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?”