The Conundrum

In a discussion the other day with a friend and former legal colleague, we recalled the mantra of the law firm with which we’d once practiced: there is only one legal question, and it’s “what do we do?” What course of action do we advise the client to pursue?

I think about that mantra a lot these days, and most frequently in connection with the media.

I’m convinced that so many of the problems that bedevil American society today are exacerbated by a media landscape that is wildly fragmented. Not only are numerous media outlets–credible and not-so-credible– nakedly partisan, but thanks to the internet, they are all immediately accessible to citizens looking for “news” that confirms their world-views.

Partisan news organizations are nothing new–if you don’t believe me, read up on the vicious contemporaneous attacks on “ungodly” Thomas Jefferson. What is new is the sheer number of media outlets and the ease of accessing them.

The problem isn’t confined to out-and-out propaganda mills. Dubious stories from slanted outlets can and do get picked up by credible news organizations, and its a truism that later “corrections” are seldom as widely read as the initial misinformation.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo recently reported on an example: the New York Post had run a “made-for-Fox News story” about veterans who, it reported, had been “booted out of hotels about an hour north of New York City to make way for migrants”.

As I said, it was a made-for-Fox News: Here are these disabled or impoverished American veterans getting kicked to the curb to make way for migrants with no permission to be in the country in the first place. Politicians jumped on the story. The Post ran it. It made the rounds of the wingnutosphere. Fox of course got on board.

But none of it was true. And I don’t just mean not true in the sense of being misleading or incomplete or embellished or sensationalized. It was a hoax. Sharon Toney-Finch, the founder and head of a small local nonprofit, the YIT Foundation, which focuses on veterans issue and premature births (?) was the source of the original story. But it turns out the she recruited a group of 15 homeless men from a local shelter to impersonate veterans and talk to the press about their tale of woe.

After a few of the homeless men admitted the truth to reporters, Toney-Finch confessed she’d made the whole thing up.

The hoax was apparently perpetrated with the aim of creating a media spectacle for  the right-wing press–to focus on the Biden administration’s terrible, awful, no-good  approach to immigration, and  the purported national immigration crisis. Even the Post has now been forced to recant and report on Toney-Finch’s hoax.

A local paper, The Mid-Hudson News, uncovered the truth with what Marshall notes was “a lot of shoe-leather reporting.”

This relatively minor story is a microcosm of our current dilemma. Today’s media environment is a Wild West of propaganda, spin, misinformation and outright lies. Along with the partisans peddling that propaganda and those lies are genuine reporters working for outlets that practice old-fashioned “shoe leather” journalism. And protecting them all are the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment.

So–what do we do?

What we clearly cannot and should not do is eliminate or constrict those First Amendment protections. The result of that would be to hand over to government the power to censor communications.

In some cases, like the recent Dominion lawsuit against Fox, libel law can be employed to punish the most egregious behaviors, but this is a very slim reed: few of those who’ve been libeled have the means to bring such suits, and they are–quite properly–very difficult to win.

Unfortunately, new rules that would make it easier to sue over misinformation would end up constraining real journalists as well as the sloppy or dishonest ones–when you are creating the “first draft of history,” it can be easy for even good reporters to make mistakes, not to mention that in the multiple gray areas of modern life, one person’s truth is another person’s lie.

The only answer I can come up with is better education and a change in the information culture–both long-term projects. Teaching critical thinking and media literacy in the schools–although highly unlikely in those fundamentalist religious schools to which our legislature sends our tax dollars–would help. Organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists that issue codes of ethics might consider “rating” outlets based upon their observance of those ethical standards.

But as long as individuals can search for and locate “facts” they find congenial, Americans will continue to inhabit alternate realities. I just don’t have an answer to “what do we do?”


  1. Very insightful post, Sheila. My first answer echoes where you aptlyvbegan the conversation: I do not know what to do much less advise others what to do. However, I have risen above the fray by the mantra: “live and let live”.

  2. There have been a plethora of cities, including Indianapolis, that have started an ethics committee where citizens can serve and hold the government accountable.

    There are also groups moving into Indianapolis to replace the shoddy work of Gannett’s rag. I’m closely watching how they fund themselves and who controls the editorial board.

    Plenty of good muckrakers are out there holding the press accountable for their yellow journalism.

    For these good entities to grow or scale up, they need funding. I would recommend a combination of employee-owned and citizen-owned who pay subscriptions. In other words, democratize alternative media so oligarchs do not restrict them.

  3. One problem with the solution of litigation is the time it takes to get to a resolution. With the limited attention span of Americans, the issue is forgotten. This is the key to the success of Steve Bannon et al, who carry the ethic of “move fast and break stuff”.

  4. “I’m convinced that so many of the problems that bedevil American society today are exacerbated by a media landscape that is wildly fragmented.”

