Nobody Knows Anything

Back when we were in journalism school, back when it was still a career you could expect to exist when you retired — hell, back when you could expect the world to outlive you — the most important class we took was libel law.

Or, as we called it: How to keep your publisher out of trouble. Those deep pockets they’re coming after aren’t yours, man.

The benchmark was 1964’s Times v. Sullivan, interesting in itself for its glimpse into the civil-rights era, but operative for the profession in what libel ultimately amounts to: Not just getting facts wrong, but “reckless disregard of their truth or falsity”.

Reckless Disregard has been the bumper sticker ever since. It’s a perfectly turned expression for the purpose, commanding a good-faith effort to get shit right. And, if you take it to heart — as we did — it entails not just factual accuracy, but representing the story, the whole story, or at least your best understanding of it. That means getting at the reality of the story you’re telling, not the “both sides” of an issue.

Yeah, it can be Rashomon out there sometimes, but that’s just the job.

Journalism can be practical epistemology that way, how you know what you know as a reporter, how you can say what is the case, how you can’t say other things you might know because you don’t (yet) have the facts to support them, what counts as fact, what counts as truth… and all on deadline, six stories a week. It takes work to get shit right, at least if you’re conscientious about it. And why wouldn’t you be?

Yeah, we know. Don’t answer that. Silly question. We’re so adorable!

But that’s the case with us critters: We aren’t conscientious about getting shit right, especially if it involves something dear to us. We’ll share that story about imminent koala extinction, even if the source is suspect. We’ll share that political poll with awful methodology because we like the results. We’ll crack a line about Trump’s latest outlandish lie, even if it turns out, this one time, there may be an excuse for it.

We’ll do that because getting shit right is exhausting.

“Many Americans say they have a hard time figuring out if information is true”, reported the AP in another story making the rounds. Yeah, no shit. We’re all epistemologists now. Fox News we can dismiss out of hand, but we can’t trust name-brand mainstream news to represent reality either in their both-sides madness, and how many among us know that websites with dull names like Business Insider and The Hill are actually pandering clickbait factories?

That’s the insidiousness of it. We think we’re safe if we ignore Fox and Breitbart, we know national Republicans lie as they breathe, but there’s no safe harbor from pandering, from spin, from misleading fairness, from incomplete pictures, from reckless disregard. The only conscientious sources of news for a generation now have been late-night comedians.

“Nobody knows anything”, William Goldman famously wrote about the movie industry, a line that captures the nature of epistemology as well as Plato. We don’t know who to trust, whose stories to trust. We know there are still conscientious journalists out there, but we don’t know which ones, or where they’re at, and even if they’re at the New York Times we have no reason to trust the New York Times institutionally, and plenty of reasons not to.

Walter’s gone, long gone. Network, the prophetic satire, came out a year before we even set foot in J-school. We’re on our own in the world, in reality, and we have been for a very long time. Fake news is a problem, deepfakes are going to be, but let’s not act like that’s the extent of it, or even that it’s new. If Americans as a whole have a problem separating fact from fiction, it’s because American media as a whole has a reckless disregard for the difference.

9 comments:

10:36 pm • Sunday • December 1, 2019

Mom plopped me in front of the TV, only recently 4 years old, and had me watch Cronkite cover the JFK assassination. I would watch such honest coverage again. Of course, it won’t be forthcoming.

11:26 pm • Sunday • December 1, 2019

@blogenfreude: I have a clear, specific and uncontextualized memory of a basement corridor, which I was watching because cartoons weren’t on that morning.

Years later I saw that basement in photographs. For all I know — and I don’t — I saw Oswald getting shot.

We didn’t have CBS in Eugene until years later, so no Walter. But I’ve watched that coverage recently, from the soap-opera cut-ins to Air Force One landing back in DC. Cronkite was an old wire-service reporter, and he knew in his bones not to get ahead of the facts, even when intriguing leads turned up that first hour. It was only when the bulletin came across the wire that he took off his glasses and called it.

8:02 pm • Monday • December 2, 2019

The corporate media has a truth problem, mainly that they don’t care what it is because fear and mass confusion are much more profitable, so their billionaire owners are more than happy to sacrifice the majority of us on the alter of BOTH SIDES.

