Friday, December 22, 2017

Why real news is, indeed, fake.

I've taken three lengthy Uber trips in the past month. All of the drivers got around to asking what I did for a living. When I replied, “I teach journalism,” two of the three exclaimed, “Ahh, fake news!” It took the third driver a few extra lines of conversation, but she eventually got there too.

For those of us engaged in showing young people how the media are supposed to work, there is no escaping the sturm und drang over fake news. Needless to say, the term has itself acquired a patina of inauthenticity, given its most celebrated user's tendency to invoke it to mean, “This news makes me look bad...ergo it's fake.” (Though I doubt that Trump uses, or even knows, the word ergo.)

In fairness, however, those of us who deal in the foundations of journalism understand that the fake-news meme cannot be dismissed simply as red meat that a pathologically insecure president tosses into his supporters' den with discomfiting regularity. Actually, fakery is endemic to the genre. Consider the famous news-radio slogan, “You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world.”

It's a lie. Genuine news is rooted in anomaly: Man bites dog. It follows that what the news business is really giving us—with its unending parade of crime, corruption, ugliness and general depravity—is unreality.

I wrote the guts of this paragraph for a relatively famous (if I do say so myself) piece for the Los Angeles Times back in 2006, but it has lost none of its relevance. For here, in a minute, I give you your actual world*: Each day, 23,911 out of 23,911 scheduled commercial flights take off and land safely. Almost none of us are murdered, and almost no one who is unarmed, of any race, is killed by a cop. The murder rate in much-maligned Chicago is lower than that of cities where we splurge huge sums to vacation. Roughly 100 percent of collegians survive hazing rituals. The employment rate is above 95 percent, and the average family living in federally defined poverty has a car, air conditioning, two TVs and an Xbox. Plagues do not emerge from third-world caves to blight the landscape. The republic slogs on despite the diverting shenanigans of the figureheads at the top; even the current helmsman hasn't undone us and probably won't. Probably.

This is not some Panglossian delusion. It is day-to-day life for almost everyone. So yes, the nightly news is real. These things did happen. But by every meaningful statistical yardstick, they are margin notes to reality. (Big-time journalists, of course, don't like to see themselves as people who trade in trivia, so they imbue their margin notes with near-apocalyptic resonance.) By definition, then, what you see on the news is a negative image of your world, in both the photographic and tonal senses. It's real, but it conjures a wholly fake impression of life.

The news also comprises extensive reporting on events that are “sort of happening” but whose resolution and meaning are far from certain. We see this in the case of Trump's Russia woes or the hyperventilating coverage of hurricanes that still loll hundreds of miles off-shore. There may be collusion with Russia; or there may not be. If there is, Trump may be impeached; or he may not be. The hurricane may ravage coastal cities...or may fizzle out or miss the mainland altogether (which is usually the case). So why obsessively cover such quasi-events in terms of what might happen...but hasn't, really, yet?

Which begs another question: Of all those margin notes that vie for elevation to media melodrama, which do journalists choose to highlight each day? The answer to that question is governed by a process known as news judgment, wherein media gatekeepers apply their own criteria in deciding what’s vital for the public to know. Though there's often unanimity on the lead stories, various news outlets will have different slants on the composition of the rest of the day’s must-know news. So these events are not only (a) anomalous, but (b) cherry-picked from a large orchard of anomalous stories based on subjective criteria. There is no overstating the importance of this simple truth, for this is where the canonical McLuhanism about media and message comes into play: If it's on the news, we figure it's newsworthy, ipso facto. And yet what was important enough to appear on to MSNBC last night may very have been ignored by Fox. And vice versa.

Even in the case of the top stories, journalists will decide what other facts to drag in to contextualize them. This shaping process (often called narrative) may give the lead story a meaning that isn't inherent in the raw facts. What, after all, is the overarching significance of a single unarmed black man shot by a cop? For that matter, in any given year, what is the significance of a dozen unarmed black men shot by cops? Yes, it could be what epidemiologists call a cluster, indicating that “something is going on.” Or it could be a simple aberration of the laws of chance, into which we've injected extraneous meaning.

Similarly, is every newly discovered contact between a Trump campaign official and someone with a Russian-sounding surname further evidence of collusion—or a distraction whose importance pales by comparison to the economy's steady hum? Is the “campus rape crisis” more about women being exploited, or men being deprived of due process? Is #TakeAKnee another tear in the social fabric...or is it symbolic of the inalienable rights upon which the social fabric depends? The media contextualization will suggest how we're supposed to feel. But that's hardly the same as Ultimate Truth. Would you agree?

Outside of a Hurricane Harvey or a 9/11, you see, only hindsight can tell us when a given piece of news was destined to transcend randomness and move into the realm of enduring consequence. No one can know this as it's happening—no, not even Wolf Blitzer. Even my Uber drivers could tell you that...


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* or at least your actual America. 

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