Tallahassee Democrat’s Bill Cotterell
March 22, 2017
When I worked in Atlanta, the speaker of the Georgia House had a rote response to everything said in floor debates.
Like “Jeopardy” contestants, members would frame statements as questions. A member might say, “Mr. Speaker, is this the bill that will cut taxes, provide farm-to-market roads, improve education, stop violent crime, create jobs and help the Bulldogs win a national championship?”
The speaker, usually not listening, would impartially reply, “If the member so states, I’m sure that is the information he (or she) wishes to put before this body.”
That’s my mental response to fake news. Somebody, somewhere, for some reason, wants us to think a certain way about a person, product, issue, event, or even a whole country or race. It may or may not be true.
We’re having a fake news self-defense seminar here at the newspaper next Monday, from 7 to 9 p.m. Editor William Hatfield, Lynn Hatter of WFSU-FM, Joshua Gillin of Politifact and Tampa Bay Times capital reporter Steve Bousquet will explore the recent rise of pseudo-information galloping around the internet.
I will moderate the panel discussion, arranged by the League of Women Voters and the First Amendment Foundation. There’s a $15 admission charge, for the FAF to continue its lobbying efforts for open government.
It’s a shame that the news media have to defend not just the quality, but the very existence, of their stock in trade. Nobody accuses Detroit of making fake cars, or says doctors and lawyers don’t really practice their professions. No one disputes that what Mike Martin and the Seminoles are doing is, in fact, baseball.
But the media are probably the only business that has to, daily, play defense. We deserve it, to some extent. We make mistakes and, less often, show a bias or an ignorance of facts. We let public relations people plant junk-news puffery. Our faults are more often sins of omission than commission, but that matters little to the readers, viewers or listeners.
It’s not new. Supporters of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson spread scurrilous lies. Wanting war with Spain, New York Journal publisher William Randolph Hearst sent an artist to Cuba in 1897 to expose atrocities. When the man found no war crimes, Hearst famously cabled, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Nazi publisher Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg for years of printing vile falsehoods boosting Hitler’s genocide and war plans.
Today, social media have made it much easier and quicker to spread bad information as well as good stuff.
A century ago, big cities had multiple newspapers. You could feed your prejudices with an anti-immigrant paper, a pro-union sheet, isolationist or internationalist papers — just like you can today, with web sites, talk-radio shows or nightly cable TV fare.
But the stridently partisan stuff is a far, far cry from Trump’s stupid — though not criminal — lies about digging up incredible secret details about President Obama’s birth, or his recent tweets about his predecessor bugging his phones. Trump’s tweets mainly appeal to, or appall, those who already like or dislike him. While their cumulative effect damages his credibility, his steady drumbeat of references to “fake news” and the “failing” New York Times or CNN is damaging to ours.
I won’t participate in Monday’s discussion here at the paper, because nobody goes to a speech or symposium to hear the introducer. So let me take what legislators call a “point of personal privilege” to give you my take.
First, use multiple sources. The internet is wonderful, in that you can sit in Tallahassee and check the Los Angeles Times or the BBC, or what Trump once referred to as some 300-pound guy sitting up in bed in the middle of the night. But the internet needs an editor, some way of identifying supposed “satire” and deliberate fakery.
Second, watch out for what researchers call “confirmation bias.” If a story makes you really happy, reinforcing what you want to believe, you should be at least as skeptical as you’d be about something that contradicts everything you think.
Finally, consider the source. You may not like CNN or The Washington Post or the Tallahassee Democrat, but at least you know who we are and what business we’re in. When you see a Facebook post linking to an unknown URL, or somebody sends you a story from a site you never heard of, it’s like some stranger stopping you on the street to tell you something.
As the Georgia House speaker used to say, I’m sure that’s the information the person wishes to tell you. [READ MORE]