Real News, Fake News, Media Matters, and Journalism

And where are we? In 2017 more information is available to more people than ever before in history. Information is power, right? Do you feel powerful? Do you feel more informed than ever in your lifetime? It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? It’s local, it’s national and international. It’s overwhelmingly complex.

Twenty-four hour news channels have blurred the lines between entertainment and hard news. Celebrities arise on the networks and constantly alarm us with tones that imply the end is at hand. Networks pick a side and we watch the ones which confirm our biases. Talk show hosts demonize anyone who disagrees with their perspective. Almost as bad, networks give equal time to both sides when one side is factual and the other is fringe; a false equivalence.

Social media adds to the toxic cauldron. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is equally able to spread the opinion with impunity no matter how toxic, bizarre or unfounded. Expertise is hardly recognized in this, “my opinion is just as legitimate as yours,” culture. Phd on the topic? Doesn’t matter if I’m sure of my opinion, which, increasingly, more people seem to be.

Fake news. Yes, that’s a complete sentence in today’s messed up information environment, though usually it is followed by an exclamation point. We’ve always had it, of course. National Enquirer, anyone? Never in history, however, has it been able, like it is today, to spread around the world instantaneously and take hold in the public consciousness before it can even be challenged. What is fake news? Is it a deliberate lie, an intentionally deceptive headline designed to get internet clicks or simply, at its most reductive, anything with which we disagree? And how do we determine?

The Internet was supposed to democratize information. Anyone with a computer and a connection could find just about any information desired. So, what have we done with this new-found super power? We watch kitty videos, puppy videos, and porn. We espouse half-baked opinions and self-righteously condemn those who disagree, eventually blocking and unfollowing our way into an echo chamber of philosophical and political doppelgangers. We make purportedly insightful arguments via memes.

And what has happened to legitimate, ethical news gatherers? What of the journalists and those committed to finding the facts, helping us digest and assimilate the meaning and context behind the facts? Many are unemployed. My hometown, Mobile, Alabama, had two daily newspapers when I was young. Now they have one – three days a week. The same happened in Birmingham and New Orleans, though it reversed in New Orleans.

And why is that? It’s because they are struggling to financially survive. After decades of simply offering and receiving paid ads and going about their business, the model is broken. Advertisers have gone elsewhere. In some cases businesses feel they can market themselves through social media accounts. They may be right, but how does legitimate news survive in this milieu? We want our news free and we want it to be brief. Headlines, a photo and then on to more funny memes.

This state of affairs, obviously, to anyone paying attention, has also impacted our city. Knoxville once had two daily papers. The remaining paper steadily grows thinner. More content is generated elsewhere while local content gets cut. USA Today, about which many once chuckled and understood to be news-lite with a Republican slant, is now accepted as the norm – and it owns the local paper. And the Nashville paper. And the Memphis paper.

That’s a grand total of one statewide perspective and set of information in our three major cities. Jessie Mayshark, speaking at yesterday’s viewing of “Merchants of Doubt,” sponsored by the Knox County Library, pointed out that each of these papers used to have two reporters covering the state legislature. Now there are two state-wide reporters serving all three papers. He added that, whereas the News Sentinel used to have a reporter covering city government and another covering the county, now one reporter does both. City Council meetings sometimes have no reporters present.

In addition to the drastic cut-backs and layoffs of News Sentinel reporters, we’ve also seen the loss of our independent weekly. First, two-and-a-half years ago, Scripps closed Metro Pulse. Last week saw the final publication of its successor, the Knoxville Mercury. Those involved cited low ad sales and when they recently asked for donations from readers, about 1% responded. We want excellent journalism and we want it free-of-charge.

Or do we? Do we really even care about legitimate, long-form, investigative journalism? The movie screening drew about a hundred people. Very few were under forty-years-old. Do we really care? Average newspaper articles are 500 to 700 words. I’m told that blog posts should be around 300 words (I’ll apologize, now.)

To do long-form journalism, a full-time person must be dedicated to many hours of research. One duo of reporters featured in the film spent two years, full-time, following a single large story. I remember when the Butcher stories were unraveling in the early eighties. Massive, deep, and complex corruption was discovered by local reporters and we got pages explaining the money trail. Will we ever again see a local story consuming pages of our newspaper? This is an important part of our checks and balances. Who will pay for that going forward? Will corruption simply go unchecked?

With the closure of the Mercury, much of our investigative journalism is lost. Classical music coverage, architectural and political reporting has taken a hit. A progressive perspective for our area took a hit. Jack Neely indicated in the final issue that he still believes a single, wealthy person could decide to resuscitate it and that, in fact, many newspapers operated under such an arrangement over the years. If that is to happen, it would need to happen quickly.

Jack will continue the Knoxville History Project and publish his articles online in the absence of a print publication. You should be able to find his work at the link above. A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Jack and Mary Pom Claiborne of the Knox County Library and discussed some of these topics. You can listen to the podcast here.

So, what is next for local coverage? Our network television stations continue to do local coverage. Blank Newspaper, celebrating its tenth anniversary, offers extensive independent and local coverage on a monthly publication schedule. Sandra Clark and Betty Bean, recently with the Shopper News, have now joined forces with other writers to produce online content at KnoxTnToday. Knoxviews offers a local progressive voice. Maybe others will emerge though, as several learned over two years ago, starting a weekly independent newspaper isn’t easy and requires a lot of money.

And what of Inside of Knoxville? What started as a labor of love for our city has grown over the last seven years in readership, revenue and scope. While I still focus on the fun of downtown, increasingly readers have let me know that business and development news are of the most interest. I hope the quality of my work has improved and I hope to continue that trend.

I’m not a journalist in any traditional sense, though I try to be an ethical and honest reporter. I do have an MS in Information Science, so I highly value factual information and have some grasp of gathering and presenting it. It’s important to me and I hope I’m not one of a diminishing group who feels that way.

So, how do you feel about local news? Do you care about the media’s role as a watchdog? Can we all join in committing to be better consumers of news? To supporting it financially? To be more responsible in what we post to social media?

You have opportunities in the coming week to show your interest. The Truth and Consequences Symposium continues with a free noon lecture by Jack Neely, Thursday at the East Tennessee History Center, a $35 dinner with Wendell Potter from 5:00 – 7:00 PM Thursday and a free lecture by Mr. Potter at the Bijou at 7:00 PM Thursday. Friday features a free, all-day symposium on topics such as fake news, critical thinking and the Internet. Meet me there.