A few days ago I found myself sitting in the delightfully named Café Grumpy reading a hard copy of the New York Times. The café’s name is no coincidence as along with serving up the best coffee in Chelsea, if not Manhattan, it has a strict no laptops policy and if you dare ask them if they have wifi you get a truly frosty reception.
Of course, what you soon discover sitting at a table with the ageing queens, yummy mummies and the hipsters of Chelsea, reading an old fashioned newspaper over a Melbourne-quality cappuccino is actually a lovely experience. And of course if an unsuspecting business person wanders in and opens their laptop, the schadenfreude on offer as the barista rushes from behind his machine and scolds the young go getter is delicious.
Of course, loving all this New Yorkness it didn’t really dawn on me the ramifications of one of the articles I read in the aforementioned New York Times before yesterday’s election result came to be.
Entitled ‘Media’s Next Challenge: Overcoming the Threat of Fake News’ the piece outlined how the already compromised print media corps was now battling with a rash of fake news being distributed through social media.
Here’s a taste of what the piece had to say:
“In the last couple of weeks, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets have exposed millions of Americans to false stories asserting that: the Clinton campaign’s pollster, Joel Benenson, wrote a secret memo detailing plans to “salvage” Hillary Clinton’s candidacy by launching a radiological attack to halt voting (merrily shared on Twitter by Roger Stone, an informal adviser to the Trump campaign); the Clinton campaign senior strategist John Podesta practiced an occult ritual involving various bodily fluids; Mrs. Clinton is paying public pollsters to skew results (shared on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr.); there is a trail of supposedly suspicious deaths of myriad Clinton foes (which The Times’s Frank Bruni heard repeated in a hotel lobby in Ohio).”
Sitting now in Boston Massachusetts post election, the whole reality of this piece continues to plague my consciousness. While news media has been a massive beneficiary of the whole election circus, it has still seen its ranks massively depleted. Of the nearly 33,000 US journalists, according to the 2015 census conducted by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University, roughly only half remain gainfully employed in their craft.
While television was one of the main purveyors of Trump’s early support, many of his early speeches were televised in great swathes on American TV, no small part of the blame can be attributed to the completely unregulated dissemination of disinformation through social media.
Capitalism demands any business must pay its way, but the support of a truly independent media is more than a business, it’s the final guardian of democracy. And when we get the result we got today, you have to wonder whether the journalist’s task of shining a light into dark places was truly able to be achieved.
I’ll leave it up to the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg to finish this one off:
That contraction in the reporting corps, combined with the success of disinformation this year, is making for some sleepless nights for those in Washington who will have to govern in this bifurcated, real-news-fake-news environment.
“It’s the biggest crisis facing our democracy, the failing business model of real journalism,” Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri and a longtime critic of fake news, told me on Saturday.
Ms. McCaskill said that “journalism is partly to blame” for being slow to adjust as the internet turned its business model upside down and social media opened the competitive floodgates. “Fake news got way out ahead of them,” she said.
It does not augur well for the future. Martin Baron, the Washington Post executive editor, said when we spoke last week, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning democracy?”
The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism. And how well the news media gets through its postelection hangover will have a lot to do with how the next chapter in the American political story is told.