Fake news! What it is, what it isn’t and how to avoid it

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Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving several talks on fake news. I put together a simple handout that I hope will help people sort out what’s real from what isn’t, and I thought you might enjoy having a look.

Fake news: False or wildly misleading stories created by for-profit content farms. The goal is to go viral and attract as many page views as possible in order to generate ad revenue. Examples: Right Wing News, Occupy Democrats.

Solution: Take away their ad money (as Google is trying to do) and label them as fake when your Uncle Ernie and Aunt Mildred share them (as Facebook may do).

False news: Error-laden or deceptive stories created by ideologically motivated media organizations. The goal is to persuade and to affect public discourse. Examples: Fox News Channel, The Huffington Post.

Solution: The First Amendment is the best weapon for exposing false news. Our democracy is based on the idea that truth will ultimately prevail over falsehoods in the marketplace of ideas.

Real news: Stories produced by news organizations that practice journalism as a “discipline of verification.” The goal is to inform the public as truthfully as possible. Errors are corrected. Example: The mainstream media (for the most part).

Solution: Support real news by subscribing to newspapers (either in print or online) and donating to public media.

Before you share a dubious-looking news story …

  • Ask yourself if there seems to be something fishy about it.
  • See if you can find anything about it at Snopes.com, the leading source of information on fake news and urban myths.
  • Check the source — is it a respected news organization or a website you’ve never heard of before?
  • Google some keywords from the article to see if any other news organizations are reporting the same story.

Worthy of your support

Journalism that holds powerful people and institutions to account is expensive. At newspapers, which provide most of our public-interest journalism, advertising no longer pays the bills. Some news organizations that deserve your online or print subscription dollars:

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The Boston Globe
  • The Boston Herald
  • Your local newspaper
  • And consider donating to public media

If you can’t afford to pay for news

There are multiple sources of reliable free news. There is no need to fall victim to fake news just because you can’t afford to pay for a newspaper subscription. Examples:

  • NPR, heard locally on WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM). You can also read national and international news for free at npr.org, and regional and local news at wbur.org and news.wgbh.org.
  • “The PBS NewsHour,” which also has a great website at pbs.org/newshour.
  • “Frontline,” also on PBS, for in-depth documentaries.
  • The evening network newscasts (CBS, NBC, and ABC).
  • The Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com).
  • The Guardian, which has a U.S. edition (theguardian.com). Note that The Guardian is seeking donations and offers subscription options as well. But it is still free for the moment, and it is one of the world’s great newspapers, on a par with The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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Christopher Caldwell ignores disturbing evidence of Bannon’s bigoted views

Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Christopher Caldwell, a conservative writer whom I admire, weighs in with a sympathetic profile of Stephen Bannon in today’s New York Times in which he ignores available evidence that Bannon may personally hold racist and anti-Semitic views. (This would be aside from the garbage published by Breitbart News, the alt-right website Bannon headed before joining President Trump’s campaign last summer.) Caldwell writes:

Many accounts of Mr. Bannon paint him as a cartoon villain or internet troll come to life, as a bigot, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a crypto-fascist. The former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, have even called him a “white nationalist.” While he is certainly a hard-line conservative of some kind, the evidence that he is an extremist of a more troubling sort has generally been either massaged, misread or hyped up.

The trouble with Caldwell’s attempt to blow past the alleged caricature and tell us about the real Steve Bannon is that there is, in fact, well-known, on-the-record evidence that contradicts Caldwell’s sanguine views.

Perhaps Caldwell’s most disingenuous ploy is to enlist Julia Jones, a liberal screenwriter and former collaborator of Bannon’s. Caldwell writes: “She regrets that Mr. Bannon ‘has found a home in nationalism.’ But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.”

Now, this is not the first time that Jones has been quoted in the Times to the effect that Bannon is not a racist. The last time, though, we got the full context, and it turns out that Jones’ view of what constitutes not being a racist is rather different from the standard definition. This is from a profile of Bannon by Scott Shane that the Times published on Nov. 27:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

I realize that this is hearsay. But it comes from a friendly source, and there hasn’t been a single suggestion since Shane’s story was published that either Jones or Bannon disputes the accuracy of that particular anecdote.

As for whether Bannon is an anti-Semite, well, it’s complicated. His chief ally within the White House is said to be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is Jewish. As Caldwell and others have noted, Bannon reserves his real animus for Muslims. Nevertheless, there is the matter of a sworn deposition by Bannon’s ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, in which she claims that Bannon assaulted her because he was upset that she was sending their daughters to a private school with too many Jews.

Jesse Singal, writing last Nov. 15 in New York magazine, did a good job of gathering together what we know about Bannon and the Jews. As Singal noted, Piccard’s statement did come in the midst of a nasty custody battle, and Bannon has denied ever saying such a thing. But it’s been confirmed that there was a domestic incident around that time. And it’s also been confirmed that Bannon once asked the director of a school “why there were so many Chanukah book in the library,” as Piccard put it. (What’s unclear is whether the question was friendly or hostile.)

