Trump Jr.’s “poisoned Skittles” tweet about Syrian refugees (“If I had a bowl of Skittles and told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?”).
For my part, trying to respect and balance all views, I find the quisling and quibbling defense of Trump’s order hard to swallow. At best, you have to willfully ignore candidate Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration or the pre-election anti-Muslim rants of Bannon, Flynn and others on Team Trump.
Moreover, thoughtful, respected conservative voices — from columnists George Will, David Brooks and Michael Gerson, to US Catholic Church leaders, and even Dick Cheney — have spoken out, many passionately, sharing liberal concerns about hurting innocent families and inflaming anti-American sentiments abroad and anti-Muslim fears at home. And nobody respects the sloppy, ridiculously sophomoric way that Trump’s closed inner circle dashed out and dumped the confusing edict on the nation. Republican congressional members worry too.
The fact is, some 100,000 visas were revoked in a single week in response to President Trump’s executive immigration order, a new federal court filing disclosed. And more than a third of Americans — and 43 percent of Republicans — say it is very important to be Christian to be considered truly American, a new poll by Pew Research Center found. So anti-Muslim bias is alive in the land and the Trump edict hurt innocent people of a different faith.
Most disturbing of all is how the alt-right/alt-media are gleefully whipping up anti-Muslim fear and loathing — and benefiting financially from doing it. Worse, otherwise smart, thoughtful, caring Facebook friends with conservative leanings are falling for it, sharing it, and making it viral and virulent in both the web and epidemiological sense of the words, spreading poison in our public discourse.
Facebook doesn’t help. With algorithms that give us more of what we like, Facebook fuels our confirmation bias and motivated reasoning — the tendency to see and select information that supports our views, rather than welcoming broader information to shape our views. We also tend to like and share what we agree with.
As Forbes put it well, “you are likely to trust and enjoy the posts about politics that your friends and family like and share. But it’s also likely that they have similar political inclinations as you do, and the few of them who don’t will be pressed not to share news and opinions that go against your family values.”
So if you suffer from a dark, paranoid view of Muslims, if you’re a sucker for our version of the 1950s frenzy of anti-communist fear and paranoia (though with a racial/ethnic/nationalistic edge), then Facebook will keep the alt-right/alt-media reinforcement coming right at you. But friends, I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.
By alt-right/alt-media, I don’t mean overtly fake news sites with outrageous click-bait stories that provoked a squirrel nut-job to shoot up the Washington, DC, neighborhood ping-pong pizza diner near me. I’m talking about established, richly right-wing funded, proudly biased, politically-driven sites that pretend to offer the real truth that only their fans and followers are smart enough to trust.
C’mon, my conservative friends — forgive me, but Breitbart, Daily Caller, Daily Wire, Drudge, Free Republic, Newsbusters, Infowars and other sites you share on Facebook are playing you. Or please say you know these sites are not honest, straightforward, objective and reliable sources of news and information you can take to the bank, but entertainment that … entertains. In a kinda nasty way.
For that matter — sorry, my liberal friends — the left-leaning counterparts also try to feed our bias. But they bring a plastic takeout spoon to the right’s slashing, death-cage dagger fight. We all know the focused, aggressive, no-rules, no-shame alt-right/alt-media are winning the fight for the nation’s hearts, minds, clicks, shares, likes and advertising eyeballs. They make a lot more money by relentlessly smearing Obama, pumping up Hillary “scandals,” plumping for Trump, and now, pimping for the anti-Muslim industrial sector. I get it. Pandering works. That’s life. That’s business.
It’s also bullshit (a word the mainstream media is too objective to use ) and doubly bullshit since the alt-right/alt-media sites know the game.
Brietbart News and its ilk are not news. News=journalism. Journalism=real reporting, by real reporters. Not self-satisfied opinion yawpers. Not paid provocateurs and cable shouters. Not “experts” from right-wing organizations. Not selecting and connecting dots to support a predetermined point to rile up true believers. Real journalism means real reporting the old-school way.
How real journalism works
Real reporters often start off at the college paper — some went on to journalism grad school — and got first jobs covering the local school board, planning and zoning commission and town hall meetings.
