Filters And Lies

I know I carp constantly about the degree to which propaganda and conspiracy theories have displaced credible information, with the result that today’s Americans occupy different realities. It’s easy to blame social media for the reach of disinformation and lies–and social media does bear a significant amount of the blame–but research also illuminates the way propaganda has changed in the era of cable news and the Internet.

That research has identified two modern mechanisms for eroding social trust and constructing alternate realities. One –to quote Steve Bannon’s vulgar description–is to “flood the airways with shit.” In other words, to produce mountains of conflicting “news” along with lots of “shiny objects.” The faux “news” confuses; the shiny objects distract. Citizens don’t know what to believe, what parts of the fire hose of information, disinformation, and outright invention they can trust. They either accept a particular storyline (chosen via confirmation bias) or opt out.

But it isn’t simply the fire hose approach that has eroded our common realities. These days, when people get most of their news from partisan sources, all too often they simply don’t get news that is inconsistent with partisan biases.

A recent, widespread report illustrates that technique. As the lede put it, “The problem with Fox ‘News,’ the cable TV channel, isn’t just what it is — it’s also what it isn’t.” It was a fascinating new study in which arch-conservative Fox TV viewers were paid to watch CNN for a month.

The study, titled “The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers,” was performed by a pair of political scientists: David Broockman, who teaches at UC-Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla, who teaches at Yale.

 According to Broockman and Kalla, when these Fox viewers watched CNN, they heard about all sorts of things Fox wasn’t telling them. They processed that information. They took it in. They became more knowledgeable about what was really going on in the United States.

The individuals who took part in the experiment didn’t change their political leanings or partisan preferences,  but the experience did alter their perceptions of certain key issues and political candidates.

The study authors differentiated between “traditionally emphasized forms of media influence,” like agenda setting and framing, and what they call “partisan coverage filtering”: the choice to selectively report information about selective topics, based on what’s favorable to the network’s partisan side, and ignore everything else.

The article emphasized what the author called the “real problem” with Fox : its viewers aren’t just manipulated and misinformed — they are left ignorant of much of the news covered by more reputable outlets. Fox gives them a lot of “news-like” information, but they don’t learn about things like Jared Kushner getting two billion dollars from Saudi Arabia.

That conclusion reminded me of another research project a couple of years ago. People were asked to identify their primary news sources and then quizzed on things currently in the news. Those who named Fox as their preferred news source knew less than people who didn’t watch any news from any source.

Lest you think that “filtering” of this sort is a tactic exclusive to the Right, when one of the authors of the research study was interviewed on CNN, he noted that CNN, too, filtered its reporting.

CNN’s Brian Stetler interviewed Joshua Kalla, one of the co-authors of the study, and they had the following exchange:

“You call this partisan coverage filtering,” Stelter told Kalla. “And basically, you’re proving what we’ve sensed for a while, which is that Fox viewers are in the dark about bad news for the GOP.”

Kalla confirmed the Fox News coverage model but put a stop to the victory lap: “On the flip side, CNN engages in this partisan coverage filtering as well… For example, during this time, the Abraham Accords were signed, and these were the agreements where Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed a major peace agreement. And we see that Fox News covered this really major accomplishment about 15 times more than CNN did. So we established both networks are really engaging in this partisan coverage filtering. It’s not about one side, it’s about the media writ large.”

To be fair, CNN is apparently less culpable in this regard than Fox..

America’s ugly politics is obviously attributable to a lot more than the country’s media environment, even if you throw in the very divisive algorithms used by social media. (After all, the KKK didn’t use the Internet.) But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both mass media and social media have contributed disproportionately to our loss of a common reality.

As always, the questions are: what policies might make things better? And can we pass those policies once they are identified?


Lies And Consequences

As the crazy coming out of the White House intensifies, a question lawyers are asking each other is: why aren’t the courts sanctioning the lawyers who are bringing these clearly frivolous election lawsuits?

Even judges that Trump appointed are ruling against him, and that’s certainly comforting. But most practicing lawyers would expect a reprimand or even disbarment for behaviors similar to those that have been displayed by Rudy Giuliani and crew.

At least the courts have uniformly dismissed the wild allegations of these lawsuits, and that consistency means that even if these sleazy lawyers escape retribution,  a couple of threatened lawsuits by election technology companies promise to hit their counterparts in the dishonest right-wing media where they will hurt–in their pocketbooks.

