Today “fake news”—whether a joker’s provocation, a politician’s epithet, or a bot’s deception—profoundly unsettles the public. “I deny your reality” is what “fake” means in today’s US politics, writes Louis Menand, adding that “You no longer need evidence or reason….You need only to assert. If your assertion is questioned, you need only to repeat it.” It was barely a surprise when “fake news” became Collins Dictionary’s 2017 word of the year. Whether that term is taken as a joke; mere hype; or a symptom of societal degeneration, deficient knowledge, inability to assess expertise, or news media in crisis, debates about news fakery permeate public culture.“How people talk about fake news in artful or nonartful ways profoundly shapes contemporary politics.”
Since the early 2000s, the notion of fake news in the United States has morphed from a playful label for news parody to intentionally deceptive or misleading accounts, to an incendiary tag for news one doesn’t like. While news journalism has long harbored fakery and humbuggery—and the term “fact” itself must be handled delicately—today the fake news moniker embodies profound anxieties about the present: science under attack, weaponized information, and possible risks to electoral democracy and national sovereignty for some, or antipathy to liberal elites for others. In the United States, talk about “fake news” is fraught with tension, volatility, and even physical danger. The term has become a key part of identity construction and display, signifying one’s political sympathies or affiliations. How people talk about fake news in artful or nonartful ways profoundly shapes contemporary politics.
Often sidestepped, however, are profound news media transformations that transcend the digital revolution and that can reduce the capacity of legacy media to challenge inaccurate or misleading news, or to pursue deep investigative journalism. The less visible dimensions of a perceived media “crisis” have much less to with politicians’ epithets (though high-profile denunciations of news one doesn’t like as “fake” yield real consequences) or the rise of online news consumption than with the politics of Wall Street and sentiments about news as a public good.
News norms in flux (again)
It was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the term “fake” migrated into public discourse, according to media scholar and cultural historian Andie Tucher.1Andie Tucher, “The True, the False, and the ‘not exactly lying’: Making Fakes and Telling Stories in the Age of the Real Thing,” in Literature and Journalism: Inspirations, Intersections, and Inventions From Ben Franklin to Stephen Colbert, ed. Mark Canada (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 91–118. During that time of enchantment with science, facts, and authenticity, Tucher writes, “all the rules for both fact and fiction were under reconsideration,” and the newspaper “was the instigator and main subject of the discourse about faking.”2Tucher, “The True, the False, and the ‘not exactly lying’,” 92. With journalistic norms in flux, some late-nineteenth-century editors and reporters continued to indulge the aesthetic pleasures of tall tales, embellishment, or fakery, alongside the more accurate news. Eventual professionalization of news reporting saw a normative shift to values of objectivity, neutrality, expertise, discipline, respectability, and “facts” rather than entertainment. Today again, media ideologies—historically contingent frames for journalistic norms and expectations—are freshly contested, and news production practices are under heightened public scrutiny.
Contemporary meanings of “fake news” encompass deliberate lies as well as humbuggery, or what Harry Frankfurt terms bullshit.3Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005More Info → The latter is “a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” because rather than opposing the authority of the truth, as the liar does, the bullshitter “pays no attention to it at all.”4Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 61. Some news claims are bold displays intended to taunt political opponents through patently false declarations, while others are demonstrably false but believed by the speaker to be true. This distinction is sometimes blurred, however, and the former category includes what F.G. Bailey in his classic work The Prevalence of Deceit describes as “adversarial lying: how to win the power game by not telling the truth or by imposing on others your own version of the basic lie or manipulating them into accepting it.”5F.G. Bailey, The Prevalence of Deceit (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), xix. Adversarial lying is a particularly salient political tactic today and it finds easy footholds in cable television, talk radio, and social media.“Accompanying today’s perceived surge in “fake news” and political lying are increasing calls from civil society groups, corporations, and journalists to fundamentally ‘redesign our information ecosystem’ as well as to enhance fake news detection initiatives.”
