When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line

Soon after the accident when a car struck a pack of cyclists in which I was riding, the ride leader and another cyclist, both of whom were on the front of the pack and heard the crash unfold behind them, sent out emails to seek how we could reconstruct the events as soon as possible for insurance and any litigation.

What is disturbing about recreating the accident is that many of us share a distinct and common memory of noise. As both a victim and witness of the accident, I can offer two perspectives, but I share with everyone the anger and fear.

Concurrent with seeking reality among victims and witnesses, I saw on the news over the next few days several mainstream media stories about the accident, many of which were factually inaccurate, and several of which that spoke authoritatively about the victims—although not a single news outlet has ever spoken with me about the accident or my condition.

With the current focus on fake news and post-truth public discourse, and the renewed interest in postmodernism, this real-life experience for me has been and continues to be a cruel and painful example of that debate—notably how it reflects a basic tenet of postmodernism about the relative and power-based nature of reality, truth, and facts.

Human reality and facts are far more tenuous than we tend to admit in our day-to-day lives. 2+ 2 = 4 seems obvious and above any politics, but this formula is, in fact, relative to a base-10 math system, and that system has to be instilled and preserved by some power structure.

Yet, as some of the garbled efforts to co-opt postmodernism has shown, while truth and facts are bound and controlled by power, while truth and facts are often contestable, we are certainly not served well as a people to make wild claims that no facts can ever exist.

Like my accident and the all-too-slow recovery, the U.S. coming to terms with fake news and the post-truth debate is painful, and not easy.

And apparently, we continue to move in the wrong direction.

Crossing the Bigfoot Line

Consider these comments from journalists, one Tweet from 2014 and then one current news article directly about Trump:

Asked by host Chuck Todd whether he’d be willing to call out a falsehood as a “lie” like some other news outlets have done, [Wall Street Journal editor Gerard] Baker demurred, saying it was up to the newspaper to just present the set of facts and let the reader determine how to classify a statement.

“I’d be careful about using the word, ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead,” Baker said, noting that when Trump claimed “thousands” of Muslims were celebrating on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11, the Journal investigated and reported that they found no evidence of a claim.

Keeping these traditional and current standards of mainstream journalism in mind, now consider how the mainstream media are addressing fake news directly:

Established news organizations usually own their domains and they have a standard look that you are probably familiar with. Sites with such endings like .com.co should make you raise your eyebrows and tip you off that you need to dig around more to see if they can be trusted. This is true even when the site looks professional and has semi-recognizable logos. For example, abcnews.com is a legitimate news source, but abcnews.com.co is not, despite its similar appearance.

To be blunt, helping consumers of media distinguish between the reality of fake news (abcnews.com.co) and “a legitimate news source” (abcnews.com) fails miserably because in essence these two present us with a very dangerous paradox: fake news is real and real news is fake (with the WSJ’s odd twist on the false history of George Washington: “We cannot call a lie ‘a lie!'”).

Two ways this manifests itself are (1) mainstream media is rushing to cover fake news, but only to distinguish it from “legitimate” news, and (2) mainstream media’s refusal to take a stand on credible sources, warranted claims, and naming lies as “lies.”

In popular media, a phenomenon exists that speaks to what we are witnessing in mainstream journalism:

Jumping the Shark is the moment when an established long-running series changes in a significant manner in an attempt to stay fresh. Ironically, that moment makes the viewers realize that the show’s finally run out of ideas. It’s reached its peak, it’ll never be the same again, and from now on it’s all downhill.

However, in mainstream journalism we have crossing the Bigfoot line.

In other words, and as I have been documenting for years in edujournalism, mainstream journalism has adopted and embraced a pose that allows them to report on a real event without taking any stance on the finer elements of the event being reported.

As I noted before, just a few decades ago, tabloid journalism was distinct from mainstream journalism because tabloids used the “just reporting what we are being told” defense.

If a person came to a tabloid with images or video and a wild story about Bigfoot ransacking their camp site, the tabloid eagerly and with outlandish headlines reported the fact that this person told them the story—while taking the pose I shared above: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the [story] is credible.”

There was a time when mainstream media balked at just reporting as fact that source A made claim X if the journalists found claim X to be lacking in credibility.

Political scandal from John F. Kennedy until Richard Nixon, in fact, was allowed to remain mostly hidden because the bar for credibility was so high that sources were routinely ignored, marginalized, and even victimized.

And while online click-bait has supplanted the outlandish grocery store tabloid in our increasingly virtual avenues for news and information, what is more troubling is that mainstream journalism has callously crossed the Bigfoot line, now brazenly using click-bait headline techniques and remaining entrenched in their “rigid refusal” to verify the claims of those about whom they are reporting.

While there exists a great deal of fretting about the future of the free press under Trump, we have ample evidence that mainstream media and journalists had cross the Bigfoot line long ago, and not at the hands of rising fascism, but willingly as a natural development of capitalism and consumerism.

The public in the U.S. and many voters hold provably false beliefs that guide how they live their lives and how they vote; this was pre-Trump, and this was in the context of how the media carelessly feed the masses.

Now that the Bigfoot line has been crossed by mainstream media, we have a troubling challenge before us.

Yes, the public needs much greater skills in critical media literacy, but those skills will mean little if we are left without a critical free press as an option.

As it stands, on the other side of the Bigfoot line is the new mantra of mainstream journalism: “We are not fake news.”

This is a mighty low and ultimately irrelevant bar.


See Also

How to Become a Famous Media Scholar: The Case of Marshall McLuhanJefferson Pooley

A Peek Inside the Strange World of Fake Academia, Kevin Carey

New York Times, Wall Street Journal editors take on Trump and the media, Hadas Gold

“Fake News” And How The Washington Post Rewrote Its Story On Russian Hacking Of The Power Grid, Kalev Leetaru

 

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