The good reporters advanced to cover city hall, and maybe the state house and legislature. The great and lucky ones got a job for a national media organization or trade press, where they ran an even tougher gauntlet of seasoned, skeptical editors who thrill in calling BS and yelling at junior reporters. Sometimes their stories are challenged by libel lawyers, and if the story might make really big waves, the publisher/owners descend to interrogate and make the reporters sweat cold. Then, of course, the subjects of the piece smack the reporters around when it comes out. Then the reader ombudsman steps in and demands answers.
Real news you can trust comes from gathering, cross-checking and putting facts together, talking to people — willing and otherwise — and independent researching. You have to cull out spin and agendas, test your assumptions, and sometimes let go of simple narratives that make a story hang together because the best stories in life are always complicated. You have to be skeptical of all sources and claims on all sides of a story or issue. The more convincing, the more you need to be skeptical. All from an obsession to get it right. Often on tight deadlines. And knowing everyone is just dying to find a mistake, challenge a fact, and call gotcha for anything wrong. Oh — bonus — the money is pretty crap.
(Been there: I relish to forget how many times I was abused by editors or suffered the editorial process. But all made me more thoughtful, skeptical — yet not cynical — and careful. Once I had to bring a file box of notes, documents and transcribed interview tapes to the Washington Post because it wanted to reprint a distilled version of an investigative story I headed. We spent hours going over the draft to verify every last word. And this was for the op-ed page.)
For the best of the best of real journalism, just the tip of the iceberg, what real journalists drool to do, check out the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners:
— The Associated Press, for an investigation of severe labor abuses tied to the supply of seafood to American supermarkets and restaurants, reporting that freed 2,000 slaves, brought perpetrators to justice and inspired reforms.
— The Los Angeles Times, for exceptional reporting on breaking news, including both local and global perspectives on the shooting in San Bernardino and the terror investigation that followed.
— The Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune, for investigative reporting, “a stellar example of collaborative reporting by two news organizations that revealed escalating violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals and laid the blame at the door of state officials.”
— The Washington Post staff, for its “revelatory initiative in creating and using a national database to illustrate how often and why the police shoot to kill and who the victims are most likely to be.”
— The New York Times’ Alissa Rubin, “for thoroughly reported and movingly written accounts giving voice to Afghan women who were forced to endure unspeakable cruelties.”
See more from 2016 and previous years at http://www.pulitzer.org/prize-winners-by-year
Or heck, see 2015’s Spotlight, the Academy Award Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, about the Boston Globe investigative team that uncovered abuses in the Catholic Church. It’s fictionalized but captures what it takes to do the job, as most journalists want to do, and the editorial spanking machine they went through.
A hoary hagiography of journalism long past? Maybe, and certainly I missed the new trends in social media and data journalism. Feel free to counter my misty remembrances — but it would be helpful mostly if you’ve been there, in the trenches. Otherwise, as Bannon suggested to the media … never mind. (I was taught not to say “shut up.”)
Point is, if you think lame-stream media reporters and editors are slaves to the lefty political will of their owners and publishers, if you think reporters are just trying to sell papers, if you think the media is too critical of politicians you support or too easy on those you hate, if you think the media pays too much sympathetic attention to people who are not like you, if you kvetch that journalism seems inspired by its job to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, then welcome to the America you love.
From our nation’s start, we hated the free press, loved the free press, and needed the free press. The Founders made protecting free press more important than gun rights, maybe knowing the pen is a mightier weapon in defending our republic than any firearms.
“Our liberty depends on freedom of the press,” Jefferson said. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The point is, slam the “biased liberal lame-stream media” all you like. But the usual spanking machine of the editorial process in reputable news organizations makes reporters tougher, better, sharper and much more careful to get it right and balanced — which makes the news and information more reliable.
How the alt-right/alt media works
Contrasting real journalism with Brietbart’s shamelessly sleazy dreck that panders (and condescends) to the angry, ignorant white racist nationalist is — sorry — a bridge too far and a fool’s errand. Even relegating Breitbart to the most fetid cutting floor of history’s worst offal is more recognition than it deserves. Plus, it’s hard to find the perfect synonym for steaming rat droppings. (Milo Y. makes big $$$ by cleverly provoking people and then more big $$$ by playing the innocent victim of those he provoked to build his brand and bank. Nice work if you can get it and live with yourself, Milo.)