Accompanying today’s perceived surge in “fake news” and political lying6Carole McGranahan, “An Anthropology of Lying: Trump and the Political Sociality of Moral Outrage,” American Ethnologist 44, no. 2 (2017): 243–248. are increasing calls from civil society groups, corporations, and journalists to fundamentally “redesign our information ecosystem” as well as to enhance fake news detection initiatives. After fake BBC, CNN, and US Embassy reports about Kenya’s intensely competitive 2017 election circulated, the BBC and Facebook released ads and videos in the Kenyan press explaining how to spot false news. In the United States, while millions of fake social media accounts disseminate false information, a New York Times investigation found that “social media companies often fail to vigorously enforce their own policies against impersonation…enabling the spread of fake news and propaganda—and allowing a global black market in social identities to thrive on their platforms….with little oversight or regulation from Washington.” Most social media users, write Confessore and Dance in the New York Times, “have no access to any due process, no access to any kind of customer service—and no means of appealing any kind of decision.”
In this time of heightened reflexivity for news journalists, many believe the forty-fifth president of the United States threatens their ideal of fair and factual reporting as vital to democracy. Major US legacy media outlets have created new slogans to emphasize their public service mission and to brand themselves as purveyors of facts and truth in challenging times. In February 2017, for example, “Democracy dies in darkness” became the widely noticed slogan under the Washington Post’s masthead, and the New York Times too launched new marketing campaign slogans about the importance of truth-telling: “The strength of fact. The power of truth. Reporting stories you can trust.”
While such rebranding in a period of intense political electricity may contribute to short-term financial gains, this kind of revamping does not address what critics of dominant US media ideologies—such as Robert McChesney and John Nichols (authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism7New York: Nation Books/Perseus Book Group, 2010More Info →)—view as deeper structural challenges that demand attention. The necessary questioning goes well beyond contemporary experiments with new business models and includes the 1980s deregulation that ended the Fairness Doctrine, which required attention to opposing viewpoints; implementation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act; and other changes that have allowed more media mergers, media cross-ownership, increasing concentration of ownership among a few media conglomerates and billionaires, an expanding journalistic role for private equity funds, growing commodification of news as “politicotainment,”8Kristina Riegert defines “politicotainment” as blurring boundaries between the entertainment industry and political reporting and analysis in Politicotainment: Television’s Take on the Real (New York: Peter Lang, 2007). and undermining of the FCC’s original goal of media accountability to the public, as profit overshadows debates about how best to serve the “public interest.”
Wall Street to the rescue?
The current outrage-driven financial boost for legacy news media may be little more than a temporary reprieve for a distressed institution. Contrary to narratives about a supposedly “brief recession for journalism” or accounts that attribute the degeneration of “old media” to the rise of digital news, McChesney and Nichols remind us that most original news reporting continues to come from newspapers, while online sites mostly “repackage previously published information”9McChesney and Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism, ix, 15–16. and have minimal resources for investigative or even beat reporting. It is profoundly consequential that during the first decade of the 2000s, US journalism lost “30 percent of its reporting and editing capacity” as hundreds of newspapers went out of business, and as editorial and reportorial staff continued to be cut.10McChesney and Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism, ix–x.
Such transformations, which affect broadcast news media as well, invite attention not just to digital technology-driven shifts in how people consume news but also to less visible processes of news media financialization via Wall Street. Accelerated consolidation of newspaper ownership by hedge funds and equity firms has limited civic accountability and transparency, and the rise of a new type of media baron beholden to powerful shareholders prioritize short-term earnings more than journalistic quality, incentivizing cuts to production costs and enhancing entertainment value, rather than high-quality original reporting.“In response, New Jersey recently became the first state to pass a law to use public funds to help revive local journalism.”
In addition to sharp cuts in newsroom staffs and investigative reporting, consequences of such neoliberal financialization include the emergence of “news deserts,” or loss of local news coverage. In response, New Jersey recently became the first state to pass a law to use public funds to help revive local journalism. In August 2018, it created the nonprofit Civic Information Consortium to fund media start-ups as part of an effort, in the words of Governor Murphy, to “put in place a strong system to prevent a world in which popular but false news claims go unchallenged because of a lack of commitment or resources.” It is too early to assess how effective a watchdog on state corruption (or how susceptible to “donor-driven corruption”) such an initiative might be.
