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What the Devil won't tell you

Solutions to 'fake news' could easily be worse than the problem

Power to decide what news is fake is a power best reserved for people

Journalism is traditionally one of the worst-paid gigs in the white collar world, to the degree that it is any way a jacket-and-tie gig.

A solution has long been at the ready.

The industry could establish a certification board to bequeath proper credentials on reporters before they are allowed to be hired. The professional board would then establish minimum standards for ethics, accuracy and competence. The public and sources would have recourse to air grievances. Reporters who failed to pass muster could be decertified.

Only graduates of accredited journalism schools would be allowed to ply the trade. The public and readers would then know that the stories they read were tapped out in accordance to standards and practices to a professional standard.

In other words, apply the same common-sense approach to journalists that society applies to accountants, lawyers, hair stylists and in many cases, cab drivers.

Limiting the supply would create an artificial shortage.

It's a terrible idea. Never mind that here in Tucson, Dylan Smith, Tim Steller and Gabriela Rico could not meet this standard and they are three of the best in the state. Never mind that you learn more in four months on the job than four years in j-school. Writing for persnickety editors is the only way to learn.

Journalism is an institution. It's a franchise. The power to license is the power to prohibit. The authority to prohibit certain people from practicing free speech, is the authority to censor.

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I like to focus on local news but my Facebook feed is awful darned local and the nveau fake news scandal hits me where I live.

Facebook unveiled a plan Thursday to certify as spoiled news deemed fake. Establish fact checkers like the Associated Press and Snopes.com com will review reader-flagged news tidbits. "Stories" believed to be hoaxes will then slow down in Facebook's feed. Readers will be forced to click a box agreeing to share the news even though it might be false.

If the plan stopped there, that would be fine I guess. It won't. It can't.

Conservative backlash to Facebook's announcement has already set in because they think the mainstream media is already out to get them. So the Associated Press — the backbone of the MSM's global feed — ain't gonna make them happy. Snopes has no better a rep with the right. I'm not defending the accusation, just pointing it out.

Efforts to fix what people are sharing will only sow resentment and recriminations about the Lame Stream Something or Other and drive more people away from fact-based reporting and to hypothesis-spreading articles.

The last thing we need is anyone deciding what it is and what it isn't. That includes the latest global fever sweats over "fake news."

Disclaimer: No Trumps will be harmed ...

I feel the need here and now to brush back an argument facing me in the batter's box. I don't believe that fake news won Trump the election. I don't believe Russia won Trump the election. Maybe if Trump were a vanilla candidate, I could buy that. Love Trump or hate him, there was no cloak hiding his dagger. He was throwing knives at the voters for more than a year.

That's not what the column is about. It's about the difficulty in agreeing on what's fake and what isn't and why it matters.

Peel back the Onion

There have long been journalistic institutions like The Onion – truly America's Finest News Source about the News – and its less talented kid brother Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker. Stephen Colbert did fake commentary that managed to get to reality better than the snazziest news graphic.

Fake news, it's said, isn't that. Fake news is Hoax News. It's stuff that people apparently just make up on the spot and then present it as a news story.

Like what you're reading? Support high-quality local journalism and help underwrite independent news without the spin.

Or is it?

People can find “news stories” about George W. Bush slaughtering 3,000 Americans on 9/11. The stories may cite real experts in their field, making real conclusions and quoted accurately.  Is it fake news?

Yes? OK. Let's try this.

A good chunk of the lay public believes climate change related to human activity is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

So if I write a column about the effects of climate change, is that fake news? I'm spreading news that people believe is every bit the hoax PizzaGate is.

Breitbart is already dismissing CIA reports about Russian hacking as fake news spread by the mainstream media.

What people think is true is vital for social media. Insomuch as social media platforms are on-line manifestations of the public marketplace, people being able to share what they think is true is vital for democracy.

If the Right wants part of the power in deciding what's fake and what isn't, will they demand to censor climate change, income inequality and other things trends that could lead to solutions they don't like?

Already, voices on the Left are asking the government to step in and shut down fake news because the government office of truth is such a good idea. The government isn't always coming at things from your point of view (he writes by way of British-esque understatement).

Never mind the Right or Left, what the hell happens when the atheists get involved ... "God's a lie!"

The Bruno Mars effect

De-certifying those truth as lies undermines the free exchange of ideas when we get to decide for ourselves what's true and what's not.

A survey by my favorite pollster (and I'm such a dork that I have one of those) Pew Research Center found 44 percent of respondents got their news from Facebook during the election.

With all due respect to Pew, no one gets their news from Facebook. Facebook is a glorified newsstand with a message board. It reports nothing. It's the people who are sharing content.

For judging news efficacy to work, all sides have to buy in to whom is fact-checking.

Fake news is popular for the same reason Bruno Mars is rich. For some messed-up reason, people like both. Straight up news is boring. Columns that call BS on both sides are snooty. News goes viral when journalists prove the point the reader has for years been making to his dumb-ass cousin.

The big question is why are we so afraid of news that challenges our preconceived knowledge? Answer that: It will lead to the broader and more vexing solution.

I have a theory about why we like our news fake, tilted or confirming our own brilliance. It goes like this: "The system is bought by people who sell us the lie and rigged to prevent us from knowing what's really going on. So news dismissed as lies by the liars must have something to it."

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The helpless lie

The argument has a Gordian Knot simplicity but every bit of it is a lie.

I worked for the biggest news corporation in America and never once did I get a memo from headquarters forbidding certain coverage or pressing a narrative. I wrote stories, but to corporate that was just the shit went between the ads. Blah, blah, blah ...

The most common fear in newsrooms isn't layoffs and it isn't even getting the dumb-ass assignment from an idiot editor. The most common newsroom fear is getting something wrong. Sometimes reporters mess up, but that's the equivalent of a plane crashing when the real wonder is that so many safely land.

If the U.S. political system is bought, the money just gets spent to pander to you, dear reader, with ad buys. The power, indeed, is yours. Merry Christmas. Real subversion would be for voters to punish candidates for swallowing up too many gross ratings points.

A free society can't outsource de-conflicting truth from lies. That's one of the real costs of freedom that people pay day-after-day (or don't). A free society is a pain in the ass but the alternative is too often a blindfold and cigarette.

Daily journalism and reporting hard news has never been about the truth. It's about accurately covering new developments and citing sources to provide context. It's always been on the reader to take from those grafs what they will.

So it shall be written. So it shall be done (sorry, atheists).

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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