2017 in Review: The (non) Story of the Year

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There’s a common adage among skeptics the world over: “Who watches the watchdog?”

Decades ago I had the honor of serving on the HFL School District’s newly formed “Technology Committee.” This group was tasked with the job of trying to determine the best way to integrate the then new technology of personal computers (and related software) into the learning environment. We quickly saw one of the greatest advantages as the enhanced ability to conduct research from direct sources. Librarians saw this as an opportunity to free up rare shelf space by replacing printed (and quickly outdated) encyclopedias with their digital (and instantly undated) equivalent.

For every upside, however, there’s a glaring downside. In this case, it was the credibility of the source. Britannica curates its encyclopedia, so there’s reasonable assurance the facts it presents have been thoroughly checked. But what about the vast amounts of uncurated raw content spawning fast (even then) on this new thing called the “world wide web”? Who checks those facts.

As diligent adults trained in research integrity – no matter what our varied professional background – we understood this to be a potential problem. Back then, the decision among educators was to create a “white list” of acceptable mass media sources. This included the usual names of popular and well-known print, radio, and television companies.

Unfortunately, a dozen or so local folks with excellent insight and the best of intentions couldn’t stop the juggernaut that would become Facebook, Buzzfeed, and YouTube. It soon became quite evident that anyone could upload anything in a fast and furious fashion. And no one could control that process. Nor would they want to. This was the living example of the First Amendment and our Founding Fathers would have been proud to have had a hand in laying the foundation of such a free and open society. Everyone with a modem and a keyboard had a right to say whatever they wanted, just as two centuries ago everyone with a printing press, paper, and ink had a right to say what they wanted.

Only, today, there are more people, and more keyboards, and you don’t even need a modem like you did two decades ago.

That being said, just because we all understand and accept that no one in America can prevent another person from their free speech (no matter how obnoxious), we also understand we are not obligated to believe everything we read. In other words, “free speech” can never be curtailed, but “free listening” must act as our own personal and individual “curator.”

Which brings us to so-called “fake news.” The term itself is fake. There is no such thing as “fake news,” as anyone well-studied in the art of rhetoric can attest. Of late, blaming “fake news” for all the ills of the world has become a favorite parlor game. To counter such fake news, several states (by coincidence, all controlled by the same political party and, by further coincidence, all following the 2016 election) have begun efforts to mandate “media literacy.” They’ll soon no doubt discover the problem with such government intrusion, as Facebook infamously (and recently) did.

Immediately following the 2016 election (again, by coincidence), Facebook, standing accused as allowing itself to be an enabler of “Russian Collusion,” grandly announced it would create a plan to address its role in the spread of “fake news.” One news executive was quoted by another news organization as saying, “Facebook has been under fire for this fake news flap. They obviously needed to do something. A lot of these elements seem like they’re logical steps to kind of help with the fake news scourge,” (“Facebook unveils new plan to try to curb fake news,” CBS News, December 15, 2016). Facebook created a reporting system and brought on partners like ABC News to vet suspected fake news.

A year later, Facebook, its tail between its legs, scrapped the program (“Facebook fail: Social network scraps ‘disputed’ flags on ‘fake news’,” USA Today, December 21, 2017). It turns out, as any behavioral psychologist would have predicted, flagging “fake news,” rather than discouraging readers, only encouraged them. But this wasn’t the only problem with Facebook’s effort. The problem ran much deeper, and well beyond Facebook. The problem was with the White List itself.

It turns out, the news media no longer prides itself on “curating” the news. Instead, at the behest of the usual bean counters, and despite what professional journalists say (and even believe), what matters most are clicks, audience count, and Nielsen Ratings. And what’s the best way to gin up these numbers? Why using the same click-bait tactics employed by the much despised purveyors of fake news.

Worse, these former White Listers have not only shunned the concept of curation, they actively pursue the opposite – the purposeful creation of news. Call this the “Woodward-Bernstein Effect.” It seems (by coincidence since the 2016 election) every reporter and editor today wants the head of a president mounted above their fireplace mantel. This obsession drives their day-to-day research, every narrative they write, and all the stories they publish. It’s no longer about the news, its about pushing an agenda in search of a Pulitzer (see “Newsroom Pros Reveal Candid Truth About Media Bias,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, October 19, 2017).

I’m sure you see what I’m talking about (assuming you still partake of mass media news consumption). You see it every time the organization brags about its prowess in “investigative” reporting. While this is a laudable goal, it breaks down the moment the organization fails to curate and instead promotes an advocacy position. Then, as we have seen over the last year, you see only one point of view – and a lot of missed opportunities.

So, the biggest story of the year is the one that was never printed. All the King’s investigative reporters and all the King’s editors (and a special prosecutor) couldn’t uncover any real evidence of any sort of illegal collusion, despite a year of trying. Yet they’ve managed to write, publish, and broadcast an endless font of stories on the subject, including several notable ones that had to be almost immediately retracted. What stories did they fail to uncover in the process? Those are the stories of the year.

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