Rudy Giuliani has suggested that one company, Dominion Voting Systems, had a sinister connection to vote counts in “Michigan, Arizona and Georgia and other states.” Giuliani further tweeted that the company “was a front for SMARTMATIC, who was really doing the computing. Look up SMARTMATIC and tweet me what you think?”

Sidney Powell is out there saying that states like Texas, they turned away from Dominion machines, because really there’s only one reason why you buy a Dominion machine and you buy this Smartmatic software, so you can easily change votes,” the Newsmax host Chris Salcedo said in one typical mash-up on Nov. 18. Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business reported on Nov. 15 that “one source says that the key point to understand is that the Smartmatic system has a backdoor.”

These wild allegations finally tried the patience of the companies being smeared. As it happens, Smartmatic wasn’t even used by the contested states. The company is a major global player, but it pulled out of the United States in 2007, due to a controversy over its founders’ Venezuelan roots. Its only U.S. contract in November was a consulting arrangement with Los Angeles County.

Last week, Smartmatic’s lawyer sent demand letters to Fox News, Newsmax and OAN, demanding that they “immediately and forcefully” clear his company’s name. He also demanded that they retain documents for a planned defamation lawsuit.

According to legal experts, Smartmatic has an unusually strong case. And evidently, an equally strong lawyer, J. Erik Connolly. Connolly won the largest settlement in the history of American media defamation in 2017, when he represented a beef producer whose “lean finely textured beef” was described by ABC News as “pink slime.”

Now, Mr. Connolly’s target is a kind of red slime, the stream of preposterous lies coming from the White House and Republican officials around the country.

“We’ve gotten to this point where there’s so much falsity that is being spread on certain platforms, and you may need an occasion where you send a message, and that’s what punitive damages can do in a case like this,” Mr. Connolly said.

Dominion Voting Systems has also hired a high-profile libel lawyer, Tom Clare, who is also  threatening legal action against Ms. Powell and the Trump campaign.

Mr. Clare said in an emailed statement that “we are moving forward on the basis that she will not retract those false statements and that it will be necessary for Dominion to take aggressive legal action, both against Ms. Powell and the many others who have enabled and amplified her campaign of defamation by spreading damaging falsehoods about Dominion.”

Those “enablers” include Fox News, Newsmax and OAN. As the article points out,

Newsmax and OAN appear likely to face the same fate as so many of President Trump’s sycophants, who have watched him lie with impunity and imitated him — only to find that he’s the only one who can really get away with it. Mr. Trump benefits from presidential immunity, but also he has an experienced fabulist’s sense of where the legal red lines are, something his allies often lack.

“Fabulist” means liar.

OAN and Newsmax have hyped the Trump campaign’s ridiculous election claims. OAN has even refused to call Joe Biden the president-elect. Both are relatively small enterprises, and a successful lawsuit over their roles in Trump’s disinformation/conspiracy campaign could destroy them. Such lawsuits probably wouldn’t destroy Fox, but they could certainly inflict damage.

According to the report, Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned Dominion 792 times and Smartmatic 118 times between them. They’ve already begun to backtrack, airing a “corrective” segment on shows hosted by Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro and Maria Bartiromo.

Probably too little, too late.

This damaging, unethical behavior is why we have defamation laws and punitive damages.

I wonder what would happen to the “usual suspects”–the sources of consistently dishonest rightwing propaganda– if everyone they lied about sued them. Maybe we need a nonprofit legal organization that would represent people and organizations who’ve been libeled but can’t afford to sue..

I’d donate to that!


Covid And Right-Wing Media

The damage done by America’s loss of truly mass media–and especially the loss of trusted local newspapers–isn’t confined to government and civil society. Health officials are now reporting that people who get their “information” from rightwing media sources like Sinclair and Fox are putting themselves at far greater risk from Covid-19.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is less well-known than Fox, but it operates almost 200 television stations. It has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, and recently published an interview with a conspiracy theorist claiming that Dr. Fauci “created the coronavirus using cells.” 

Meanwhile, Fox News pundits continue to question the seriousness of the virus, and to promote untested “cures” touted by Trump and other non-experts.