*Failures of the supposed free press*

“The media’s ongoing failure to report on Trump accurately was another concern I raised — reflecting both the pursuit of false balance, among other things, and a general failure to grasp the broader significance and true nature of the spreading pathocracy.​”

“To accurately cover what is happening, the media would have to accept four unpleasant facts:

First, Donald Trump has a dangerous narcissistic character disorder that makes him psychologically incapable of functioning within a rules-based democratic system. In fact, as we are seeing, his character disorder compels him to dismantle that system.

Second, the Republican Party is no longer a democratic party. It too has rejected the rules and values of democracy and is pursuing a power-at-all-costs authoritarian agenda (as allies with Putin’s thuggish Russian kleptocracy).

Third, and most unpleasantly perhaps, a sizable fraction of the U.S. population would be happy to live within such an authoritarian system if those they despise are ‘put in their place.’

And finally, violence and aggression are increasingly an indispensable means for the alliance between Trump, the GOP, (Putin’s Russia), and core Trump supporters to achieve their goals.

Traditional media practices simply aren’t suited to reporting what’s been happening right before its eyes.”

https://www.salon.com/2019/12/01/impeachment-as-a-struggle-to-save-democracy-from-the-pathological-cult-of-donald-trump/

12:03 pm • Tuesday • December 3, 2019

/Fall/

Has anyone read this? Sounds just like my summer road trip through Arkansas and Tennessee, and it’d be a nice change of pace from the detective fiction I enjoy.

“In the 12th chapter of Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Fall, a quartet of Princeton students set out on a road trip to Iowa to visit the “ancestral home” of one of the students, Sophia. This part of the novel is set about 25 years in the future, in an age when self-driving cars are the default and a de facto border exists between the affluent, educated coasts, where Sophia and her friends live, and the heartland they call “Ameristan.”
The latter is a semi-lawless territory riddled with bullet holes and conspiracy theories, where a crackpot Christian cult intent on proving the crucifixion was a hoax (because no way is their god some “meek liberal Jesus” who’d allow himself to be “taken out” like that) literally crucifies proselytizing missionaries from other sects. You have to hire guides to shepherd you through this region, men who mount machine guns on top of their trucks “to make everyone in their vicinity aware that they were a hard target.”

https://slate.com/culture/2019/06/neal-stephenson-fall-book-review-dodge-in-hell.html

11:55 pm • Tuesday • December 3, 2019

When I was a Freshman in High School I was in the Journalism class for one or two weeks before I was thrown out (1970).

My “Offense” was two fold.

First & foremost, I answered the test question, “What is the purpose of a newspaper?” with the correct answer, “To sell advertising.”
The business model of all American newspapers is based on selling advertising, as it has always been in every “Free Press” that has existed. Sales of papers typically only provided around 10% of income at that time.

My answer was considered offensive, un-American, Communist, etc.

My second “Offense” was writing “propaganda” in all of my submitted writings. The Dean of Boys actually read all my work & said he could find nothing inappropriate in any of the writing, but they kicked me out of journalism nevertheless.

Ended up with a free period to really cause trouble.

3:36 pm • Wednesday • December 4, 2019

@jaycubed: Dad worked in circulation at the local rag all my life, and you are correct. He liked explaining to me that the price only covered a fraction of the cost. The rest was advertising.

9:32 am • Friday • December 6, 2019

@¡Andrew!: That sounds terrifying. I read the first 10-25 pages of Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale and had to put it down, it was causing me such angst.

1:29 pm • Friday • December 6, 2019

@SanFranLefty: It’s compellingly good, though Aunt Lydia’s first-person account of what happened to her and her legal colleagues in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the US government is quite harrowing. Atwood sets up this third of the novel as a “well-what-would-you-do” challenge to the reader, and she weaves her distinctively biting humor throughout (“a law degree and a uterus–a lethal combination”) along with very recognizable current events.

No spoilers, but if anything the only criticism I could level at the book is that the ending is pure wish fulfillment, or if you will, a reward for readers and viewers traumatized by the story up to this point: a happy ending, at least “happy” in a Gilead “you get to keep your hands this time” kinda way.

8:31 pm • Saturday • December 7, 2019

@¡Andrew!: Perhaps during my “use it or lose it” Festivus staycation, I’ll read it (after catching up on two months’ worth of New Yorkers.

I’ll have to remember the “law degree and a uterus – a lethal combination” line.

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