Instead of Breitbart, look at the relatively innocent alt-right/alt-media Daily Caller, which bills itself as “a 24-hour news publication, providing its audience with original reporting, thought-provoking commentary and breaking news.”
Co-founder Tucker Carlson, the genial bow-tied conservative, began his “journalism career” at a right-wing Heritage Foundation journal. Fellow co-founder, Neil Patel, is “a veteran of the Bush-Cheney White House … in talks with President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to work with him in the White House,” CNN reported on Jan. 19, citing transition team sources that wanted CNN to know but spoke on condition of anonymity.
Go the DailyCaller.com. Ignore, if you can, the pop-ups of scantily clad women illustrating articles like, “40 Miss Universe Contestants in their Bikinis,” “47 Time [sic] Elle Johnson went topless,” “This Model Really Hates Wearing Clothes on Instagram,” “Assistant Michigan Football Coach’s Girlfriend is Sizzling” and other distractions.
Dig way down to the staff bios, and you’ll also see that seasoned journalism doesn’t seem to be a top job requirement to be an editor or reporter. Start with top dog Christopher Bedford, who is also “vice chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom board of governors, and re-founded The New Guard magazine, serving as executive editor for two years. He was a 2012–2013 Young Conservatives Coalition fellow, a 2010–2011 associate at the Charles G. Koch Institute.”
Several others on the masthead are associated with Koch-funded and other conservative groups or politicians. Mark Tapscott, executive editor, is a former Reagan administration political appointee and congressional press secretary. Managing editor Paul Connor and reporter Casey Harper both served at the Young America’s Foundation’s National Journalism Center” [tagline: “The Conservative Movement Starts Here”]. “Investigative reporter” Katie Watson spent three years at the Franklin Center’s Watchdog project, also a conservative group. And the big funder of Daily Caller? Surprise: the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.
Daily Caller and its alt-right/alt-media ilk are bought and paid for by right-wing groups as propaganda tools. They don’t even pretend to be balanced and objective. Mostly inexperienced in real journalism, hating what they don’t understand, and believing conservative orthodoxy, they take liberal media bias as an article of faith. And then over-correct with clumsy parody that even “Weird Al” Yankovic would find too stupid.
Who is this “lame-stream liberal media”?
But let’s look at this conservative straw man — the liberal media establishment.
First, a remedial lesson: In the legitimate media, there’s a difference between news (straight reporting on facts), news analysis (interpreting the news) and opinion (biased views but, optimally, at least rooted in the facts). Newspapers try to keep news and views separate.
Does personal bias slip into news reporting? Sure, sometimes. Do reporters, who were often collegiate liberal arts majors, tend to tilt left? Maybe. But the legit media tries to fight bias in reporting — it doesn’t embrace and wallow in bias like the right-wing imitators are happy to do.
Second, forgive me, but a lot of the whining about mainstream liberal media bias is from politicos that journalists are supposed to challenge but don’t like the truth — unless it serves their agendas (like the New York Times reporting on Hillary’s emails). When I hear this carping, Harry Truman’s response to his nickname, “Give ’Em Hell Harry,” comes to mind: “I don’t give ’em hell. I tell the truth and it sounds like hell.”
Third, who is this horrible mainstream media, really? If you’re thinking New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC or — gasp — National Public Radio, let go. The overwhelmingly dominant force in mainstream media is Fox.
Fox is number-one in cable viewers among the prime 25–54 demographic, in total viewers, and certainly among Trump supporters. Fox beats CNN and MSNBC combined. “Fox News, the revenue leader, was projected to grow its revenue by 14 percent to $2.3 billion,” Pew Research Center reported mid-2016 election last June. Fox vastly outpaced CNN’s growth at 6 percent to $1.2 billion and MSNBC’s growth of 3 percent to $518 million. More Americans get their news from cable, and more cable viewers count on Fox, as it loves to tell advertisers.
