Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
The media and “fake news” in the Age of Trump. The long, slow fade of newspapers in the face of technological and social change. The irrepressible urge to silence unpopular speech. The demise of net neutrality.
Those are some of the themes that rose to the top of my most-read commentaries for WGBH News during the past year. With 2017 drawing to a close, I thought I’d take a look back. Will 2018 be any different? Better? Worse? As the hack’s favorite cliché would have it, time will tell.
1. Political polarization is real, but especially on the right (March 15). Scholars at Harvard Law School and MIT studied how 1.25 million articles about the presidential campaign were shared on social media from April 2015 through Election Day. And they discovered something disturbing: While supporters of Hillary Clinton were consuming a relatively healthy media diet of mainstream and liberal sources, Donald Trump’s supporters were clustered tightly around a right-wing echo chamber dominated by Breitbart News. This “asymmetric polarization,” as the authors described it, helped explain why many Trump voters were likely to believe falsely that Clinton had committed a crime by using a private email server — or, in the more fetid swamps of the far right, was involved in a child sex ring run out of the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant.
2. The long, ugly decline of the newspaper business (Jan. 26, 2016). No good news here, but it resonated enough to rise near the top of my list even though it was from a year earlier. Fittingly, I wrote this column on the Amtrak to Philadelphia, where I was heading to interview folks about billionaire H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest’s just-announced decision to donate his money-losing Philadelphia Inquirer and its affiliated media properties to a nonprofit organization. The newspaper crisis is not one of readership. Rather, it is a story about advertising. Print ad revenues have dropped dramatically, while any hopes that those losses would be offset by a rise in digital income have been squelched by the Facebook-Google duopoly. The result: Armageddon.
3. When should the media call a falsehood a “lie”? (Jan. 3). Several weeks before the fact-challenged president-elect was sworn in, I took on the dicey issue of how to label untruthful political statements. Except in the most egregious cases, I came down on the side of explaining why a particular utterance is untrue without resorting to the L-word. After all, in most cases we can’t be sure whether someone speaking falsely actually knows he is doing so. I’m sticking by that judgment, even though President Trump has turned out to be, according to PolitiFact, every bit as untruthful as candidate Trump.
4. Fake news, false news, and why the difference matters (Nov. 21, 2016). Another holdover from the previous year. I’m afraid that the distinction I was trying to make has been lost now that we have a president who routinely denounces the traditional media as peddling “fake news” simply because he doesn’t like what they’re reporting. But I thought that if we could narrow the definition of fake news to for-profit crapola produced by content farms trying to game Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms, then it might be possible to eliminate at least some of it. Meanwhile, “false news” — untrue or distorted political propaganda — could be dealt with as we always have: by countering it with the truth.
5. Paul Ryan, partisan hack (March 21). Your basic hit job on a loathsome politician. There was a time when Ryan was regularly described as a principled conservative intellectual. He never deserved it; and, following the passage of massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, it appears that much of the public now knows it.
6. Everything is not the same (Oct. 11). The traditional media’s obsession with balance, even at the expense of the truth, has persisted in the Age of Trump. The example I invoked in this column were assertions in our papers of record, The Washington Post and The New York Times, that the Democrats’ growing embrace of old-fashioned liberalism was just like the Republicans’ move to the extreme right. Perhaps the Republican establishment’s support for a credibly accused pedophile in the recent Alabama Senate race will dampen such instincts, at least for a little while.
7. The end of net neutrality — and of online free speech (Nov. 27). I am shocked to report that this column did not have the desired effect. Two weeks after it was published, the Federal Communications Commission went ahead and repealed net neutrality anyway. The indignity.
8. The 2017 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). For 20 years, my co-conspirator Harvey Silverglate and I have been singling out affronts to free speech — first for the late, much-lamented Boston Phoenix and in recent years for WGBH News. The 2017 edition focused on the rise of social media as a menace to freedom of expression. Among the examples: YouTube’s restricting access to a pro-Israel video by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz; Instagram’s taking down nude photos posted by the Museum of Fine Arts; and the Boston Police Department’s proposal — later withdrawn — to monitor social-media activities to make sure we’re not doing anything suspicious. As Huxley predicted, repression would come in the form of free services that let us share pictures of our cats.
9. Why the Entercom-CBS merger will harm Boston radio (Feb. 13). Starting in the mid-1990s, nearly all meaningful ownership restrictions on radio stations have been cast aside. Rather than requiring localism as a guiding principle, Congress and the FCC have embraced corporate empire-building. Some months after I wrote this column, CBS announced that it would sell the last news station on the local commercial dial, WBZ (AM 1030), to iHeartMedia, formerly known as Clear Channel. Naturally, iHeart’s first move was to fire WBZ’s respected program director, Peter Casey. The demise of commercial stations has helped fuel the rise of public radio, including news outlets WGBH (89.7 FM) and WBUR (90.9 FM). In this case, though, what’s good for public media is not good for the public at large.
10. Keeping it neutral on social media (Oct. 26). After The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were diagnosed with terminal old fogeyism for issuing elaborate policies on their journalists’ use of social media, I came to their defense. My basic rule of thumb: Reporters expected to cover their beats in a fair, impartial manner should act accordingly on Twitter. And even opinion journalists have an obligation to stay away from using offensive language, endorsing candidates, or anything else they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to do.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2018.