Belmont Club

Who killed the news?

Who killed the news?
(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Recently the New York Times accused Donald Trump of destroying journalism.  Describing a recent meeting at the White House A.G. Sulzberger wrote, “I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous. … I was not asking for him to soften his attacks on The Times if he felt our coverage was unfair. Instead, I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country.”

Actually Silicon Valley and not the White House has inflicted the most damage on journalism over the last decade.  The flight of advertising revenue to the Internet has devastated newsrooms all over America forcing even the NYT to charge readers for content.  From coast to coast every publication is desperately fleeing what the Atlantic called the media apocalypse. “Google searches and the Facebook News Feed … [have] taken most of the money …. ‘captured the value’ of the content at the distribution level.”

At Vanity Fair, the editorial budget faces a 30 percent cut. At The New York Times, advertising revenue is down $20 million annually after nine months. Oath, the offspring of Yahoo and AOL’s union, is shedding more than 500 positions … every digital publisher seems to be struggling, selling, or soliciting… So many media companies in 2017 have reoriented their budgets around the production of videos that the so-called “pivot to video” has became an industry joke. Today, the pivot seems less like a business strategy and more like end-of-life estate planning.

Without money, journalism no longer had the resources to effectively set the agenda.  It can hardly afford even the cost of negative coverage.  “As the news cycle has concentrated around the polarizing president, many ad buyers have said they don’t want their name near any news story that involves him. … As some premium advertisers abandon political news, ad rates fall and political news becomes a tough venture for media companies, even as traffic is soaring.”

The task of upholding the Narrative, the mission of traditional journalism, has devolved upon what Jaron Lanier called the “great Silicon Valley spying empires” who spread any meme for a fee. In a Guardian article Lanier argued that social media’s main goal was to use AI to manipulate its billions of users so it could sell the resulting influence to paying customers.  “Your behavior has been turned into a product – and corporate and political clients are lining up to modify it.”

Spying is accomplished mostly through connected personal devices … that people keep practically glued to their bodies. … Algorithms choose what each person experiences through their devices. … It means each person sees different things. …

The above elements are connected to create a measurement and feedback machine that deliberately modifies behavior. … customized feeds become optimized to “engage” each user… The default purpose of manipulation is to get people more and more glued in, and to get them to spend more and more time in the system.

In this way the public is sold products of every description and agendas of every shape and kind. The extent and pervasiveness of this manipulative machinery first came to wide public notice in aftermath of the 2016 election.  It soon became apparent that efforts to fix fake news by prohibiting specific clients (such as Russians) from engaging the manipulative services of social media could not fix the basic deficiency of the social media business model itself.

What made a few Russian trolls so powerful was not their miserably puny infrastructure but the network they could rent out from the billion dollar behemoths in California — to whom they were just another customer.  A UK parliamentary inquiry “considered evidence from around the world of how elections could be manipulated and heard how Russian agencies worked to influence votes by running adverts on Facebook.”  They concluded:

“If these tools that are so powerful, that can reach millions and millions of people all around the world at the touch of a button, if they can be effectively used to spread disinformation without the source of that information ever being revealed, as appears to be the case here, then that is a threat we have to confront.”

But who can confront companies richer than whole countries? Despite the bureaucratic bravado only the market has so far been up to the task of delivering a judgment of Silicon Valley’s business model.  The most dramatic evidence of a possible backlash was Facebook’s $119 billion share decline at the end of July, the biggest of any company in recorded history.  The Washington Post wrote:

The steepness of the decline suggests investors are reevaluating the viability of Facebook’s core business — collecting extensive data on users so that they can better target them with advertising — in a world in which public pressure is mounting for stricter privacy protections. … Facebook’s bad day on Wall Street raises questions about the fate of other big technology firms, such as Twitter and Google, which like Facebook have been grappling with rising privacy concerns and congressional demands to more aggressively combat the flow of disinformation on their platforms.

Not long after Twitter was struck by a similar loss. The market had done something the political establishment had not previously nerved itself to do — possibly because they themselves were using social media to manipulate the public.  As Wikipedia notes fake news has been been as a tool of statecraft for centuries.  Fake news itself is not a problem; it only becomes a problem for elites when it veers out of control.

In the 13th century BC, Rameses the Great spread lies and propaganda portraying the Battle of Kadesh as a stunning victory for the Egyptians… the battle was actually a stalemate. … During the first century BC, Octavian ran a campaign of misinformation against his rival Mark Antony, portraying him as a drunkard, a womanizer, and a mere puppet of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII….

In 1475, a fake news story in Trent claimed that the Jewish community had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian … [that] resulted in all the Jews in the city being arrested and tortured … In the late 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer and other yellow journalism publishers goaded the United States into the Spanish–American War, which was precipitated when the U.S.S. Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba….

Throughout World War II, both the Axis and the Allies employed fake news in the form of propaganda to persuade publics at home and in enemy countries. The British Political Warfare Executive used radio broadcasts and distributed leaflets to discourage German troops.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has published that The New York Times printed fake news “depicting Russia as a socialist paradise.” During 1932–1933, The New York Times published numerous articles by its Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer prize for a series of reports about the Soviet Union.

What makes the current fake news problem particularly hard for the establishment to solve is the dilemma posed by two conflicting requirements:  Silicon Valley at once allows the establishment to manipulate the public while simultaneously creating the means for others to undermine it.  One of the great ironies of the modern age is than an industry at once the greatest ally of liberal politics should also be its greatest potential foe.  Efforts to resolve the dilemma have so far failed.  Facebook suspending Alex Jones accomplishes nothing when manipulation is after all the company’s core business.

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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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