The real story behind fake news (and how we can save ourselves)

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Before there was fake news, there was the “pseudo-event.”  Fake news, the concept, is hardly new.  Some argue that it dates back as far as the Golden Spike which completed American’s first transcontinental railroad, back in 1869.  One could argue that the thing which finally unified America set the stage for tearing it apart.  Let me explain.

When Americans complain about the proliferation of fake news, I believe they mean a lot of things. The way it was initially used during the recent election cycle was to identify bloggers who were making big money by writing obvious falsehoods as click-bait, like “Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump.” Push a headline like that out on the world, trick hundreds of thousands of people into sharing it, and earn thousands in ad dollars — all from a basement in Macedonia!

Today, the phrase is used almost exclusively to criticize stories that criticize Donald Trump, or more broadly, as shorthand to complain that “mainstream media” outlets are either oblivious to the Trump-supporter side of many stories, or worse, intentionally mislead their audiences by telling one-sided stories.

I think the most fair version of the “fake news” slogan goes something like this: Where was this aggressive media during the Obama administration?  And while I’ve argued in the past that many folks who criticize The New York Times haven’t opened a copy in years — you could find plenty of Obama criticism within its pages — I also think this is a fair complaint.  Clearly, many in the media were romanced by the prior administration, and should have asked a lot more questions about everything from drone strikes to its cozy relationship with Wall Street to attacks on whistle-blowers.

I hope many journalists regret that today, because it has contributed to the environment we now live in. Journalists have lost a lot of credibility, at a time when — perhaps more than ever — the world could really use an independent arbiter of facts.  What we wouldn’t do for a Tim Russert right now!

(Aside: I was in the NBC Washington D.C. bureau when Tim Russert died, and I saw the mountains of flowers left for him at the front gate.  There was a dark sense that journalism might have died with him.  It didn’t, but it can sure feel like that some times.)

So, what does this have to do with the Golden Spike? And the pseudo-event?

Fifty-odd years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event in a book called The Image. It lamented modernity’s turn away from authentic experiences like traveling, which were being replaced by TV programs about traveling.  In journalism, this manifests as the psuedo-event, which is easily defined.  A press conference is a psuedo-event.  Most of the time, nothing actually happens at a press conference. People just talk in front of cameras. An event is a traveler being detained at an airport.  Or a person being laid off.  A psuedo-event is a spokesperson talking about a travel ban, or a commentator talking about unemployment.

Smart people — marketing types at companies, political handlers — figured this out and began to master the pseudo-event.  The dog-and-pony show.  Call a bunch of folks into a room, promise a big announcement, hold up a chart or a sad child or a puppy, and you can dominate headlines for a day.

The real news isn’t a press conference about legislation; it’s the back-room bargain that pushes a proposal past 50 votes in the Senate.  It’s not a CEO promising to reform a company’s misbehaving ways; it’s the secret memo from legal which instructs customer service agents how to continue misleading consumers.

Pseudo-events aren’t always nefarious.  They’re often the product of mechanics. The Golden Spike in Utah was such an event  (some say it was the first).  Why? Taking a photograph in 1869 was hardly a trivial affair.  It had to be staged.

Of course, as you’ll recall from high school history, the photograph suspiciously omits Chinese workers, who did most of the hard work of laying rail over the Rocky Mountains. Psuedo-events are easy to manipulate.

It should be obvious that psuedo-events rose in power and influence right along with the rise of visual media. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, and you may not have considered it.  Like making photographs in 1869, making television is very hard.  Getting cameras set up, checking audio levels, ensuring clean transmissions, etc.  I’m hazarding a guess here, but I think it’s fair to say making TV is often 90% mechanics and 10% journalism.  This is why, when you watch cable news, you see almost the same thing day after day — person speaking at podium, person speaking at desk, other people talking about all this talking.  That’s the easiest, and the cheapest, TV to make.  Talking about the unemployment report is easy.  Going to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to talk to someone who was laid off is hard, and expensive.

Naturally, that means plenty of news doesn’t get covered on television. It’s dominated by psuedo- events and the easy visuals they provide.  This plays into the hands of folks who are good at manipulating them. I’ll let you decide for yourself who those people are.

But if you call what you are watching on TV fake news, I’d like to offer you an alternative name: you are watching psuedo-events. They are easy to spot. As you watch, or read, simply ask: “What actually happened?”  If it’s just a person speaking, nothing has happened.  Or, it already happened. The back-room bargain was already struck.  The victim was already injured.

Real news knows no political party or intellectual point of view.  Real news is stuff that really happens.

My next suggestion is even more powerful. Pass over the pseudo-events. Seek out real news.  I don’t mean “news” that confirms your point of view; only the uneducated do that.  I mean real news.  When CNN goes to the border in Texas and interviews people who live near the Mexico wall that’s already there, sit up and pay attention. When someone makes the trek to Scranton to interview victims of the modern economy (or even drives across the country with his dog!), hear them out.  Better still, reward them for their enterprise.  It should be obvious that real news can come from many sources, and when TV does it well it’s amazing, but you are much more likely to find it in the written word.  Sending camera crews outside of New York of Los Angeles is really expensive.

When you feel like all the news you see on TV is commentary, this is why.  You are seeing a string of pseudo-events.  Don’t get mad. Don’t get distracted by the emotional content of the discussion. Just figure out what actually happened, and change the channel or read something with actual news in it.

My last word on psuedo-events today is this: I love a good speech defending the importance of the First Amendment as much as anyone, but I wish journalists would start ignoring all the insults being hurled our way and, as Washington Post editor Marty Baron said recently, would just focus on being “at work.”   Politicians insulting journalists is not news. It’s the very definition of a psuedo-event (unless and until something genuinely happens, like a journalist is physically attacked or there’s some insane change to libel laws). Sure, it’s scary that the technique seems to be working on some folks, but I believe that if we keep doing our job and stay on the high road, most citizens will eventually see the stream of insults for what they really are: The ultimate fake news.

An example. When I started out as a cub reporter covering city hall, I made a decision early on that cost me a few headlines but made me a much better journalist.  City council members love pulling reporters aside and insulting members of the other party.  A 30-minute interview might include 29 minutes of insults and one mention of a new road project.  Initially, I did what all young journalists do (and all teen-agers at house parties do): I breathlessly ran to the opposition and said, “Did you hear what he said about you??? How do you respond?”  And so the cat-fight was on.

As I grew up, I learned to ignore the 29 minutes and get back to discussion of the road project. I was literally no fun. Some politicians stopped talking to me.  But in the end, I know I served the readers better.  And I’ve tried to take this lesson with me for 25 years. Insulting someone is a pseudo-event.  Building a road, or a wall, is news.

I know, I know, insults make the best talk radio, they make pretty good TV, and social media was literally invented so we could insult each other on a global scale (Thanks, Mark!).  But I’ll promise you that I will redouble my efforts to ignore the pseudo-events and keep asking “What *actually* happened here?” I hope you’ll see the wisdom of promising that to yourself.  Psuedo-events of all kinds from all sides of the political spectrum are the real fake news.  Focus on real news, and America will be a better place.

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About Bob Sullivan 1137 Articles

BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this important perspective, Bob. Pseudo-event is not just another buzzword to add to one’s lexicon, but a lens by which to properly judge words and actions. Great stuff!

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