In the benighted, black-and-white world of media in the early 1960s – when news was distilled by three, deep-pocketed television networks
and by thousands of cash-printing machines called morning and afternoon newspapers – consuming the news was a rather simple task.
Every weekday evening, Walter Cronkite would sign off from the 30-minute “CBS Evening News” with his trademark salutation: “And that’s the way it is, Friday, September 7th, 1962; this is Walter Cronkite, CBS News, good night!”
And that’s the way it was. If Uncle Walter said it, you could take it to the bank.
Cronkite’s reputation for fairness and objectivity captured the hearts of those living in that 2,400-mile slice of middle America, wedged between New York and Los Angeles, who trusted him with near biblical reverence.
Cronkite’s ability to descend daily from Mount Sinai with chiseled, stone tablets is today the stuff of ghost stories. Jim Carrey’s impression of a Cronkite clone in the 2003 movie “Bruce Almighty” changed Cronkite’s calling card to: “And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
It’s funny because a 20-something was playing the board game “Cranium” the other day, and the card came up with the name “Water Cronkite,” meaning he had to verbalize or act out a clue to a team member that would prompt the correct answer.
“And that’s the way the cookie crumbles!” he said of Cronkite.
Yes, the world has changed.
Deciphering what is true and false in the news never has been more difficult. As we all know in the lead-up to last November’s presidential election, Facebook gave rocket propulsion to the rumor that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump (didn’t you see that in the Clarion Herald?) and an FBI agent accused of fingering Hillary Clinton in her email scandal was found dead of an apparent suicide.
Then, more recently, we heard how President Trump had removed the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King shortly after plopping up his feet on the Oval Office desk. The “news” even got picked up briefly by CNN until it was quickly recanted when a photograph from another angle showed the MLK bust resting serenely in its appointed spot, as if nothing had happened.
Because, well, nothing had happened.
“I mean, there are almost too many to name,” said Julie Smith, professor of media literacy and social media at Southern Illinois University near St. Louis. “It’s funny, because I’ve been talking about this for a year, and now everyone else is finally catching on. There’s a saying that a lie will make it around the world before the truth gets its shoes on.”
Last year, the University of Missouri campus went on lockdown when it was reported on the Facebook page of the student body president that the Ku Klux Klan was on campus with guns. As it turned out, the image used was 25 years old, Smith said, “and the person who put the account together was actually a white supremacist who created an account to look like he was a black sophomore at the university.”
“It takes 10 seconds to figure that out, but nobody bothers,” Smith said.
On election night, Smith said, someone from England posted “news” from a Trump rally in Manhattan that “everyone was chanting, ‘We hate Muslims! We hate blacks. We want our great country back!’”
“He was just creating this fake stuff that followed the narrative, and people were just retweeting it like crazy because that’s what they believe,” Smith said. “It’s dangerous the way we just pass information along without any skepticism. I don’t blame Facebook. I don’t blame Twitter. I don’t blame the kids in Macedonia who are getting paid and writing the headlines. I mean, we are the responsible ones here. It’s on us. We have to be the ones to filter out this information and figure out what’s real and meaningful about its truth.”
Another recent example of fake news was a photo that supposedly showed government agents trying to suppress media coverage of protests over the North Dakota pipeline. “It was actually a photo from Woodstock,” Smith said.
“The more we want it to be true, the more likely we are to believe it,” Smith said. “And that’s where I think the danger is. We really should be skeptical of everything.”
The rupturing of truth – or at least the mainstream media’s failure in its effort to present objective truth – creates a huge problem for an informed democracy. Given the polling mistakes made in the recent presidential election – one veteran pollster called it “the death of data” – how likely is a reader to believe the next story basing its conclusions on polling results?
“There’s such an overall distrust of media these days, mainly because they did such a terrible job predicting the election,” Smith said. “I think that shock morphed into anger at the media, like, ‘Why didn’t you prepare us for this kind of thing?’ We are living in an age where what we believe seems to be more important than what is true. It’s so difficult to deal with facts in this post-truth environment. People aren’t interested in facts as much as they are in hearing what they want to hear.”
Smith said many of her college students “aren’t big fans of the First Amendment,” because their knee-jerk reaction to the fake news is, “Well, it should be illegal.”
“I think it’s still our personal responsibility to determine what is real, meaningful and valid and what is not,” Smith said. “If we study the economic structure of the media system, it actually makes everything perfectly clear. It makes complete and total sense why teenagers in Macedonia are creating fake news and quick headlines because they’re getting paid for every time I click on it.”
Smith says there are several handy tools to unmask the con. Google offers a “reverse image search” that identifies the source of the photo.
“That’s my go-to tool,” she said. “When I see a name or something suspicious, I automatically check to see if the photo is current and if a photo is from what it says it’s from.”
For example, a picture that made the rounds purporting to show a massacre of Christians in Nigeria by Muslims turned out to be “a gas tank explosion in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Smith also uses sites such as snopes.com and hoax-slayer.com to verify information.
“If the story is not on other sources, the chances are there is something wrong,” Smith said. “That’s a red flag.”
Another site – www.whois.net – will identify who owns the website on which the story appeared.
Pilate once asked Jesus, “Truth? What is truth?” For Catholics searching for truth outside the Bible, it’s a big challenge.
It’s a situation that cries out for teaching media literacy in every school.
“Regardless of what your ratings or your subscriptions are, no one can ever be embarrassed about speaking the truth,” Smith said. “But in this economic environment, it can be risky because it’s very tempting for news organizations to give people what they want rather than what they need. We’re in a very strange time. It’s exciting and strange all at once. But the onus is on us. We have created this problem with this reflexive tweeting. Maybe the internet has gotten it started, but we sure have given it traction.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.