by Robert Kimmel –
It was clear from the beginning of The Hudson Independent’s Warner Library forum, entitled “Invasion of the Truth Snatchers: American Journalism in an Age of Bubbles, Tweets and Fake News,” that the state of the news business is not good. “The changes that have taken place in American journalism in recent decades, the shrinking of what were once powerful news organizations and the fragmentation of media,” said Barrett Seaman, chair of the newspaper’s editorial board and moderator of a panel of media experts, are all indicators of a troubled sector of American democracy.
The May 23rd panel, the first in a series planned by the newspaper, included Tarrytown resident Mary Rasenberger, currently Executive Director of the Authors Guild and the Authors Guild Foundation and an attorney by training; William Grueskin, Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and a veteran newspaperman; and Jon Scott, host of Fox News’ morning show, Happening Now and one of Fox’s original anchors. Both Grueskin and Scott have lived in Irvington. In addition to his work for the Independent, Seaman had a 30-year career as a correspondent and editor at Time magazine.
The panel focused on the mechanics and economics of journalism but also included a lengthy discussion of “fake news—what it is, whether it was new, how it is spread, and what we can do to recognize it and combat it,” as Seaman framed the discussion..
Panelist Mary Rasenberger described the contraction of traditional news organizations, particularly print media. Rasenberger, an expert in media law, stated, “Journalism is in crisis today.” Advertising revenue, she observed, decreased from $49 billion in 2006 to $18 billion in 2016. “Major newspapers, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal have had many layoffs and buyouts,” she said. “The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that newspaper jobs declined from 1990 to 2016 by 50%. Advertisers go where the eyeballs are. People have shifted from reading newspapers to getting their news on the Internet, on Facebook and Google, which ‘…don’t care about content.’” This, she observed, has led to a “huge decline in quality, not just in quantity.”
Seaman recalled how print media payroll cuts threatened accuracy in news reporting. Over the years, he said, Time magazine had cut its research staff, leaving writers to fact check their stories themselves—at the same time that news cycles were going “from weekly, to daily, to hourly, and now nano-secondly.”
“We hear a lot about fake news these days,” panelist William Grueskin said before he showed a series of videos of fake news stories. In addition to transforming Columbia’s curriculum in video and digital journalism, Grueskin was an executive editor at Bloomberg overseeing digital-platform training of the global news staff, and was also deputy managing editor at the Wall Street Journal.
“Journalists get things wrong facing deadlines, but they don’t get things wrong intentionally,” said Grueskin. “However, there are people out there who are doing these things intentionally. And politicians like to call things fake news that are actually true but that they don’t like.”
“Fake news goes back a long time,” Grueskin told the gathering, as he showed a bogus New York Sun series in 1835 about scientists discovering life on Mars. Contemporary fake news videos, from such phony Internet sites as ABCnews.com.co, Denver Guardian, and Weekly World News drew both groans and laughs from the audience.
Grueskin also displayed graphs providing statistical evidence of the spiraling rise of both fabricated and biased news. “News organizations no longer have the control of their content as they used to 20 years ago,” he said. “If you wanted to watch something from CBS News, you had to watch it on CBS News. Nowadays it can be distributed on Google or Facebook.” During the last presidential campaign, fake news distribution and the audience for Internet sites “shot up,” Grueskin said. Illustrating how very easy it is to distort the news today, he showed a clip in which false words, closely resembling Barack Obama’s speech pattern, were dubbed onto a video of his speech.
Panelist Jon Scott described being recruited to Fox News by its founding CEO, Roger Ailes, who (correctly) predicted that his news network would “knock off” CNN as the number one news network in five years. Scott, who covered 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was an Emmy award-winning writer while at Dateline NBC, cited eastern seaboard insularity as part of the reason for Fox’s rise to number one. “News has always emanated from New York or Washington, but there is a great big country out there and a lot of people didn’t feel that their attitudes were represented by the news they were watching on television,” he explained.
“Since Trump came on the scene, tune to MSNBC and then Fox News, and it’s like two different worlds,” Seaman explained, then asked Scott, “Is that intentional?” Scott noted his mid-day program was an effort to deliver a straight newscast, and that he did not want to “delve too much into our evening ‘opinion block.’” However, Scott noted, “There are a lot of people in the country who believe in what Donald Trump is doing, and they a have a right to their opinion…and they turn to Fox.”
Regarding the rise of the Internet as an information source, Scott said, “ In another ten years, will there be a CBS Evening News or an NBC Nightly News; I doubt it. In another 20 years, will there be CNN and Fox News? I’m not sure. The penetration of the Internet could kill cable news. The major networks will have to fight for their survivals as newspapers are now.”
Responding to Seaman’s question as to how fake news might be curtailed and greater trust restored to news organizations, Rasenberger proposed licensing journalists as a way of assuring more accurate reporting, whether by the government or through a less formal “seal of approval.”
At the conclusion, members of the audience posed questions and offered opinions.