Sunday, December 18, 2016

Reading Real News, Not Fake News, Really Matters in the Age of Trump

How much do you read? I don’t mean books. I mean newspapers and news Web sites.

I will answer first—not enough. And I’m mostly retired so I have no “time excuse.” That said, how much do you read? Specifically, how much of The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or The Boston Globe or The Chicago Tribune or The Los Angeles Times do you read? Or if you’re more inclined to go electronic, do you read the online versions of those papers, or Politico, or AP, or other reputable Web sites? In other words, how much quality daily journalism do you read?

It is almost universally agreed that democracy cannot flourish without freedom of the press. But that freedom implies an imperative on the citizenry to exercise a commitment to seeking out knowledge. Regrettably, in today’s political realm, both the populous and too many of its leaders are not dedicated to the proper exercise of a vigilant and truthful press.

The American people have just elected a president whose whole campaign was based on distortions, falsehoods and the failure to acknowledge his own prior statements. Lies repeated over and over became accepted as truth. 

Instead of relying on traditional media for news and analysis, large swaths of the public have turned to bogus news sites posting fake news stories they, at worse, believe or, at the very least, help shape negative opinions of politicians and groups that do not share their values. 

In this vortex of negativity, I am getting to the point where I can hardly read anymore about Trump. It’s too painful. (Paradoxically, as much as I try to break away from writing about him, I persist, thus exposing you, my reader, to even more Trumpish blasts.) I am even limiting my viewership of late night talk shows that lampoon him. 

And that, in a nutshell, is one of the dangers of Trumpdom, that the population that cares about the dangers he poses will be silenced by ennui as much as by the fake news that he and his acolytes disseminate.

Trump views no news cycle as complete without him in it. As president, even as president-elect, that’s to be expected, but his continued reliance on Twitter to roil the waters whenever he is criticized is troubling. He has yet to show that he cares that his tweets can have international repercussions, that his comments could move stock prices. 

For years one of my work-related buddies now retired from a technology company would include me in an email blitz of negative stories about liberals and President Obama. More often than not I’d check out their veracity through and alert him to their falsehood. I’d admonish him to check Snopes before sending out his blasts, but he rarely took the time. It was frustrating and disappointing to observe this intelligent former executive contribute to the dummification of society simply because he was anti-Democrats. 

Fake News proliferated during the election campaign, with Facebook becoming an unwitting accomplice. Facebook finally is taking some measures to limit the transmission of false and bigoted messages. But the damage to our democracy may not be easily repaired.

Last week, Fresh Air on NPR interviewed Craig Silverman, media editor of BuzzFeed News, about his research into fake news and its impact on the election. Silverman studied the response to the top 20 news stories from mainstream media and fake media on Facebook. 

He found that “three months before the election, that critical time, we actually saw the fake news spike. And we saw the mainstream news engagement on Facebook for those top 20 stories decline.”

What does it mean? “When we look at some of the data about the impact of misinformation, it’s really significant,” said Silverman. “So we at BuzzFeed partnered with Ipsos to do a survey of 3,000 Americans. And one of the things we wanted to find out was their familiarity with fake news headlines about the election. And what we found in the end after testing a group of five fake news headlines that went really big during the election and six real news headlines that went really big during the election is that 75 percent of the time, the Americans who were shown a fake news headline and had remembered it from the election believed it to be accurate.

“And that’s a really shocking thing. It’s impossible to go the next step and say, well, they voted because of that. But I think one of the things this election has shown is that people will believe fake news, misinformation will spread and people will believe it and it will become part of their worldview.”

Oh, how our democracy is in trouble given Trump’s penchant for dissembling and disseminating fake news.

Bread and Circuses: He has yet to officially take office but we can discern from the last two years how Trump will conduct business as president. 

It will be an imperial presidency. Woe to the person or organization that challenges the leader. 

Expect mass rallies as Trump fulfills his ego need for public approval. Though he did not win a majority of votes, he claims a mandate because of his Electoral College win. He will seek to reinforce his ego electronically through Twitter and physically through rallies of his faithful.

It will be an administration of “bread and circuses,” as in Ancient Rome, most aptly described by Wikipedia: “Bread and circuses” (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace,  as an offered ‘palliative.’ Its originator, Juvenal, used the phrase to decry the selfishness of common people and their neglect of wider concerns. The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the commoner.”

Democratic Party resistance mostly will be ineffectual at the national level given GOP control of the Senate and House. Democrats will try to emulate the successful Republican strategy of resistance at the local level. But it may be too late in many states. Look what happened in North Carolina last week where a Republican legislature passed laws to neuter the incoming Democratic governor. If the laws are not overturned in court, expect similar actions in other states should Democrats wrest control of governor mansions in future elections.

As Trump finalizes on his cabinet and White House appointments, it’s proper to ask, should we really have expected anything different? Were we being Pollyanna-ish in hoping, nay assuming, Trump would assemble a team of broad-minded advisors and cabinet secretaries instead of the close-minded reactionaries he has named whose bona fides include climate change deniers, minimum wage deniers, and fake news propagandists?

How rich are the men and woman who will sit around his cabinet table? Their collective wealth is $14.7 billion. It exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom third of American households, 43 million family units, The Daily Mail reported (  

As to why Trump made those picks despite campaigning on as an anti-elite, pro-worker candidate, here’s one explanation from a Politico article on the 10 key decisions of the election campaign, “Trump only really listens to rich guys.”

Trump Place in Your Face: Residents of Trump Place on Riverside Drive in Manhattan expressed their disapproval of the president-elect by having his name removed from their building. But one of the residents is showing allegiance to The Donald. He or she, as the case may be, has arranged Christmas lights from their balcony to spell out “Trump.”

Circulation Booster: Liberals seem to be turned on by Trump’s negative tweets about alleged circulation dips at The Times and Vanity Fair. Both publications reported that contrary to what Trump tweeted their subscription numbers have gone up since his election. 

But that is not a long term defense against bombastic unfounded statements. Trump and his followers are practicing a strategy of the big lie repeated often enough until it gets absorbed as truth.

Hearing Loss: There’s good news on the factory closing front and I don’t mean Trump’s initiative to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

No, the good news might signal an improvement in marital relationships. It seems hearing loss among Americans is declining. One reason hypothesized is there are fewer plants operating where the din of machinery takes its toll on workers’ hearing (

So there goes the excuse all those laid-off workers had for not hearing what their spouses said. Of course, if Trump does manage to get more factories opened, he would be wise to have hearing ailments covered in his “terrific” replacement for Obamacare.