When the New York Times in June 2017 enacted huge cuts in its copyediting staff (who also perform fact-checking and proofreading) and changes in its news operations, staff members wrote a letter of protest to the executive editor and staged a brief walkout. The Times’ own reporting of the staff cuts mentioned declining resources, framed such cost-cutting as necessitated across the industry in order to “offset declining circulation and print advertising revenue,” and cited the familiar narrative about a need to “adapt their business models to accommodate the seismic shift in how people consume news.” Such narratives occlude potential solutions that extend beyond business models, and they naturalize “financial pressure” on legacy news organizations.
Journalism as public good
An alternative media ideology views journalism as a public good, criticizes heavy dependence on profit-driven news organizations and advertising revenue, argues that US journalism has been hollowed out under corporate control and Wall Street-driven financialization, and asserts that the health of democracy requires generous public subsidies for competitive, innovative journalism.11For example, see McChesney and Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism and Penelope Muse Abernathy, The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts (Chapel Hill, NC: The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, School of Media and Journalism, University of North Carolina, 2016). Often forgotten is the foundational role of substantial public subsidies for US journalism during the 1790s and 1800s. “The American experiment,” writes Will Meyer in the Columbia Journalism Review, “was built on a government-supported press”—especially with content-neutral support such as postal subsidies and tax breaks.
Today, however, public funding of the press in the United States is much lower than amounts many other wealthy nations spend on public media. National Public Radio, for example, receives a very small fraction of its funding from federal and local government and relies heavily instead on unpredictable corporate funding and individual contributions. Yet Americans’ trust in public broadcasting is high, large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats oppose eliminating federal funding for public television, and forms of accountability that are uncommon in corporate news media can be built into public funding for independent journalism. Furthermore, a Nieman Foundation report states that “the troubles in the news business have coincided with a continued drop in government subsidies,” with postal subsidies, for example, declining 75 percent since the mid-1960s.
Reform advocates must battle strong headwinds from pervasive US discourses critical of “big government.” Those rhetorics, however, do not appear to have caught up with the dire consequences of handing over management of other public services such as ambulances or firefighters to private equity firms, as public funding for these vital services dries up. Is there any reason to expect better outcomes from a cozy relationship between Wall Street and news production?
A more effective approach to journalism’s crisis, writes Will Meyer in Jacobin, is “a public subsidy that supports in-depth journalism and serves the public, not shareholders and advertisers.” Meyer suggests that news production, “like other universal goods—public education, libraries, roads, post offices—[is something] we should all pay for… collectively.” Doing so of course would require more progressive income taxes at both federal and state levels, and wider recognition that US income tax rates—especially on the ultra-rich—are at historically low levels and have been quite a bit less than those of other wealthy nations for a couple of decades. Hence influential billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings say “please raise my taxes.” “If people really think that something should be done about the fake-news problem,” Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker, “they should be thinking about government as the institution to do it.”“Government already shapes the rules of the game in any market competition, and journalism is no exception—as the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and other regulatory changes illustrate.”
Lemann and others who favor press subsidies caution against simplistic dichotomies between an utterly “free” press on the one hand and puppet journalists or propagandists on the other. Government already shapes the rules of the game in any market competition, and journalism is no exception—as the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and other regulatory changes illustrate. Furthermore, “news itself,” as Robert G. Picard writes, “has never been financially viable as a market-based good.”12Robert G. Picard, “State Support for News: Why Subsidies? Why Now? What Kinds?,” in State Aid for Newspapers: Theories, Cases, Actions, ed. Paul Murschetz (Berlin: Springer, 2014), 49–57. At issue is how to enhance the capacity of independent journalists to hold the powerful accountable. While many other countries have instituted press subsidies, there is no one-size-fits-all formula, and this is a difficult conversation to sustain in the public sphere today in the United States.
Reframing journalism as a public good that has depended on public resources since this country’s founding, as well as reframing higher taxes as a patriotic duty of those who easily can afford to pay more, are possible steps to reinvigorate professional news production—and thereby enhance capacities to counter misleading or false accounts. Media ideologies that favor a shift from profit machine to public service invite us to imagine alternatives to Wall Street’s vision of news.