A friendly source saying on the record that Bannon talked about the genetic superiority of some people and said it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many African-Americans were banned from voting. Disturbing suggestions that Bannon has expressed anti-Semitic views. I would say these are more than “hyped up” charges, as Caldwell puts it. The fact that we are talking about President Trump’s right-hand man makes them pretty damn alarming.

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James Comey is back. And this time his FBI is taking aim at Trump’s inner circle.

James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.
James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.

FBI Director James Comey, who did more to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign than anyone other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is back. Investigations are under way into the Trump inner circle’s ties to Russia — and leaks from those investigations are one of several factors in the chaos that has defined Trump’s presidency. As we all wonder what will come next, it’s a good time to take a look at what Comey has wrought.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

White House Correspondents Dinner can’t go on after Trump’s toxic outburst

Last week on “Beat the Press,” I said that even though I’ve been arguing for years that the loathsome White House Correspondents Association dinner should be canceled, it had to go on as scheduled this year lest it look like the media were trying to punish President Trump.

Well, I’m going to flip-flop because of Trump’s incendiary tweet declaring that the press is “the enemy of the American People!”

Needless to say, this sort of rhetoric shows — once again — that Trump is clueless contemptuous about the role of the press in a democratic society. But let me go one step further: This could get someone killed.

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The investment bank that owns GateHouse Media has been sold to the Japanese

Fortress Investment Group, the investment bank that owns the GateHouse Media chain of community newspapers, has been sold to a Japanese bank, SoftBank Group Corp., for $3.3 billion, the Worcester Business Journal reports.

GateHouse, based in suburban Rochester, New York, owns well over a hundred local weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts as well as dailies such as the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham. The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Standard-Times of New Bedford and the Cape Cod Times.

Strange days indeed.

Update: OMG, there is a Trump angle. (Thanks to Saul Tannenbaum, who posted a link to this in the Facebook comments.)

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Here’s why Boston should care about the massive Entercom-CBS Radio merger

Photo (cc) by Gratisography
Photo (cc) by Gratisography

There was a time when the merger of two massive radio chains would have occasioned apocalyptic warnings about corporate media monopolies. Yet the announcement earlier this month that Entercom and CBS Radio would seek to combine their forces into a nationwide 244-station chain — with huge implications for Boston — barely created a stir.

Yes, both The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald had some fun kicking around the possibility that the city’s two big sports stations, Entercom’s WEEI (93.7 FM) and CBS’s The Sports Hub (98.5 FM), could wind up under the same roof. But we seem to be many years past the time when we worried about the effect of out-of-state ownership on local communities. It was a topic I wrote about repeatedly in the ’90s (here’s an example from 1997), and now it’s yesterday’s news.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Daily papers in Medford and Malden, long in extremis, finally give up the ghost

The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News' now-defunct Twitter account.
The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News’ now-defunct Twitter account.

Two venerable Greater Boston daily newspapers, the Malden Evening News and the Medford Daily Mercury, have ceased publication, according to Wicked Local. In recent years there was little news in either one. But they were good papers under the ownership of the late David Brickman, who bought the Mercury in 1947 and eventually owned both papers as well as a third, the Melrose Evening News.

According to an obituary of Brickman that appeared in The Boston Globe in 1992, he was a driving force behind the state’s open-meeting law and served on the state’s Ethics Commission. He also served in various political capacities under governors Leverett Saltonstall, Christian Herter, John Volpe, Endicott Peabody, Foster Furcolo and Ed King, all while continuing to publish his newspapers. That’s not exactly what we would consider ethical journalism today, but it wasn’t that unusual at the time.

In the early 1980s my wife, Barbara Kennedy, was a freelance photographer for Brickman’s papers. We lived in Medford back then, and the five-days-a-week Mercury was a respectable source of goings-on around the city. Even then, though, there were signs that Brickman was having financial difficulties (freelancers are always the first to know), and he sold his papers in 1989.

According to this well-sourced Wikipedia article, in 1990 Brickman’s successor, Warren Jackson, combined all three papers, as well as an Everett edition of the Malden paper, into one entity known as the Daily News-Mercury. In 1996 the paper was acquired by its last owners, the Horgan family, who revived the separate Malden and Medford nameplates.

When Barbara and I returned to Medford in 2014 after 30 years on the North Shore, we discovered that the Mercury had fallen on hard times, as its contents consisted almost entirely of press releases from Malden. We began reading GateHouse’s Medford Transcript, a Wicked Local weekly, which does a respectable job with its extremely limited staffing.

As sad as it is to see any newspaper go under, perhaps the not-unexpected demise of the Malden and Medford dailies will open up an opportunity for someone to start an independent journalism project to give GateHouse some competition, either in print or online. Medford is already the home to several vibrant online communities and to a website called Top 10 Things to Know in Medford Right Now, which suggests that the demand is there.

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