    Those of us who are paying attention to the media are well aware of this; we must separate fact from alternate facts, fiction and out-and-out lies. This takes time and to search through those media immediately accessible outlets, which usually lead to searching other accessible outlets and leaving us the job of finding the credible information to answer one simple question. The current Republican Party’s scare tactics are working and working well; we must now concentrate over this Memorial Day Holiday Weekend IF or WHEN we MIGHT receive our Social Security checks to pay basic bills. The majority if Americans have worked for income levels which forced us to live paycheck-to-paycheck, with little to accrue savings or invest for profit.
    Is there a viable answer to “…what do we do?”

    Indiana’s Republican Party privatized/outsourced (a name by any other would smell as bad) our Public Employee Retiree Funds to State Street Bank Retiree Services which cut our monthly retirement income. A little research on that issue which isn’t covered in the media and what I discovered via INTUIT Turbotax web site is, “State Street Retiree Services for USPBGC (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation), so they only step in after your company fails to fund pensions, so the amount given is far less than the amount promised. Typically pennies on the dollar.” In this case it is the State, so what did Indiana Republicans do with our Public Employee Retiree Fund money? We and other retirees are now waiting for the answers to a double conundrum of “…what do we do?”

    We can’t blame the media for this mess.

  5. James Todd, “This is the key to the success of Steve Bannon et al, who carry the ethic of “move fast and break stuff”.

    That comment took me back to the early 1990s as I watched Steve Goldsmith destroy the Indiana Republican Party from within Indianapolis City Government. His first edicts were to destroy all files and paperwork from the Hudnut adminstration, huge trash bins were rolled into all offices to accomplish this. Then came his order “If it ain’t broke, break it” quickly followed by “Don’t worry about rules, ordinances or laws; they can be changed.” But, they never changed so the remaining Hudnut employees were left with the conundrum of either ignoring rules, ordinances and laws to do the job their way or to continue doing the job the correct way to get it done completely and on time. The written media at that time was his wife’s grandfather’s ownership of the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News and reported on local newscasts.

    My repeated references to the Indianapolis Goldsmith Mayoral administration is not old news; it is the history of the destruction of the workable Republican Party in the entire state of Indiana.

  6. “The only answer I can come up with is better education…” Good thing today’s elected officials are so supportive of education! … … … Wait a minute… hmmmmmm.

  7. The Internet has removed almost all barriers to being published. In the past to be heard you had to spend money and most people are little more rational about where they spend their money, so there was SOME control.

    Do you remember last year when a Red-Wave was predicted? The start of that red wave was opinion poll run by two high school students hoping to embellish college resumes. They ran a non-scientific poll that predicted Republicans would win. That got picked up by the likes of Fox, and then other cheap quick Internet based polls were run and those got picked up by Fox. Early but expensive boots on the ground polls didn’t get that result, but because they were done early and so few of them were done (because doing a poll right is expensive), nobody remembered them, or started doubting them.

    Education is key, but darn, it’s hard to get people to think for themselves. Life is so much easier and less stressful if you don’t let pesky things like facts or morality get in the way of what you think.

  8. The problem isn’t protecting the first amendment. The problem is people lying to the media. Why aren’t the media giants suing the people that lied to them? Is there a lack of laws punishing these liars? Why aren’t the cristofacists in our legislations passing laws to punish liars? Oh nevermind, it’s to their advantage to manipulate the news.

  9. I noted several years ago that the creation of the 24 hour news channel began a downward slide from which we have never recovered. There simply isn’t enough real news to fill a 24 hour cycle. The pundits are left to their own devices to fill the time, which they usually do with bull.

  10. Thank you, Theresia, that “red wave” story is just a gem!
    First, let us not forget that the N.Y. Post and Fox, are both Murdoch outlets.
    Then, the only feasible answer I have to the question of the day, is the education
    angle. Beyond that, I am in the “I don’t know” camp. The problem with the education
    option is that it would take a long time to see results, unless someone can fund a blitz
    of ads introducing the idea of evidence based truth across the country. Biden has the “Bully
    Pulpit,” but would be attacked by those who would stand to lose by it. And, yeah, he’s got
    other stuff on his plate.

  11. I joIn SheIla in recognizing the problem but not being able to solve it given constitutional constraints and other limitations. The Wild West of internet opinion, propaganda, and downright made-up stories like the veteran-migrant story Sheila cites today hasn’t helped us police truth in public discourse.

    I fear that the only solution is long term, i. e., honing of critical thinking skills (assuming we can survive this blitz of misinformation until then, and that voucher and religious schools are required to include teaching such skills as a condition to public funding – fat chance).

    As for short and medium term solutions with the First Amendment and police state claims overshadowing any attempts to end such misinformation, I have none other than continuing to point out their falsity and calling out those who misinform (aka lying).

  12. The real problem which took decades to sneak up on us is journalism for profit combined with the illusion of things for “free”, like entertainment.

    The result is journalism for profit for “free”, a snare and delusion, but we’re suckers for it.

