21 (three weeks) to go: Be a better news consumer!

Did you know the word “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?

Before you go look that up to prove me wrong, you should look up two other words that are necessary for intelligent news viewing:

Skepticism and discernment.

There may be some good information in a television talking head show or a political talk radio show, but such programs are not “news.” In some cases, the hosts may be reporters, but as they’re offering an opinion, they are not being journalists, but pundits. There can be some journalism behind it, but it is not, in and of itself, journalism.

There is nothing wrong with punditry. News analysis can useful, and I don’t fault those who engage in it. Sometimes, listening to the opinion of someone you trust can help you understand issues more completely.  For example, Walter Cronkite’s punditry on Vietnam was probably key to most folks understanding what a complete mess that was. But you have to accept opinion for what it is, and learn to extract the nuggets of “fact,” and use your intelligence to determine their veracity.

There is a lot of great journalism out there, on just about every subject, But it seems to be buried these days underneath a mountain of opinion. Cable news really isn’t “news”  much of the time these days, and I’m not just talking about Fox. Journalism is hard work, and done well, it can uncover the truth and make our lives better. Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to call oneself a “journalist” these days, and it shouldn’t be. Someone with a great penchant for researching on Google or LexisNexis, and piecing facts together is not an “investigative journalist.” Think about it a minute. If I’m searching Google and LexisNexis online, I’m finding sources that other people have already researched and written about. Sitting in a villa in Brazil and opining on hundreds of thousands of supposedly secret documents dumped in your lap and releasing them is not in and of itself “investigative journalism.” That’s true, even if a billionaire has decided to buy you a blog.

We have a responsibility as consumers of news. While the journalist does the hard work of uncovering the story, it’s our job to make sure others know about it. We also have a duty to get the story right, so we have to check the story’s veracity before we pass it on as “fact.” A real reporter enters a story with nothing but questions, and will never publish a story until he or she has solid answers to a number of questions that matter. Don’t ever trust a “news story” that asks more questions than it answers. A real news story doesn’t ask questions, it provides solid, provable answers.

When I say “solid answers,” I surely don’t mean hearsay from that jerk “Sumsay,” who sometimes seems to be the “go to” expert on everything.   Sorry, faux journalists, but you don’t have a story because you believe something happened, and “Sumsay” agrees with you. It only becomes a story when you are able to prove something happened. I can hand two homeless people $5 each, and get them both to say, “The moon is made of vanilla ice cream.” That would allow me to claim “Sumsay the moon is made of vanilla ice cream,” but it’s still untrue.

Our penchant for believing crap has gotten bad, to the point that there are tens of thousands of web sites designed to sell you their brand of faux journalism. They range from shoestring one-man operations to $300 million behemoths that pay contractors less than minimum wage to “churn” stories. “Churning” basically consists of “writers” sitting at home in their underwear reading news from other sources and re-writing it for the blog, at a rate of up to 20-60 pieces a day. I can’t believe I have to say this, but if you’re writing 60 pieces a day, you’re not a journalist, and you’re wasting a lot of the time you’ll need to become one. I also think the barfor plagiarism is far too high, but that’s just me.

And yes, you can scream and point to the owners and editors of these blogs for the garbage they’re putting out there, but it’s your fault as consumers, because you click on them, and ReTweet them, and post them to Facebook and otherwise help them raise advertising money to keep on churning. .

Journalism is not an easy vocation, but there is nothing better in this world than a compelling news piece that is thoroughly researched, and just tells the story as it is. There are many such stories, but you have to look hard for them in the sea of crap that’s out there.

