This article first appeared in USA TODAY
By Ken Paulson
Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
Fake news is becoming a real problem, according to successive presidents of the United States. Barack Obama described it as a threat to democracy, while President Trump decried it as a threat to his administration.
So it must be a big deal. Surely this nation’s inventive spirit can give us something to counter “alternative facts” and bogus stories to give Americans the accurate information they need. Just consider this potential Kickstarter campaign:
We’re pleased to offer you the opportunity to invest in the Fake News Eradicator, a content delivery system that will keep you informed in a timely and reliable manner, engage and entertain you and shore up democracy in the process. Among its features:
The option of digital or retro packaging
Custom-built for your geographic location without the need for GPS
Creates local jobs; the product is manufactured in the USA by your neighbors.
Redesigned daily to meet your changing information needs
Family friendly; absolutely porn-free
The retro model is delivered to your doorstep and requires no batteries. It’s also guaranteed to be virus-free and has no annoying pop-up ads.
Yes, the best way to combat this spawn of new technology is with old technology, circa 1690, the year the first newspaper was published in America.
The most effective weapon against fake news is real journalism. The notion of caring professionals living in your community and writing about your town and government is admittedly very old school, but it has served us well for more than three centuries. We’ve had fake news at the checkout counter since the ‘70s, but there was also the real thing delivered to our doorstep each morning.
Obviously print newspapers will one day disappear, but the touchstones of local journalism don’t have to. Keeping an eye on local government, celebrating achievements and telling the stories that shape the fabric of a community have never been more important.
For those rolling their eyes because they’re convinced that the local newspaper is “biased” along with the rest of the media, I’d invite you to reconsider. By and large, local newspapers strive for balance for both ethical and business reasons. With newspapers struggling economically, they can’t afford to alienate anyone. That’s why many newspapers have abandoned endorsements. They can’t take the risk of losing a chunk of their readership.
Many factors fuel the proliferation of bogus news. In a polarized society, there are certainly cynical partisans who manipulate social media to their own ends. But we also can’t let the American people off the hook.
“Fake news thrives because there is a lazy, incurious, self-satisfied public that wants it to thrive; because large swaths of that public don’t want news in any traditional sense, so much as they want vindication of their preconceptions and prejudices,” author and Norman Lear Center fellow Neal Gabler wrote recently. “Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us.”
Why are so many Americans unwilling or unable to recognize partisan fairy tales? Who’s to blame when millions of Americans seem incapable of distinguishing the truth from nonsense? Have America’s schools failed to foster critical thinking?
The biggest driver of fake news has been the reluctance of the public to pay for information and the subsequent decline of traditional news media.
Faced with declining circulation, newspapers have priced their content at astonishingly low levels. In recent months, a number of daily newspapers have marked down their annual digital subscription to $4.99 a year. Yes, you read that right. For the price of a cup of coffee or a Big Mac, you get 365 days of information about your community, your neighbors and your government. Unless you don’t care.
And that could be the real problem. The click culture has revealed a lot about who we are as a nation and what our priorities are. We’ll spend hundreds of dollars on cable TV or $14 on a movie ticket, but we refuse to pay for news and information.
In the end, you do get what you pay for.
No disrespect to America’s television and radio stations, but those newspapers and websites drive broadcast reporting. Facebook posts on current events come from real news sites that need revenue to stay alive.
Unless we invest in journalism — at the national or local level, in print or online — fake news is all we’ll have. Democracy can’t survive on memes alone.
There are powerful politicians and their followers who say you can’t believe anything you read in the press. “Trust us,” they say. They want you to believe that America’s news organizations are all just like that strident and sensational cable channel you hate.
They suggest that the nation’s 1,300 daily newspapers, thousands of weekly and alternative papers, 1,700 TV stations, 14,000 radio stations, thousands of magazines and thousands of online news sites can all be condensed into the singular “media,” united by a shared political agenda and a disdain for the American people. And that’s the most dangerous fake news of all.