Pandemic Diary Entry #46
June 15, 2020
A while ago I wrote Dying in 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds. While the World Watches. I was excoriated on Facebook with a comment that said I should be reported for spreading lies.
My work has always been highly researched and well documented, so I must assume the reader did not get past the first fiery paragraph which they obviously found antagonistic to their personal views.
Medium.com is a phenomenal place to write outside of a personal blog if you are not affiliated with an established news source. Like anything one reads nothing should be taken at face value, but thanks to the internet, fact checking can be accomplished. There is so much garbage out there that one may have to wade through a lot of slop to find a nugget, but if you want to actually educate yourself with facts rather than bumper sticker logic, you can.
The question that looms over any discussion about news is, how much longer until we only have unsourced pablum?
The United States is fast becoming a News Desert. The newspaper world is being decimated leaving only a few large news services standing and that is frightening to anyone that worries about where this is all going. Much of television today carries no news at all. Even the morning “news” shows now classify themselves as infotainment.
Add to that, approximately two-thirds of Americans believe that most mainstream media are biased in their coverage. This includes media coverage of immigrants (64 percent), urban areas (67 percent), police shootings (65 percent), sexual assault (62 percent), sexism (66 percent), and Muslims (65 percent).
The University of North Carolina (UNC) did a comprehensive study of News Deserts in 2018. Here is the gist of what they found:
About 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers in the United States — about 1,800 — have gone out of business or merged since 2004, when about 9,000 were being published.
Hundreds more have scaled back coverage so much that they’ve become what the researchers call “ghost newspapers.” Almost all other newspapers still publishing have also scaled back, just less drastically.
Online news sites, as well as some TV newsrooms and cable access channels, are working hard to keep local reporting alive, but these are taking root far more slowly than newspapers are dying, resulting in 1,300 communities that have lost all local coverage.
A Duke University study analyzed all the news stories provided to 100 randomly selected communities in one week and found that only 17 percent were about the community where they were presented. This did not surprise me at all. During the Black Lives Matter marches in San Francisco I have found it extremely difficult to find out what is going on in my town. My neighbors have lamented about the same issue regarding both our print media and our local television stations.
According to the UNC report there is now a classification for many of our countries newspapers. They are called ghost papers whose “quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content is significantly diminished.” “Routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided.”
The researchers say the ghosts include papers in large metropolitan areas as well as small communities. Many of this is a result of take overs by Vulture Fund Alden Capital.
Alden Capital is a Manhattan hedge fund, with a tax haven in the Cayman Islands. It owns nearly 100 newspapers and dailies from coast to coast, including The Denver Post, The San Jose Mercury News, Boulder’s Daily Camera, and the Longmont Times-Call. They have also purchased Pulitzer Price wining papers like The East Bay Times, and The Miami Herald.
These purchases are made with Leveraged Buy Outs. A leveraged buyout (LBO) is the acquisition of another company using a significant amount of borrowed money to meet the cost of acquisition. The assets of the company being acquired are often used as collateral for the loans.
Once the paper has been acquired Alden Capital sells off the assets in order to pay back the loans. In some cases they have actually sold the newspaper’s buildings right out from under them. The next move is to drastically reduce the staff.
At the Denver Post they took the newsroom down from 184 to 99 journalists between 2012 and 2017. They took the Pottstown Mercury from 73 to 10 and the Norristown, Pennsylvania Times-Herald from 45 to 12. That type of pillaging means the quality of work is severely compromised.
This has accomplished what Alden Capital set out to do, make money. The profit margin for the New York Times, one of the most successful papers in the United States normally runs around 10%. The aggregate profit margin of Alden papers is 17%.
This is important, not just from a newsman’s employment stance but from a public trust view. 73% of Americans trust their local news and yet only 55% of Americans trust the national news. Local news is only 25% of overall media in the U.S. but it produces 50% of the news we consume.
Pillaging in this way is actually just picking at bare bones. The basic income for newspapers, ad revenues, began to decline years ago as advertisers began moving their money to where the eyeballs were, the internet.
That has increased the importance of Facebook and Google in horrifying ways. These are not newspapers, they are platforms. They have worked hard to keep that status because as platforms they are not subject to being sued for libel or defamation over falsehoods posted by anyone.