Just because a website or blog calls itself “news” doesn’t mean it is news. I mean, if I called myself a chimney, would that make me one? Anyone and his/her five-year-old niece can put up a blog, call it news, and claim to be a journalist; that doesn’t make them a journalist. In fact, most are not. There are some sure signs that someone is NOT a journalist. For example:

  • If someone is telling you they have a great story coming up, and it’s going to “bring someone down,” write them off, yawn and go elsewhere. Real journalists with real stories never let the cat out of the bag until they can prove what they claim. Besides the element of surprise, there is also the reality that some stories fall apart at the last minute.
  • A real journalist will usually wait until he or she has the entire story before asking for comment from those involved. A real journalist will never publicly bait the target of an investigation to try to get them to admit something. Mainly, that’s because they never will. A real journalist will understand that.
  • A real journalist would never openly trash anyone, especially “probing” questions in public, on Twitter or Facebook. They are also not cowards, hiding behind a “posse” of like-minded people.
  • Real journalists would never write a fact-free piece that merely asks a series of questions. I saw one today with a title that read like a piece in Playboy, suggesting that a group of “ladies” were involved in something they speculate might have happened, but that they can’t prove. In other words, their piece actually proved they were faux journalists. It made me laugh. Not at the piece, but at them.
  • Real journalists don’t post their “evidence” in advance of the story, especially if the evidence might have been obtained illegaly. Context matters to a real journalist.
  • Real journalism is not about pure sensationalism. Gossip columns are not journalism. If you can’t tell the difference between TMZ and the front page of the New York Times, you might hav had a concussion recently. I know all sorts of things about all sorts of people, too. If I was to write them down, that doesn’t make me a journalist.

When you read or hear something anywhere — on television, on the radio, online, etc. — and it’s not from a high-profile source known for self-policing, check it out. Skepticism is the news consumer’s best asset. But don’t just check the “facts” in the story. It’s also helpful to look at the blog, and the background of the so-called “journalist,” because it might save you some time. There are a number of self-described “journalists” who,  if they told me it was raining and I was getting wet, would still cause me to look up at the sky.

Checking out background does not mean simply looking at the bio page on their blog and buying what it tells you. In fact, you should only use that as a guide for what to really look for. A while ago, I outed someone who made a claim about the Obama Administration and the Occupy Movement; a claim that was picked up and repeated on national television by someone who should have known better. The faux journalist’s “source” was supposedly some anonymous guy who supposedly “worked in the White House.” The story seemed fishy, and became even stinkier when I started checking the guy’s background. Not only was he writing for a non-journalistic enterprise masquerading as a “news website,” but none of the claims he made in his bio could be proven, even with a thorough LexisNexis search. On further review of the facts, the “anonymous guy who worked in the White House” turned out to be an entertainment reporter with no political journalistic background, or access to the White House.

For example, I know of one “journalist” who enjoys an undeserved reputation as an “investigative journalist,” even though he’s been called out several times for not corroborating evidence used in articles that were later to be found false. In other words, he didn’t do the work. He has also been cited for plagiarism. Another one hasn’t set foot in the US for years, except to make an occasional TV appearance. Then, there are the myriad pretenders out there; who claim to be “big” journalists, and are vying to become associated with a recently deceased carnival barker type blogger. They routinely make things up, or they recycle stories that were reported years ago, hoping that no one will check on them, and realize they’re revising history.

Many blogs only exist for money, and not just those on the right. Their goals are either to get views, so they can make ad money, or to earn a “cookie” in the form of a check from ideological benefactors, who often pay them for dirty tricks. Many are delusional, in that they imagine the fat cats are simply handing out huge checks to anyone willing to kowtow to the right wing ideology. Many of these idiots have multiple blogs, mostly hosted for free, that pop up quickly, and are then deleted within a short period of time.

It’s time news consumers stopped being so gullible and started looking for good information. You can make a case that the news business has a duty to tell the truth, and you’d be right. But we also have a duty to search for the truth wherever we can find it. Stop being so gullible.

By the way, the word “gullible” really is in the dictionary. Don’t be so…

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One comment

  1. This needed to be said! And repeated. And shouted from the rooftops! Thanks so much Milt. Now if only people would give it some thought….

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