It isn’t just Sinclair and Fox. Earlier this week, Trump and Don Junior both retweeted a video they evidently got from Breitbart, in which a group of “doctors” said that masks were unnecessary and that Trump’s favorite drug– hydroxychloroquine–cured the virus. (Real medical experts say hydroxychloroquine is useless against Covid and masks are essential.)

One of the “doctors” quoted by Trump is Stella Immanuel, the spiritual leader of Fire Power Ministries, which the Washington Post calls “a pronouncedly non-orthodox church.”

Endometriosis and other potentially dangerous gynecological conditions are the residue of sexual intercourse with demons, Immanuel teaches. These demons, known as “spirit husbands” and “spirit wives” (you might prefer their pet names: Incubus and Succubus) once walked the Earth in physical form. After they drowned in Noah’s flood, however, they carried on only in non-corporeal form. They visit humans in sexy dreams, which aren’t dreams after all but spirit spouses making a booty call.

According to Immanuel, the demons are responsible for a wide variety of problems, including male impotence, most financial troubles and marital discord.

So who are you going to believe? That downer Fauci, or “Doctor” Immanuel?

There are obviously a number of reasons why the U.S. has fallen so far behind other rich countries in containing the virus. The number one reason, of course, is Donald Trump, and the lack of anything approaching a thoughtful, co-ordinated national response managed by medical professionals who actually know what they are doing. Another is the significant minority of our population who justify selfish (and self-destructive) behavior by braying about “freedom.”

But a not-insignificant cause of our failure to contain the virus is the prevalence of right-wing media sources unconstrained by journalistic ethics or professionalism. Fox and Sinclair are the most pervasive, but millions of Americans also read–and believe–sources like Infowars and Breitbart. 

Crazy people have always been with us, but the Internet and social media have dramatically amplified their reach. Radical news media–left and right–have always been around, but they have rarely exerted the influence of Fox and Sinclair.

As Max Strasser put it in the introduction to a recent New York Times newsletter (no URL), 

Canada, Japan and much of Europe have no equivalent to Sinclair — whose local newscasts reach about 40 percent of Americans — or Fox News. Germany and France have widely read blogs that promote conspiracy theories. “But none of them have the reach and the funding of Fox or Sinclair,” Monika Pronczuk, a Times reporter based in Europe, told me.

Fox is particularly important, because it has also influenced President Trump’s response to the virus, which has been slower and less consistent than that of many other world leaders. “Trump repeatedly failed to act to tame the spread, even though that would have helped him politically,” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has written. 

What we are experiencing is a perfect storm: a mentally-ill President receptive to conspiracies peddled by cynical–and profitable– propaganda mills, with few if any local newspapers remaining that could provide non-political, trustworthy information alerting citizens to the dangers of misinformation–or explain that the President is quoting a “doctor” who believes that alien DNA is used in many therapeutic drugs and that government scientists are developing a vaccine to prevent religious faith.


America’s Very Own Pravda

By now, most readers of this blog have probably read about Sinclair Media’s latest excursion into disinformation: the company required the local anchors of its stations to deliver an identical “editorial” warning viewers to be aware of “biased news.”

On local news stations across the United States last month, dozens of anchors gave the same speech to their combined millions of viewers.

It included a warning about fake news, a promise to report fairly and accurately and a request that viewers go to the station’s website and comment “if you believe our coverage is unfair.

Seemingly innocuous. But the video director at Deadspin had read a report from CNN that quoted local station anchors uncomfortable with the speech. (I initially wondered none of them objected or refused–then Doug Masson posted a provision from the standard, punitive Sinclair employment contract…)

Deadspin stitched together the broadcasts, creating a tapestry of anchors reciting the same lines in unison: it was eery.

Most Americans had never previously heard of Sinclair. Unlike Fox, which is well-known to be a propaganda arm for the GOP and Donald Trump, Sinclair has flown beneath the radar. As the Guardian put it,

Most Americans don’t know it exists. Primetime US news refers to it as an “under-the-radar company”. Unlike Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, virtually no one outside of business circles could name its CEO. And yet, Sinclair Media Group is the owner of the largest number of TV stations in America.

“Sinclair’s probably the most dangerous company most people have never heard of,” said Michael Copps, the George W Bush-appointed former chairman of Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the top US broadcast regulator….