    The stumbling block is what do we do about it?

    It’s a global problem.

    Defining a problem is necessary but insufficient.

  13. I think the point here is the lunacy of it all.

    As technology progresses, so does the willingness to use it for manipulation of opinion, politics, and religion!

    Thousands of years ago, through the Greek and Roman empires, and down through the British empire, The seeds of such manipulation were planted. The Romans ran with it, they rebranded Greek government and Christian religion as their own. In the end, the Romans became top heavy, their empire rotted beneath their feet. Their outsourced mercenary army wanted to become Roman citizens which was refused, and they ended up sacking Rome themselves.

    Fast forward to the British, a small colony of Rome in the beginning, really lead the slave trade by sheer volume. And then, the thought process couldn’t have been spelled out any better than Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.”

    This Not so latent opinion is so deeply ingrained in white supremacy, they latch on to anything as in being WOKE for example as a rallying cry.

    Now that everything is so instantaneous, they pepper society with a scatter gun of untruths and bewildering claims. Most are too lazy to try and research for themselves, therefore they end up being told what to believe and that’s exactly what they do.

    You can’t fight it, it’s too embedded, especially with technology today, it’s only going to get worse. This is where you say, you’ve reached the end of the line, a point where the tether has been broken, and there is no going back to straighten things out.

    How bad will it get? I would say pretty bad, I would imagine there’ll be a global grieving and massive destruction. Humanity contains those who thirst for power and the means to smother everyone with their dogmas and opinions through the explosion of technology. Humanity also contains those who will swallow anything hook line and sinker because they don’t have the willpower or the desire to think. They are lazy wanting to be told what to believe. Why do you think education is an enemy? Why do you think diversity is an enemy? Today, You have a woke boogeyman, it motivates the hate.

    Oh Rudyard Kipling, you had your finger on the pulse didn’t you? SMH

  14. My Swiss friend has admitted that the media reports out of the states makes her “afraid” to ever visit me when we move back to the states. Gun violence, healthcare issues when visiting and the sense that all the racists and rapists are going to hit you when you come into the country. Honestly, it’s the best anti-America media money can buy. Truth might be the answer but it seems FEAR sells more.

  15. Glad to see that E. Jean Carroll was able to successively sue Donald Trump for defamation, and for suing him again for his continued public defaming of her. She’s a brave woman for standing up to the bombastic and crass bully.
    I’d like to see Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman get some justice for their ordeal of not giving in to the Trump campaign to lie about stuffing ballots. Their lawyers would have to prove that the perps knew they were lying. So put more burden on the victims. Somethings not fair here.
    The precedent of the Sullivan Doctrine was started in a segregated Alabama court room to protect the local racist ways and should be reframed today.
    Yea, we have the freedom to say what we want, but if the intent is to give one power or advantage over another in an unfair way then we should be able to have recourse in a civil way..

  16. Todd–I like your idea. While there have always been lies — I am not going to use the media’s favorite euphemism of the word ‘misinformation’. It is lying and pure manipulation; but lying has become some permissive and now it is on a global scale.

    We have come to expect it is ‘normal’ for politicians to lie and so its become normalized–Santos lied about everything on a resume?…most just shrug and say–well, he is a politician, that is what they do.

    Media–lying and manipulating?–shrug, that is what they do. Our expectations have lowered that we no longer expect integrity and the truth–we expect lying and when they are caught in their lies, we shrug and comment with a ‘yep’.

    I look at our infrastructure and drive Nashville, TN traffic every day for 3 hours per day. I heard tell that you can travel from Italy to northern Germany and never hit a pothole!! Here–our expectations are so low we expect nothing but mediocrity from everything–from gov’t , businesses, healthcare, schools, etc…we have been conditioned–the quip for the past 3 years–‘it is what it is’—when I graduated from high school in 1987 our mantra was nothing inspiring it was ‘Life’s a Bitch and then you die’

  17. One thing most people hate even more than being lied to is admitting that they have fallen for a lie. The shame and embarrassment of being found gullible (or even just mistaken) often causes them to defend positions they have publicly supported even after they know, or at least suspect, that they are wrong. The folks who have stayed on the fence instead of strongly identifying with either side of our political divide can more easily go either way. They are the ones I’m counting on to keep our country in balance.

  18. Two quick late at night thoughts –
    The “mainstream media” needs top grow a backbone. Misinformation? LIES!!!
    Have you noticed that the ancient political science text divided the political views as:
    Radical, Liberal, Centrist, Conservative, Reactionary.
    I’ve seen every term used by the press — except reactionary. Certain truths cannot be said.

    Then destroy intellectual property laws. All “directing” algorithms are public and get reviewed by independent analysts who can explain them in plain English. We can’t ban them, but we can point out what they do. Our protections for inventors and creators has gotten out of control (reminds me of the attempts to patent genes).

    But then again – it’s late. Maybe Sheila is right; only the long-term hope of better education will solve this.

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