Fake News: Chicken Little Meets the Canary in the Coal Mine

The surge of partisan vitriol over “fake news” during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election raises some very serious though deeply misunderstood issues. What is news, what is information, what are facts, and what role does propaganda play in the “news cycle” in the various media? Is there a viable role for “fact checkers” in today’s fast-paced flow of pseudo-facts and contrived images on social media? After all, a skilled Photoshop user can create an image to match just about any fantasy. Moreover, what is happening to the communication of fact and opinion in the so-called political discourse in the U.S. today? To what extent can the average “consumer” of news actually distinguish fact from fantasy?

For a long time it has been painfully obvious, at least to some, that the quality and relevance of network news have gone steadily downhill since the “good old days” of Walter Cronkite. When Cronkite concluded his CBS evening news show in the 1960s and 70s with “…and that’s the way it is…” we believed him, more or less. We had no reason to suspect, in any case, that he was contriving stories or falsifying images, even if he left out difficult or sensitive details. Those were the days when television network-news divisions operated independently from commercial entertainment divisions and had their own budgets. In the 1950s and ‘60s, competitive pressures drove the networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC to seek news audiences based on gathering and presenting news, not on ratings driven by superficial yet attention grabbing entertainment.

Cable TV and the Internet were things of the future in the era of television network-news divisions that were more or less independent of commercial pressures. Foreign correspondents and field reporters covered the horrible details of the Vietnam War and the brutal facts of the civil rights movement on the ground. The networks’ entertainment divisions have since swallowed up television news operations, which must now muster ratings that satisfy sponsors. News budgets now reflect advertising revenue and entertainment values. News ratings reflect promoting as well as pandering to curiosity over celebrity antics and gossip about political candidates’ personal lives. Neither network nor cable news operations pursue important political or economic stories unless they are consistent with corporate interests. Trump built his initial momentum partly with free air time based as much on media voyeuristic interest as on his demagoguery.

Enter social media and “reality television.” With the proliferation of digital technology, in both constructing images and purveying “information,” the rise of “fake news” probably was inevitable. CNN had broken into the news business as a hard-hitting 24/7 international cable-news source after the networks virtually abandoned their overseas bureaus and investigative reporting. Gradually it succumbed to the dominant model of mainstream media that Paul Krasner used to call “dis-info-tainment,” in his satirical underground magazine, The Realist. (See the The Realist archives at http://www.ep.tc/realist/index.html)

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Keith Olbermann

MSNBC began as the cable-TV voice of political liberalism, or more accurately, the Democratic Party. However, it was, after all, a subsidiary of NBC, still one of the corporate media giants; its “liberalism” is strictly corporatist, just like that of Hillary and the DNC. MSNBC executives eventually drove out any reporter or commentator who tried to speak truth to power. A certain conservatism is evident in corporatized liberalism – corporate rather than cultural conservatism. The former LA sports reporter, Keith Olbermann, for while held sway on his popular news and political commentary show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” on MSNBC. His rants were politically biting and quite entertaining for MSNBC’s largely well-educated audience; he did not dumb down his words. Management suspended him, allegedly for donated $2,400 each to three Democratic candidates for Congress, without management approval. Executives him two days later after a viewer petition with 250,000 signatures demanded it. By January 2011, he departed by mutual agreement.

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Melissa Harris-Perry

Then, on February 26, 2016, Melissa Harris-Perry, a vibrant and moderately progressive political science professor, who hosted a popular current events and political commentary show on MSNBC, announced her departure after they took her show from her without comment. “… I will not be used as a tool for [management’s] purposes … I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head,” she said in an email to her colleagues. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melissa_Harris-Perry) Corporate media allow very little deviation from their establishment viewpoint. Yes, ratings are important to corporate media executives, but their relations to the political elite are even more essential to their power.

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Cenk Uygur

Ed Schultz, popular outspoken advocate for workers and unions also did not last at MSNBC. Then, following the rearrangement of the schedule after the Olbermann and Schultz departures, Cenk Uygur filled the prime time spot as anchor of “MSNBC Live,” but not for long. Formerly conservative Uygur’s strong voice in progressive news and commentary got him good ratings. He co-founded and now hosts a new network, The Young Turks (TYT), following his departure from MSNBC after management told him that important people in Washington did not like his tone and that “We’re not outsiders.” Now, MSNBC has picked FOX reject Greta Van Susteren over Joy-Ann Reid, MSNBC’s popular hard-hitting journalist who is widely respected for her interviewing skills and incisive commentary. So much for “the liberal media bias.”

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Joy Ann Reid

What’s all that about? Fake News, that is what. The current cross-accusations of “fake news” between Democrats and Republicans, with various intelligence agencies chiming in with highly irregular unverifiable announcements and leaks, over whether the Russians hacked Hillary’s emails or a disgruntled Democrat leaked them is the tip of the disinfotainment iceberg. Has anyone considered the possibility that both claims are true? Now, plausible claims surface that Russian agents have evidence of Trumpian philandering in Russia as well as other shocking information – but then, the shock of Trump has worn off, rendering any revelation, true or false, no longer shocking. Social media debates over the source of the Hillary emails exposure become absurd in this climate of unverified dis-information.