So if Fox dominates the mainstream media, then how can anyone claim the mainstream media has a liberal bias? Consider:
— Fox’s slogan, “fair and balanced,” is an open joke, like Snickers is a healthy snack for the hangry. Everyone knows Fox’s founder and daily guiding force was arch conservative Roger Ailes, former media guru to presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. His explicit goal was to create a countervailing conservative media bias. Most recently — post-resignation for multiple sexual harassment charges — he advised Trump’s campaign on debate preparation.
— Fox, no surprise, is the clear choice for right-leaning voters. During the 2016 elections, “When voters were asked to write in their ‘main source’ for election news, four-in-ten Trump voters named Fox News,” a Pew survey found. The next main source for Trump voters was CNN, but just at 8 percent. (Clinton voters, meanwhile, named CNN as their first source, more than any other, Pew reported, “But at 18 percent had nowhere near the dominance that Fox News had among Trump voters. Instead, the choices of Clinton voters were more spread out. MSNBC, Facebook, local television news, NPR, ABC, the New York Times and CBS were all named by between 5 percent and 9 percent of her voters.”)
— Fox, far from objective, feeds its right-leaning audience what it wants. During the 2012 presidential campaign, “Barack Obama received far more negative coverage than positive on the Fox News Channel. … In the final stretch of the campaign, nearly half (46%) of Obama’s coverage on Fox was negative, while just 6 percent was positive in tone,” Pew Research Center found. (I can’t wait to find out how fair and balanced Fox was about the 2016 Clinton-Trump match-up. I think I know.)
It makes me snort when Fox host and Trump sock puppet, Sean Hannity, criticizes the mainstream news media. (“Hannity — with his $29 million salary and private jet — slams ‘overpaid’ media elites,” Washington Post, Sept. 28, 2016.) Since Fox dominates the news media, Hannity is either self-loathing or admitting his network/paymaster is not really part of the news media.
And lest anyone claim liberal bias in print journalism, the right-leaning Wall Street Journal clearly beats out the New York Times or Washington Post as the favorite major newspaper among Trump supporters.
Finding common ground — on and off Facebook
Back to Facebook, which was a top source of news for both Trump and Clinton supporters, Pew found.
As a platform for self-satisfying opinion, not to mention cute pet videos, Facebook is great. But it’s a really bad daily go-to source for real news, information and facts if we want to find common ground, talk together, and come together as a nation.
Mark Zuckerberg seems uncomfortable with his thrust-upon mantle as a media mogul. Still, he recognizes the problem, and given Facebook’s riches and role in our political discourse, accepts at least some responsibility to be part of the solution. As his Feb. 1 letter says:
We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other. Even if our mission sounds big, it starts small — with the relationship between two people.
Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.
At Facebook, we build tools to help people connect with the people they want and share what they want, and by doing this we are extending people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships.
People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives.
To my Facebook friends and everyone’s: Mark needs help. Let’s all help bridge our nation’s divides before they become wounds to bind up. Let’s seek and understand diverse perspectives, and walk in everyone else’s shoes, to find, expand and build on common ground. Let’s question our beliefs, especially our strongest, and everything we hear, especially our feeds that fuel our beliefs. Let’s challenge every source we trust — from alt-right to alt-left, from Breitbart to the New York Times. Let’s follow money — see who is paying our sources to feed us, and why. Please — let’s resolve to resist confirmation bias and motivated reasoning — and see and consider what could change our open minds.
For god’s sake, being skeptical of our safest political comfort zones won’t kill us. It might even be good for us and our relationships with and friends and families, on Facebook and real life. Better yet, challenging the pleasing siren song of those who indulge our worst angels over our best, rejecting those that thrill in dividing us, might just make our pluralistic republic stronger and help us move ahead together.
To me, an immigrant’s son, the Statue of Liberty’s lantern is more than a beacon out to the tired and poor beyond our shores. It beckons within our borders for our immigrant nation to understand people we don’t … assume their best intentions as we would have our best intentions assumed … fight our worst fears and impulses … rise above and even embrace our differences for our greater good — and light the world beyond our lives.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington, DC, communications professional and writer, and former journalist