Saturday, December 10, 2016

When The News Is The News

     Arthur Herzog, in his invaluable little book The B.S. Factor, notes that the trade we call “reporting” has a number of little tricks with which to garner readers’ attention. Some of those tricks have approximately nothing to do with the news...and some of them are reflexive, even obsessive about the news itself.

     Herzog’s introduction to the topic, which he calls “Newsthink,” is particularly sharp:

     Newsthink is the rhetorical bias of the news media in favor of news. Perhaps no other fact today concerning information is more important – and more neglected. the vested interest of news in news being what it is, news will not easily admit to creating news. It is too busy announcing it’s NEWS.

     Herzog published that in 1974. What he would think of today’s journalism, I can’t imagine...but I’d surely love to hear his opinion of the recent, highly ballyhooed campaign by major news media against other news media, using the rhetorical bludgeon of the hour: “fake news.”

     Those of us who use words according to their exact meanings would naturally interpret the phrase “fake news” to mean “material that looks like a news report, but isn’t.” That would encompass deliberate satires such as those produced by The Onion and The Hard Times, but it would also (and with greater significance) address deliberate distortions or outright fabrications presented to the news-consuming public as legitimate news.

     Have a few links:

     All the above-linked articles have something to say on the subject. It isn’t pretty, but then, the self-immolation of an industry seldom is.

     However, being of the opinion that a significant event is unlikely to have only one cause, I submit that it’s not merely the desire of the left-inclined major media to delegitimize reportage and opinion that counters their preferences. Other factors are at work, as well.

     The major media – Old Media; Main Stream Media; Legacy Media; call them what you will – aren’t merely busy reporting on events. They’re equally concerned with:

  • Creating stories that help to persuade readers of the soundness of left-liberal nostrums;
  • Framing their reportage of actual events in a fashion favorable to their ideological brethren;
  • Suppressing events harmful to their preferred narrative that cannot be reframed to their liking.

     These undertakings become more difficult as more people exert themselves to report on events near to them, dear to them, or both via the World Wide Web. The greatly accelerated pace of reporting has also strained the major media, whose approach to investigation, reportage, and the dissemination of the ultimate product is founded on a Nineteenth-Century model. Factor in the ever plainer bias of their editorial staffs, and the insistence on those staffs that what appears in their organs must fit a preferred narrative – one veteran reporter called it “top-down journalism” – and it’s easy to see why the barons of the major media would purely love to delegitimize their Web-based, predominantly conservative competition.

     In consequence, we have the new “fake news” gambit: an attempt by coordinated disparagement to rule out of consideration essentially any reportage that fails to originate from the major media. Needless to say, left-liberal politicians are fully on board with this, as indie reporting and Web-based dissemination has done their ideologies and electoral fortunes a great deal of harm.

     The suppliers of coal for heating tried to suppress the use of oil-fired furnaces. The makers of gas-burning lighting systems tried to suppress the electrically powered light bulb. The makers of horse-drawn carriages tried to suppress the rise of the automobile. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now...unless the major media can enlist the federal government in its efforts.

     The incoming administration will be right-of-center. You might think that will protect freedom of expression at least for the duration of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House. I’d like to think so, myself...but not all the portents are favorable, as the recent foofaurauw over flag-burning should suggest. Remember that the Fairness Doctrine, used successfully by two generations of left-liberals to suppress conservative opinion on the airwaves, was imposed upon America’s radio and television stations at the behest of Richard Nixon.

     When it comes to information, its factual accuracy, and its wide, prompt availability, there’s never a time to relax one’s vigilance.

     [In this connection, see also Jean-Francois Revel’s blockbuster The Flight From Truth.]

     And now for something completely different:


Pascal said...

Let me be the first to point out that we are experiencing a déjà vu with this fake news campaign of the Soviet-Style Media (SSM).

That was how the pamphleteers were greeted by the powers prior to the American Revolution. In those days it was not uncommon for the pamphleteers to publish anonymously to save their necks from the kings.

In fact my pseudonym is a tribute to the persistence of one of the most effective of those men. Blaise Pascal proved to be prudent in publishing the "Provincial Letters" anonymously. Shortly afterwards, the Jesuits whose irrationality he exposed so effectively convinced King Louis XIV to put a price of the head of the unknown author. We must suspect that TPTB would love to do the same to many of us.

So I say it is wise to see this meme as only their first direct assault. When it fails as it must, it would be wise for web authors to be prepared for far worse.

Howard Nelson said...

Fake news? I thought that is/are called lies, in common parlance.
Simple truth tramples obfuscating defecations.

John said...


If you don't know it you should have a look at this paper:

On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit

Anonymous said...

As with all ambushes the way to break it is to charge in guns ablazin'. Keep your cool and have that convo about fake news. It should be great fun to point out that the MSM (NBC is most obvious to me) are the peddlers of 'fake news'. The Hernandez 911 tape editing and the antics of Brian Williams are probably good enough to give your dear liberal acquaintance fits. We do not lack for ammunition in this particular fight.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Indeed, Anon. It's standard tactical doctrine to attack into an ambush, whether it's sprung upon you or you trip it deliberately. Just make sure you're appropriately equipped.