What’s wrong with journalism today: Part 1 – Fake News

December 21, 2016

The sudden global interest in “fake news” sparked by the US elections and allegations of Russian interference to support Trump’s campaign has led several IA readers to contact me asking why both the mainstream media and the alternative social journalism sphere both seem to lie with impunity, or at least are prepared to promote unverified rumour as actual news.

I’ve attempted to provide some answers in recent weeks in terms of the so-called “post-truth” media landscape, the widespread dissemination of propaganda in the guise of independent reporting and the deliberate misinformation spread by both the Clinton and the Trump camps during the election season.

But it seems that these are only partial explanations that deal with the surface issues and practicalities, without delving deeper into the psychological, philosophical and intellectual roots of the problem. This week I thought I might attempt to answer some of these more puzzling questions.

It must be true, it’s on Facebook

A good example of the confusing feedback loop between journalism and social media is this illustration, which was sent to me by a friend on Facebook. How do we account for this deliberate attempt to tailor perspectives and expectations when it is done by a so-called “respectable” publication, the Wall Street Journal?

The ‘Trump softens his tone’ headline was for the New York market, which is more soft-l liberal and therefore inclined not to like the idea of Trump’s wall. The ‘Trump talks tough on wall’ headline was for the Texas edition of the WSJ. In Texas there is likely to be more support for the idea of a wall on the border with Mexico. This manipulation might be simply about pandering to a particular demographic and, given the headline is always bait to hook the casual reader, in this case it’s straightforward: a “gung-ho” headline for the rednecks and a softer tone for the liberals of New York.

However, it’s not true. The meme circulating on social media with the photograph shown here was itself faked. The WSJ copies in question are from 31 August this year and, according to the myth-busting website Snopes, they represent and early (on the left) and late edition (on the right).

So, who is fooling whom? It is difficult to tell. We trust our friends and when they circulate material into our newsfeed on Facebook, we want to believe them, we assume the information they present to us is true.

But what if they don’t check? The original tweet alleging the WSJ scam was retweeted more than 2000 times.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/ScottAdamsSays”>@ScottAdamsSays</a&gt; Same paper, same day, same article. Different areas = different title <a href=”https://t.co/5lD9o4KN3S”>pic.twitter.com/5lD9o4KN3S</a></p>&mdash; John Ryder (@KHyperborea) <a href=”https://twitter.com/KHyperborea/status/771715650033029120″>September 2, 2016</a></blockquote>

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As you can see from the comment thread this tweet generated, plenty of people – and especially Trump supporters – were inclined to believe it. The belief comes because the prejudice of conservatives (Of course, the WSJ is lying, it supports Hillary) are confirmed and they are more than happy to accept it as gospel, without checking. But Hillary supporters also want to believe that the WSJ was secretly aiding the Trump campaign. Both lies can’t be true.

wsj-changes-headline-in-different-markets-screenshot-www-facebook-com-2016-12-14-11-11-01

Figure 1: We believe what we want to, but is it true?

What really happened is that Trump was presenting two different messages on the same day, which was a hallmark of his campaign. The original headline referred to a meeting Trump had with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto in which he took ‘a remarkably subdued and cooperative tone’, according to reports. The WSJ story was updated following a speech by Trump, later the same day, in which he made the yet-to-be-tested promise/threat that he would make Mexico pay for the infamous “wall” he pledged to build on the USA’s southern border. The speech was after, but close on the heels of his visit to Mexico.

In this example, the problem was not the Wall Street Journal, it was (and is) Donald J Trump. In this case the WSJ was legitimately updating its coverage of Trump’s campaign and quite rightly highlighted the shift in his rhetoric – a softer tone for the Mexican president and a belligerent outburst for his domestic supporters. Both Trump and Clinton supporters were prepared to believe that the WSJ had doctored its coverage, and social media helped both sides to spread misinformation to their own supporters and followers. However, there are clear cases where, for whatever reason, journalists get it wrong.

Read the rest of this story at Independent Australia.


Murdoch’s parties launch circulation war in Gotham City

April 28, 2010

Rupert Murdoch threw two launch parties for his ambitious raid on the New York newspaper market this week.

The first was a breakfast of bagels, juice and coffee for the industry insiders and speeches talking up the advertising success of the Wall Street Journal‘s new New York supplement.

To be fair, the NYT blogger David Carr covered the breakfast and reported this extraordinary quote from WSJ CEO Robert Thomson:

“Unless journalism is sustainable, it will be inevitably diminished, regardless of the incoherent incantations and the superciliousness of the journalistic elite. That elite has all the ossification of the traditional bourgeoisie, and Baudelaire was definitely correct when he said ‘One must shock the bourgeois,’” said Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, quoting both Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde to an audience munching on quiche and salmon-dappled bagels. He received the biggest laugh of the day by advising the audience, “If you really must read The New York Times, read it on the Web for free and then buy The Wall Street Journal.” [Media Decoder]

Thomson also hinted at further assaults across America as the business paper tries to compete with local broadsheets. At the same time the paper is offering discounts to advertisers – at least in the initial phase of the campaign to conquer America.

It’s a good job then that Murdoch has deep pockets and friendly (offshore) bankers behind him. It could get expensive.

The second launch party was an evening affair at Gotham Hall and, according to one guest, the food and drink were nothing much to get excited about. Significantly, perhaps. NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg was at Murdoch’s shoulder for this event.

Bloomberg was typical of the city’s elite who were celebrating with Murdoch (and at his expense – this type of bash doesn’t come cheap in Gotham, even if the catering does run to “pizza station”).

The power in the room last night was a very specific New York one, presumably the type of people Mr. Murdoch needs to win over with his new section. Henry Kravis and developer Bill Rudin were there, as was an outgoing deputy mayor, Ed Skyler, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and attorney general hopeful Kathleen Rice. It felt like a Real Estate Board of New York party. (In fact, the REBNY chairman, Steve Spinola, was on the tip sheet produced by Rubenstein Associates for reporters prior to the party.) The likes of Graydon Carter and Tina Brown were nowhere to be seen. [Media Mob]

Graydon Carter is the publisher of Vanity Fair. Tina Brown is an institution in New York media and now runs the internet news agregator The Daily Beast. No wonder Murdoch didn’t invite her, he hates agregators.

I can’t help wondering though if the irony in Robert Thomson’s breakfast speech would be lost on these well-heeled bourgeois.

Will Murdoch introduce Bingo and page 3 girls into the WSJ? It’s unlikely, but there may well be other gimmicks that might shock the bourgeois of Gotham.

However, I doubt very much that they’d be shocked by Murdoch’s business tactics. If he succeeds they all stand to benefit.

The real issue is what impact this fight between two old media heavyweights will have on the newspaper market in New York – arguably one of the most important on the planet – and whether it will spread to other American cities, or to global markets.

Murdoch’s presence in both the UK and Australia is well established. In London, Melbourne and Sydney he is in multi-paper markets (like NYC), but his market-share is strong.

What’s also not clear is whether the brawl between two aging print dinosaurs will hasten the death of newspapers, or breathe new life into them.