Sunday, December 27, 2015

Politics, Lies, and Videotape: Rumor and Journalism in Era of the Social Media

“Let me tell you one truth–I always lie.”

Truth seems to be one of the main casualties of the social media.  There appear to be Facebook facts and real facts.  Facebook facts are those circulating across the social media.  They are stories which are not true, partially true, or simply the spinning of some pseudo-facts taken out of time and context. Often this manufacturing of facts is innocuous.  But increasingly as politics and partisans have discovered the social media as a tool for campaigning, it has become  a major source of political rumor and propaganda.  One would hope that the mainstream media, especially as it covers the social media, would correct these distortions, but that no longer appears to be the case.
There are two interesting political  stories driving Facebook and the media this Christmas weekend.  The first are stories that the Clinton camp is worried that it could lose Iowa and New Hampshire in the next couple of months.  The second story is that NBC’s Chuck Todd claiming it is not the media’s job to correct GOP lies about Obamacare.

Clinton Losing Iowa and New Hampshire?
Consider the Clinton story first.  I first saw a Facebook post on December 26, 2015 describing how Clinton was worried about losing the first two states in the Democratic Party presidential contest.  Clicking on the link it was to an article in Politico form September when the polls were much closer and in fact in looked as if Sanders was closing in on Clinton.  Several other  other Facebook posts had similar links to similar older articles or polls showing close races.  That was then, now is now.   Stories from four months ago do not reflect the present which show Clinton still leading Iowa and a closer race in New Hampshire.  Granted there is some evidence of a new Sanders’ effort to close the gap, and granted that Sanders may prove to be better at the GOTV than Clinton (a real possibility), but recirculating old articles from four months ago and passing them off as reflecting current reality is simply a lie.
A second basis for this Facebook fact is an apparent Clinton e-mail to supporters right before  Christmas saying she could lose Iowa or New Hampshire.  Clinton could be prescient but keep in  mind the context of the letter.  It is a fundraising letter begging for money and encouraging her supporters to turnout.  Her letter is no different than any other fundraising letter from a non-profit claiming that the sky is falling.  Candidates all the time seek to get money out of people by claiming that it is an emergency, they are about to lose, or that time is running out.  They do this–as do many organizations–that if they are in the lead there is a sense of complacency that led to people not giving or showing up to vote.  Crying wolf is a great motivation tool.  One should read her letter as simply that–it is an effort to make sure her supporters continue to give and show up to vote.

Chuck Todd, Corporate Journalism, and Obamacare
A second story making the rounds is an interview by NBC’s Chuck Todd saying it is not the job of the media to correct the Republican lies about Obamacare.  Did Todd actually say that?  Here is what he said in an interview.

Ed Rendell: Chuck. I think you are dead right. I think the biggest problem with Obamacare. It’s not a perfect bill by any means was the messaging. If you took ten people from different parts of the country who say they’re against a bill and sat them down. I’d love to have ten minutes with them and say, tell me why you are against the bill. If they told you anything, it would be stuff that’s incorrect.
Chuck Todd: That’s right.
Rendell: Incorrect.
Todd: But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged.
Rendell: Absolutely.
Todd: Against it. And they won’t have even heard. they don’t repeat the other stuff. because they haven’t heard the Democratic message. What I always love, people say it’s your folks’ fault in the media. it’s the President of the United States fault for not selling it.

First, it is not so clear that Todd said it is not the job of the media to correct GOP lies.  In the context here Todd acknowledged Republican lies but also said the Democrats have done a bad job messaging and selling the Affordable Care Act.  This is one plausible reading of what Todd said.  Second, this interview took place back on September 18, 2013–more than two years ago.  Why is the story rerunning today?
Second, assuming Todd did say what some claim then of course he is wrong.  The very job of traditional journalism is to seek and publish the truth.  The entire enterprise of democracy depends on a robust and active press publishing the truth.  They are to be the watchdogs for the people, publishing the truth, exposing corruption, reporting to hold the government accountable.  That is the purpose of the First Amendment.  The Jeffersonian ideal of the people ruling requires an educated public and that is where the press comes in–publish the truth.
Truth is not reporting what both or several sides say–being fair and balanced.  Truth may be something entirely different than what any partisan says.  This used to be the rule of what one learned in journalism schools, but it no longer seems to be the practice of real journalism which does simply report what everyone says and then leaves it up to the public to decide.  This is not journalism–this is simply operating as a communications organ for different sides (and not all the sides as is evidenced by how much Sanders is ignored).  Journalism is not public relations or corporation communications but that point seems to be lost in the era of for-profit journalism.
And now what makes all this worse is how journalism seems increasingly  to be echoing or amplifying the distortions found on the social media.  If anything, the ethics of real journalism should rise above the lack thereof of the social media.   Perhaps if real journalists stopped trying to imitate and repeat the social media facts and corrected them, confidence in them would be better than it is now, and the public would be better informed than it is now.

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