More recently, Sinclair has added a website, Circa, to its portfolio. But not any old website. Circa has been described as “the new Breitbart” and a favorite among White House aides who wish to platform news to a friendly source (a process otherwise known as “leaking”). As the US news site the Root put it: “What if Breitbart and Fox News had a couple of babies? What if they grew up to be a cool, slicker version of their parents and started becoming more powerful? Meet Sinclair and Circa –Donald Trump’s new besties.”

Sinclair is a major media presence, and it is trying to become even more influential by acquiring another 42 stations from Tribune Media. If the FCC approves that 3.9 billion dollar purchase, Sinclair will reach nearly three-quarters of Americans. The current head of the FCC, the former Verizon executive who led the repeal of Net Neutrality, is an obedient Trump henchman, seen as likely to bend the rules that would otherwise disallow the sale.

Sinclair makes no bones about its political agenda. It forces its local stations to run pro-Trump “news” segments. Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign spokesman, is Sinclair’s chief political analyst., and the “must-run” political commentary segments echo Trump.

The news and analysis website Slate, referring to Epshteyn’s contributions, said: “As far as propaganda goes, this is pure, industrial-strength stuff.”

In a recent column for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg compared Trump’s unremitting attacks on the mainstream press and his characterizations of uncongenial reporting as “fake news”  to similar behaviors by autocrats in Turkey and Russia.

Meanwhile, Trump uses his platform to praise obsequious outlets like Sinclair Broadcast Group, which ordered news anchors on its nearly 200 local television stations to record Trump-style warnings about fake news: “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’” After Deadspin produced a creepy viral video of Sinclair anchors reading their script in totalitarian unison, Trump came to the company’s defense, tweeting, “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

Sinclair’s regime-friendly propaganda, which seems meant to erode trust in competing sources of information, is also familiar from other nations that have slid into authoritarianism.

Those of us who live in Indiana still remember Mike Pence’s effort to establish an “official” state news bureau–an effort that collapsed after critics dubbed it “Pravda on the Prairie.”

Propaganda and efforts to control the news are at the very core of the rot that infects this administration. Outlets like Fox and Sinclair are the willing tools through which they disseminate their Newspeak.


The Rest of the Story

A few days ago, I noted that Fox News had actually had kind words to say about a piece run by NPR. I should have known that there was something wrong with that picture–and there was. In the wake of the NPR report, which addressed perceived overuse of the Social Security Disability program, there have been serious criticisms of its accuracy and conclusions.

I should have known that a Fox endorsement calls for a closer look….

The Planet Money report portrayed the disability program as a “hidden, increasingly expensive safety net,” and implied strongly that it was over-used and out of control. Those conclusions were rebutted in at least two subsequent stories, one in U.S. News and World Report, and the other in the L.A. Times.

U.S. News called the NPR report “overwrought and unbalanced.” The typical beneficiary is in his or her late 50s, suffering from severe mental, musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory or other debilitating condition. Studies have concluded that most beneficiaries are unable to work at all, and virtually none can do anything substantial. It is true, as NPR reported, that the number of people collecting disability has grown, but this is a function of demographics; as U.S. News notes, “It is completely predictable that claims would go up as the baby boomers aged into the period in their lives when disability claims become more likely, and increasing numbers of women were acquiring the work experience necessary to qualify.”

About those qualifications: getting disability is far from easy. To be eligible, you must have worked for at least one-fourth of your adult life, and have been employed in at least five of the ten years prior to application. (Children qualify under SSI, a companion program, and workers younger than 31 have to have been employed in half the years since they turned 22.) Only a quarter of all applications are approved initially, and another 13% on appeal. Only 41% of those who apply ever see a check.

Disability rates are closely tied to work conditions–as the L.A. Times reports, in West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest disability rate, 150 out of every 1000 jobs involves transportation, hauling, construction or mining.  NPR reported on a county in Alabama, where a large percentage of the population is on disability. Despite NPR’s insinuation that residents of the County were a bunch of malingerers, a Center for Budget Policy and Priorities analysis places it among a group of Southern and Appalachian states with a distinct set of demographic indicators: low rates of high-school completion, an older workforce, fewer immigrants and an industrial mix that consists mainly of manufacturing, forestry and mining. Older, less educated workers in physically demanding jobs are less likely to be able to continue working if they become disabled.

So–as Paul Harvey would have said–that’s “the rest of the story.”

You’d think the exponents of “fair and balanced” reporting might have noted the existence of a conflicting narrative.