SEPTEMBER 5, 2020
IN 1889, the science fiction writer Jules Verne and his son, Michel, envisioned that, in a thousand years, there would be a personally curated newsfeed. What’s really remarkable about that futuristic prediction, says author Rob Brotherton in his new book, Bad News: Why We Fall for Fake News, is that “[i]t took a little over a hundred, rather than a thousand, years.” The creation of a social media filter results in “amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”
But it’s a bit of a tease. That’s the popular concern, he says, but not the reality. Customized filters may give us comfort as readers, but we really aren’t content for the most part to be fed only what we already believe.
As he does repeatedly in his book, Brotherton is setting up a hypothesis and then knocking it down. His narrative is easy to read and frequently entertaining precisely because of this technique. The anecdotes that back up the hypotheses often come from centuries-old histories, which are often more engaging than the discussion about modern debunking research that follows. Despite the author’s commitment to detailed page-by-page references at the end of the book, the narrative sometimes feels a little short on proof and long on supposition.
The problem, Bad News concludes, is not so much fake news, itself, but all of the same issues that have plagued the news for centuries. Public skepticism is fed by credibility issues that arise because of “sensationalism, negativity, bias, inaccurate facts and misleading interpretations,” all of which are more impactful than any deliberate attempts to create phony news.
The bubbles that we choose for our social media pages do little to endanger us. Researchers have been unable to find compelling evidence to prove otherwise. We may enjoy surrounding ourselves with opinions we agree with, in “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles,” but we aren’t “necessarily opposed to news that challenges.” Sometimes, we’re more interested in knowing what’s true. A more important reason we aren’t indoctrinated through our “bubbles” is that most people just don’t care about the news. This frequent refrain is an odd contention for a book explicitly about the news, its history, and how we interact with it.
If you picked up Bad News because you wanted to understand Donald Trump’s empire of lies, you will be disappointed. Dissecting “fake news” is not Brotherton’s goal, and he says so early on, noting he prefers to focus on the news in general. He trots out the “most infamous fake news story of all time,” Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast that took on the form of alarming news bulletins that aliens were invading New Jersey. It was such well-done fakery that it resulted in “thousands, maybe even millions of people” being convinced that the country was under attack from Martians. Heart attacks, suicides, and general pandemonium followed.
Or not. “It didn’t happen,” Brotherton tells us. “The most famous story about fake news is, well, fake news.” The program was pre-announced as an upcoming Orson Welles production in a regular spot on CBS where Welles presentations regularly were broadcast; Welles narrated, using the past tense in half of the narration; and only 12 of 2,000 letters sent to Welles or the FCC afterward were from writers who said they actually fled their homes as a result. And, once again, Brotherton says, disinterest was largely responsible for the lack of national panic. Most of the country just wasn’t tuned into the show that night. Some learned about the overblown controversy the next morning in their newspaper.
Sometimes there’s a surprising twist. Brotherton notes that Thomas Jefferson disliked the overtly partisan newspapers’ treatment of his administration so much that he wrote, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” and, “[T]he man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them.” Like a lot of people, Jefferson was conflicted about his feelings for the press, depending on how the newspapers recently had treated him. In a more generous mood, he also wrote the oft-quoted (though it’s not in the book) chestnut:
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
It’s that love-hate relationship with the news that Bad News explores most thoroughly, though doesn’t resolve. Consumers are more drawn to “man bites dog” than to “dog bites man” because it’s more interesting. They themselves are fascinated by negative news, but they wonder why there isn’t more good news. Furthermore, consumers of the news are forever torn between wanting to know bad news — and blaming the media for reporting it. The public wants news as fast as it happens but decries the inaccuracies that sometimes result from rushing to report it. Brotherton recites a litany of amusing errors and clever corrections that have occurred over the years in various publications — always enjoyable to read and, one can imagine, probable fodder for a media-bashing politician.
New technologies have heightened the public concern over news and given birth to a new phenomenon: deepfakes, where people can appear to be saying things in YouTube clips they never said. Though fake videos have gotten their share of scare headlines, people don’t seem to be as gullible as feared, and there are plenty of watchdogs around to call “foul,” just like there are plenty of cell phone selfies to present the truth. New technology often is mistrusted and targeted as the possible tool of manipulation, Brotherton argues. The radio came in for similar suspicion in its day, as did digital photoshopping. And neither proved fatal to democracy.
That’s not to say that new technology and the news have always led to good end results. For this point, Brotherton reaches back to 1863, when the new technology was the telegram and the reliable transatlantic cable as we came to know it was still a few years away. The public came to expect news fast. Ships crossing the ocean to the United States, under contract to competing news organizations, carried with them the latest European news dispatches. When they neared their destination — still a few days from docking — they came close to shore and met up with small news boats that carried the latest European news. On one occasion, the Anglo Saxon, still a few days from its destination and seeking to meet up with a news boat, ran into rocks off the coast of Newfoundland, killing 237 passengers.
Technology, deepfakes, news bubbles — it’s enough to make you yearn for the days when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Or not.
There is no proof other than CBS hype that Walter Cronkite was considered “the most trusted man in America,” Brotherton tell us. Reporters have been denigrated throughout history. The Cronkite myth was based on a 1972 poll that asked the public which of a number of politicians they trusted and threw in Cronkite’s name too. He was compared to Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and a few others. Cronkite did come in first, at 73 percent on the trust index, compared to 67 percent for the average senator.
Alas, we are left to conclude, there was no golden age — not even when Walter Cronkite ruled. Bad News is great at illustrating the historical roots to the challenges we face today. Maybe technology continues to increase the difficulty of determining what’s opinion and what’s news, what’s real and what’s fake, Brotherton admits. But even if there were no perpetrators of fake news, so long as there are readers who are drawn to hyperbole and getting their news fast, the age-long issues with the news will continue. Bad News never quite tells us how to deal with our love-hate relationship with the news. Skepticism of news that seems questionable is offered as a suggestion, as well as trusting others “not to fall for it, too.” Though it feels to me like not quite enough, to be fair, there may not be more. That is the price we pay for living in a democracy.
Athia Hardt has worked in the media and on media strategy and communications for politicians and for private companies all her adult life. It’s given her the unique opportunity to see and appreciate news-related issues from both sides. She remains a strong proponent of the First Amendment.