Most corporate mass media report the “party line” of the Republican-Democrat political elite as if it were a “fair and balanced” coverage of the political spectrum. Yet independent surveys show that the American public is far more progressive than either party apparatus. That is why the New York Times and Washington Post ignored Bernie Sanders until he got so popular they had to descend into slandering him. (It is also why the corporatist Democratic National Committee undercut his campaign.) Political reporting routinely distorts “news” and power, so that we are likely to hear just about anything we can imagine, or they want us to hear.

glenn-greenwaldGlen Greenwald, who with Laura Poitras, helped get Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s unconstitutional spying on Americans made public, started the online publication, The Intercept (https://theintercept.com/) in 2014, and edits it with Jeremy Scahill, Poitras, and Betsy Reed. The Intercept provides deep investigative reporting of government and corporate wrongdoing. Greenwald recently explained the convoluted manipulations of mainstream U.S. media, on Democracy Now!, America’s premier viewer-sponsored independent progressive news outlet. (https://www.democracynow.org/2017/1/5/glenn_greenwald_mainstream_us_media_is)

As a narcissistic sociopath with unpredictable political intensions ascents to the status of president-elect, the elite members of the “deep state” get nervous.[1] Fox News was the original butt of the puns, “Fixed News” and “Fake News” by its critics. Yet, as Julian Assange pointed out when interviewed by Shawn Hannity of Fox News, the political elite corrupts the mainstream media in the old “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” sense. We now face a situation in which the usual “managing” of news in the interests of the political class has become much more complicated. The usual political rivalries within the Washington establishment seem all jumbled up. In the new Trumplandia, we can hardly sort out the players or their interests. It seems they are all lying. But remember, political claims and the framing of “issues” are primarily means of maintaining or gaining position within the power structure. Yes, the political sky is falling, but “Chicken Little” may very well be the “Canary in the Coal Mine.”

[1] See Lofgren, Mike (2016). The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. New York: Viking.

Climate Science or Social Science?

The mass media continue to present the issue of climate change as if it were an unsettled scientific topic for political debate. Of course, the mass media are owned by the very corporations that have externalized the real costs of their pollution of the environment. If the real costs to people and the planet were fully grasped by the public, many of the largest corporations would be recognized for their criminal destruction of the very basis for life on the planet. Any reading of the research makes it clear that is no real scientific debate over whether global warming is real or whether the climate disruption we now experience is mostly anthropogenic. The data simply overwhelm any honest doubt; the rest is the politics of greed.

Many of the details of the deadly trajectory down which we are plummeting are still being clarified. That is always the case in scientific research. But it is entirely feasible to calculate the extent that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, etc., must be reduced in order to stave off an environmental death spiral. Aside from how to carry out the reductions, the biggest question is whether or not it is too late to stop the accelerating increase of the earth’s temperature. Each new report indicates that prior modeling of climate change underestimated change and effects. But the science is improving as the prospects continue to look more bleak. Yet recognizing the urgency is strongly resisted.

Total Social Mobilization
Seeking certainty is irrelevant to an effective response to climate disruption, and at this point it is self-destructive. Calculations of the probabilities of the catastrophic consequences of continuing on the present path can and are being made. But it is already clear that drastic changes in energy consumption must be made immediately. It is nothing more than prudent to make the best calculations possible now and take every action necessary to stave off catastrophic climate disruption and societal collapse. Most climate scientists know that, but they are in no position to initiate drastic societal actions more massive than the greatest mobilizations of humanity ever attempted. Climate science describes our condition, but it cannot give us answers about how to mobilize humanity to save itself and the planet.

The present situation is an interesting contrast with the U.S. mobilization as the nation entered World War II. Automotive factories were converted to production of military tanks in a matter of weeks. New fighter aircraft were designed and put into production in a couple of months. Most importantly, the society and virtually the entire population put itself on a “war footing” almost immediately. Today, the difference is that this time the scale of mobilization necessary is just as comprehensive but many orders of magnitude greater in scale than that impressive social transformation. The same level of mobilization must occur in different ways in most other nations too, based on their differing patterns of fossil fuel consumption.

The Political Impasse
The impasse is rather obvious. Because of the central control of information and culture by the corporate state, the urgency of the situation is not recognized by most of the population. That is fine for the plutocrats attempting to squeeze those final profits from the dying growth economy, but it cannot last for long. If, as at the beginning of World War II, the entire population were able to recognize that total social mobilization is required for the survival of the nation, and if we had political leadership dedicated to facing the new reality, it could happen.

But we are in a very different place. Extreme economic individualism promoted by the corporate culture has weakened the social bonds that would support concerted action. Mass media “dysinfotainment” distracts the majority from facing the accelerating crisis. Self-indulgent politicians continue to collect their corporate largesse and look the other way while pandering to “climate deniers.” Presidents do what the corporate state requires – corporate aggrandizement is the priority, not societal survival. Total social mobilization is needed to make the massive economic and technical changes that are required to curtail the destruction that will otherwise befall humanity. Yet, the most important factors run counter to these changes. Even most environmental activists don’t talk about the huge scale of mobilization needed.

The Great Transformation
So, the most serious scientific questions remaining as to the future of humanity and the biosphere that must be addressed are really questions for the social sciences, not climate science. That is not a comfortable prospect for several reasons.

First, I have always called the social sciences the “hard sciences,” because the subject matter is so difficult. Most people call the physical sciences the hard sciences, but they have a different meaning. “Hard” data are the realm of physics and chemistry. Measurement and prediction of human behavior, let alone changing it, are much more difficult to do because of the fluidity of human behavior and social processes. Fluid dynamics is quite explicit because fluids behave in highly predictable ways. Not so humans. Mobilizing human behavior is far more complex.

Second, society today is tightly organized around the demands of an elitist growth economy that is in direct conflict with the needs for human survival. Politics and policy are driven by the economic elites. The only serious climate leadership is at the grass-roots level where the uphill battle is for the attention of a population. Most people must struggle daily to put food on the table. Not a pretty sight. The only hope lies in the fact that the public is not so stupid as the elites think. Growing numbers are recognizing the seriousness of the climate crisis, which is now the greatest human emergency ever. Perhaps a tipping point can be reached in time.