Who is the enemy with fake news?

As anyone who logs on to Facebook regularly can tell you, what was designed as a convenient means of communicating among friends has become a hot-bed source of public opinion. It is often a slugfest between parties who advocate, for lack of better terms, liberal and conservative ideologies. Recently it has become commonplace for both sides to blast the media, especially TV networks, as distributers of fake news.

Regarding this trend, I think it is important to look at some of the history of journalism in America. As a matter of principle, its core mission was to promote truth and non-bias; it was born of the need to expose and thereby counter government abuses. In the 1730s the John Peter Zenger trial in New York exposed the corruption of the King-appointed Colony-of-New York Governor William Cosby. At first Zenger was jailed for “libel.” He was, however, exonerated by a local court that foresaw the importance of truth, transparency, and accountability by government officials. Sixty years later the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was conceived, which would guarantee that no political entity could prohibit or abridge freedom of the press.

By implication, the content of all imaginable forms of media should not be dictated or influenced by political agendas. Therefore media sources were constructed to operate as private-sector business enterprises, which essentially made them for-profit organizations, dependent on advertising for revenue. If they failed to profit, they would fail to exist.

Hence the need to sell papers, and thanks to the New York Herald and other “penny presses,” more and more people had access to news, which meant, ideally, a more informed public.

However, it wasn’t just news. As papers vied for customers, much of their content became crude and creative-licensed sensationalism — gossip, rumors, and sordid tales of what went on in the dark corners of the cities or out on the Western Frontier. The newspapers realized that what sold best was the kind of story that entertained the public, especially that which appealed to the democratic party’s class base of working poor and their disdain for the wealthy class. Hence, the line between fact and fiction was severely blurred. As William Randolph Hearst went to war against Joseph Pulitzer in New York city during the late 1800s, the term “yellow journalism” emerged as a descriptor for the new kind journalism that merged cartoon-like characterization (The Yellow Kid) with real news and serious editorializing. Ironically, the sensationalized and under-substantiated stories published by private-sector newspapers would foment public outcry and bring about a political movement resulting in the Spanish American War.

In the 1930s the decline of the American economy and failures of an over-reaching government, evidenced by the Prohibition, engendered the “Age of the Columnist”; news seemed bad everywhere, and the public looked to the papers, and then to the radio, to address issues and propose solutions through editorials and other forms of opinion writing, often authored by famous people. The main function of the news was to provide comfort and hope for a nation in peril.

Throughout the World Wars, it was less necessary for news agencies to sensationalize, largely due to the dramatic reality of those wars (note the apt phrase “Theatre of War”). Moreover, with the advent of television broadcasting, the public?s appetite for quicker access to news grew rapidly. All Americans watched the same types of programs, and national pride was at its peak.

However, the unified spirit of America during the ’40s and ’50s was short-lived, and a few wars later there is no question that America is divided more than ever before.

Today the people demand (and assume) instant gratification not just regarding the real news, but the interpretations of the news that play into their political beliefs. Hence, we have TV news stations like FOX News and MSNBC, along with numerous radio talk shows and a million blog-sites, that represent vehemently polarized politics. Moreover, the public has an incredible amount of “choice” regarding where they can tune in. However, all this choice seems to appeal to the basest of human instincts — listen only to what you want to hear, and ignore or despise all else. People believe what they want to believe, and they can find evidence to back them on the internet, all in just a few clicks.

It seems that entertainment in America today is as much about all the vitriol and hate-mongering associated with liberals vs. conservatives as it is about goofy YouTube videos and TV reality shows. There is an ever-fading line separating information from entertainment. And real news agencies are caught in the middle.

To conclude, I offer a news flash for those who are inclined to post online about all the fake news put out there by the “enemy”: Facebook, Twitter and other social media are the biggest and baddest sources of fake news ever in the history of human interactions. I suggest you read your local newspapers instead, which in general strive to be objective and open-minded. Be openly critical if you feel there is unsubstantiated information. And then maybe take trip to the public library for some old-fashioned truth and some great Entertainment.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident.

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