It is not the Russians. It is not just a disrupted media business model. It is not lowbrow opioid addicts from middle America without jobs who cannot handle the truth provided by home delivery of the The New York Times. The fertile soil of fake news is sloppy journalism.
Mrs. Meyers in 1978 taught me high school journalism. She was a silver haired fox with a Ben Bradlee rapier tongue. Her first husband died in the Pacific in World War II. She would tell his story so we would remember why we had a First Amendment. As a student journalist you wanted her approval even as you feared her standards.
The smile and praise flowed freely when you wrote a great article or sold an ad in the Bagpipe. But when I was sloppy, as I was on a piece about National Merit Scholars, she stuck the knife into my inner laziness and poured it out on the editing room floor.
It was not the story I wanted. I had done a cursory interview. I had not been curious. So, the story was not accurate. It was not because I was biased. It was not because I had a cause or ideology infecting my objectivity. I just had not shown up to do the work.
I am honored to sit on a few boards and a commission. Fairly routinely local press around the state will write about our work. But, the big gorilla in the state only covers our meetings when there is controversy.
They tend to show up with the crowds. The local papers cover us meeting to meeting, but not the state’s supposed paper of record. And since it has no baseline, at least some of its reporters have no way of knowing what we actually do.
A couple of years ago we had a hearing where a controversial experiment was mentioned. Another meeting where the public and the agency discussed the experiment. Then a large public meeting where based on mounds of science we made a decision.
The paper showed up for the last meeting and had not read the science in the record. How do I know? Because when I encountered the reporter in a break in the final meeting he was shocked when I mentioned the prior hearings and the record. But it did not matter, because he told me he had to leave before the second half of that day’s hearing and vote.
He was not there for the motion, the debate, or the vote.
But none of that stopped him from writing a comprehensive story. It was if he had attended all the hearings and read the record. He never actually claimed that he had done the work. It was just the article’s impression.
Into this fertile soil enriched by the manure of click-bait sloth, Russia and other sources poured their propaganda in 2016. The fertile soil not of bias or bad economics, but ordinary negligence. The press must stop excusing itself. When it surrenders its credibility for profits or politics, it creates the conditions for propagandist success.
Walter Cronkite was in a B-17 over Germany, was in a glider that went into Holland with the airborne, and covered the Battle of the Bulge on foot in WWII. There was no fake news because Cronkite and in particular CBS News practiced in depth sustained reporting.
And America accepted Cronkite as the most trusted man in the country knowing he was a liberal. Because the country knew he and CBS did the work to uncover the truth and then accurately reported it. And they clearly marked editorials as editorials, not “analysis” published on the front page.
Yes, CBS had the money. Yes, the competition was different. Yes, it was a different America.
But so what? If you do not have the money to do the work, do not write the story. Mrs. Meyers never taught us that if we did not sell enough advertising it was okay to turn in a shoddy story.
Because if a journalist does not do the work but writes the story, is not that Fake News too?