In 2018 Matt DeRienzo, executive director of LION Publishers, put out an article with this subtitle: “The last recession was brutal for newspapers and local news. The next one could be an extinction-level event, especially for small dailies owned by big corporate chains that have pillaged local newsrooms and local leadership.”
DeRienzo sees communities being the answer, but with a scatter shot approach at best. We will see our news coming from grassroots replacements on the local level, public radio, non-profits, libraries and activist groups. This leaves readers trying to decide who to trust.
A 2018 Gallup survey commissioned by the Knight Foundation found that 58%, or almost 6 out of every 10, adult Americans responded that the increase in information available today makes it harder for them to be well-informed. At the same time a 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, found that 63% of respondents agree that “the average person does not know how to tell good journalism from rumor or falsehoods,” while 59 percent say “it is becoming harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization.”
Walter Lippmann over 100 years ago warned of the potential for newspapers to spread propaganda. This did not become a problem right away because there were checks on these sources. The internet has changed all of that.
Fringe or extreme points of view enter into our psyches far more easily with the internet since there are essentially no information gatekeepers. As trust in the media wanes, false information spreads widely often micro-targeted to specific audiences.
The rise of false information being spread was named “memetic warfare” by author Nova Spivack. It is where an individual or group of people concoct a false narrative, meme or Gif specifically designed to be spread. The U.S. saw this spectacularly in the 2016 election cycle. The Washington Post reported on how Russia and its Internet Research Agency, systematically used social media platforms to attempt to disrupt the electoral process in the U.S. and other countries. U.S. intelligence agencies found that during that election Russians created large numbers of fake accounts on social media to spread disinformation. A U.S. criminal indictment, showed that this continued into the 2018 midterm election campaign.
A Council of Europe Report found that on-line Russian interference was not just intended to favor one particular candidate over another but more importantly “to sow mistrust and confusion about what sources of information are authentic.” They have done a stupendous job.
The Pew Research Center found that 62% of American adults access news on social media, 44% of that from Facebook.
When discussing news found on Facebook and other on-line sites, Italian computer scientist Walter Quattrociocchi told The Guardian: “People are more prone to accept false information and ignore dissenting information. We are just looking for what we want to hear.”
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan, in observing National Newspaper week said: “Since the founding of this nation, freedom of the press has been a fundamental tenet of American life. There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press to our continued success in what the Founding Fathers called our ‘noble experiment’ in self-government.”
And while there are probably not many people in public office that like the press, President John F. Kennedy said: “There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
Those men both lived in a time of no Internet, no Facebook, and no Google. It is a new era. Now, each person must take it upon themselves to be diligent in their news consumption, and ensuring that it is accurate.
Here is a partial list of places that can help you check facts:
The best nonpartisan fact-checking sites
1) Politifact Politifact is a project of the Tampa Bay Times. It won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 election, during which it examined 750 claims.
2) FactCheck.org FactCheck.org is the oldest of the big three fact-checking sites; it launched in 2003. The site is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
3) Washington Post’s Fact Checker The Post’s Fact Checker blog is run by journalist Glenn Kessler.
4) OpenSecrets OpenSecrets, also known as the Center for Responsive Politics, tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.
5) The Sunlight Foundation The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit that lead the way for public accountability data journalism.
6) Snopes.com Snopes.com is the go-to destination for debunking strange internet rumors.
“There is a cottage industry of websites that just fabricate fake news designed to make one group or another group particularly riled up,” said Fil Menczer, a professor at Indiana University.
To help combat that the Daily Dot has compiled an outstanding and long list of Fake News sites that everyone should be aware of.
It’s a short step from manipulating the narrative to manipulating images check written facts, and don’t believe everything you see.
Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear… Thucydides circa 400 B.C.E.
My Horoscope for today: Your secret crush is playing hard to get. It’s fine by you. This makes your future score all the sweeter.
San Francisco weather: 62 degrees and breezy
NYSE DOW opened at: 25270
NYSE DOW one year ago: 26108
Foreign word of the day: undefeated
OED word of the day: kvetch (To criticize or complain a great deal)
Days under Shelter In Place: 94
Reading: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Studying Nicolló Machiavelli’s The Prince and his biography Nicolló’s Smile
My Black and White Picture of the Day
Something Silly From the Internet:
If you liked this please clap and let me know. Thank you