Thursday, December 15, 2016

Breaking News v. Broken news

Breaking News. Nary a day goes by without seeing that term flash across our tv screens, and  pop up on our smart watches . Watches used to actually just tell time, and newspapers used to actually print the news. As one highly regarded news purveyor, the New York Times, so presciently put it in way back in 1896: We print " All the news that is fit to print". That quote from publisher Adolph Ochs is still emblazoned on the masthead of the nation's most respected news source. Today, the word "print" has taken on multitudinous forms, with most of us now getting our information from non- print sources and hand held mini computers. It is tough to figure out what information is reliable, and what is not. With the emergence of Cybernews, we have lost our reliable filters as to what is and is not fit to "print" . 
     Back in those days of robber barons and major media moguls , Ochs was responding to his competitors tendency to publish salacious headlines and half truths twisted in a way to push forward a particular ideology or agenda. That was labeled "Yellow journalism" back then, when tabloid publications were owned by, among others, William Randolph Hearst.  Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, another NY newspaper publisher,  focused on crime and sensationalism, and their newspapers were sold on the street for a penny or two. Indeed, that's where the term '"my two cents" came from. These bold new tabloids garnered hundreds of thousands of new readers and recruited lucrative advertising revenue from department stores to enhance their profitability. Presenting the facts as news became secondary to advancing agendas. Our involvement in Cuba at the time, the Spanish American war and the assassination of President McKinley in 1896 were directly attributable to these yellow journalism "rags". Fast forward 110 years, and we see the same scenario playing out, only this time, in the context of "fake news" , and social media,  such as Facebook and Twitter. We now have a toxic mix of misinformation and disinformation available, which can adversely affect the outcome of elections. 
   Guess what? That toxic mix of news, non-news, and fake news worked. And to add insult to injury, this time a foreign government, to wit: Russia , played a significant role in the disinformation campaign. We had cyber-hacking of e mails from foreign spying agencies , and selective leaks of those e mails intended to influence the election .  Everything old ala 1896 became new again, and news networks like Fox News have taken the place of the Pulitzers and the Hearsts, and the casualty of these efforts has been the American electoral system. 
    When you can't separate fact from fiction, and when facts don't matter as much as the belief systems of the media presenting those alleged facts,  you have a recipe for disaster . Not only have we been hacked, we have been had. 
      In order to function properly, a democracy must have an informed electorate. Without that , it doesn't work. It becomes mob rule. Just ask Thomas Jefferson who famously said, " A people who believe they can be both free and ignorant, believe that which never has been and never can be". Without the ability of an informed electorate to make intelligent and critical choices in the voting booth, we are destined to  become the pawns of those who would dupe us. Yes, it has come to pass. Demagoguery has triumphed in the person of our President-elect, and how and if our system will actually survive is a question that hangs precariously in the balance. Only vigilance and paying persistent attention to the machinations of our newly chosen leader can save us from perfidy. 
     Hopefully, in the end, the truth will prevail, but at the moment , determining what is true and what is not is an increasingly elusive goal. The Fourth estate has an incredibly important role to play in the next four years. If breaking news becomes broken news, then woe be we.