Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fake News and the Death of the Donut

Many years ago -- in another age, an age where newspapers, television, and magazines thrived, and journalism schools were filled with bright young students, one commonly taught principle of fair reporting used the humble donut as its metaphor. The center of the donut -- the hole -- represented facts and matters of general consensus: George Washington was the first president of the United States, men walked on the moon on July 20th, 1969, and vaccines were vital to winning the war over dangerous childhood diseased. No one disagreed -- then, at least -- about these matters, and there was no need to present alternative views about them.

The donut itself consisted of matters about which reasonable people might disagree: Was the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit a good idea? Was Sir Winston Churchill the greatest British Prime Minister? Should we get rid of daylight savings time? When an issue fell within the donut, responsible journalism called for balance, and the representation of opposing views. Then there was the outside of the donut. Earth was colonized by aliens in 40,000 B.C. -- the Holocaust never happened -- Abraham Lincoln was never assassinated, but lived to the age of 87 in a secret log cabin in the hills of Virginia. These ideas were the stuff of the "lunatic fringe," and the proper way for serious journalists to respond to them was not to respond to them at all. This model, of course, assumed that journalists -- because they alone had the opportunity to disseminate news to millions of people -- could and should function as gatekeepers of our shared sense of reality. In such a day, Walter Cronkite could reasonably say, "And that's the way it is," knowing that the stories on the evening news had been carefully reported, fact-checked, and vetted before they went on the air.

We shouldn't necessarily blame the journalists of today for the death of the donut. It's still there, to some extent, at the larger national and international newspapers, and some (though not all) network news shows. But the gate that the press was keeping was in a wall -- a wall representing the cost of disseminating news, printing papers, erecting transmission towers and building television studios -- that simply no longer exists. There's no need for any news to pass through this gateway; like the lovely wrought-iron gate of Cremorne Gardens in London, it stands by itself, is easily walked around, and the gardens to which it once led have long vanished. There's no chance of such a barrier being rebuilt in the future, and none of the efforts of social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter are going to have much effect, since anyone who wants to can find a workaround to whatever filters or barriers they erect.

Is there any hope at all? Well, certainly the remaining outlets of old-fashioned journalism should be taking the lead by calling a lie a lie, and continuing to robustly fact-checking their own stories. Sites such as Snopes.com can help, and the increase of traffic there is a healthy sign that some people actually do want to check up on an implausible or dodgy story they've heard. But what it really means is that everybody is going to have to do their own checking, and that in addition to teaching mere facts, the task of education, now more than ever, must be to give students the tools to sort out the wheat of information from the chaff of useless babble, and the poison of disinformation, rumor, and conspiracy theories.

There's only one problem with this hope, of course -- that those who write, share, and consume those poisons have the same robust tools to keep reality from their gates as do those who favor reality. It's going to be a bumpy night.