In December 2016, Ben Smith, then BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, wrote a memo to his staff that was meant to be a kind of charter for the dawning of the Trump Era. In truth it spoke to and aimed to speak for the entire mainstream media. Smith would eventually move on to the New York Times, which elevated him to a role as the supervisory voice of conscience for the whole media. But that December, he warned his staff of the danger of fake news, and the need of the media to be accurate and factual:
The information environment itself will become even more central to our coverage:
Fake news will become more sophisticated, and fake, ambiguous, and spun-up stories will spread widely. Hoaxes will have higher production value. It is, for instance, getting easier and easier to create video of someone saying something he or she never said — a tool both for fake news and false denials.
And powerful filter bubbles will drive competing narratives from parallel universes of facts.
The Times and The Atlantic have minted tens of thousands of new subscribers from across the nation since Trump’s election, readers who want to keep informed, even as their local newspapers shrivel into nothing. The importance of these institutions has lately been increased substantially by their ability to survive, grow, and set trends across a more tightly concentrated media environment. Their staffers have largely defined themselves as part of a resistance to Trump’s administration.
So how is the “information environment” now, three and a half years after Smith’s memo?
Last week, the Times ran a story about a 30-year-old Texas man who believed COVID-19 was a hoax and contracted the disease at a “COVID party” before dying. Every detail of the story was uncorroborated, which made it exactly the kind of urban legend that moral panics produce. Though it was viral on social media, because it confirmed all the prejudices of the Times’s energized liberal readership, the Times began to edit the story as it was criticized here in National Review and in Wired. The entire tone of the story went from credulous to skeptical, but you wouldn’t have noticed the difference if you hadn’t been paying close attention, because no editor’s notes were appended to it announcing the changes. The Times has begun “stealth editing” its stories in this manner more and more lately, effacing the traditional journalistic ethic that seeks to keep an intact record not just of the news, but of how the reporting of the news evolves.
Also last week, The Atlantic ran an essay, “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,” that roots the activism of its author in a heart-rending story of a 16-year-old gunned down by the police in a rec center for failing to put his name on a sign-in sheet. Christopher Bedford, at The Federalist, a conservative web outlet that has far fewer resources than The Atlantic, rather conclusively showed that the story as told was full of holes and likely never happened.
In recent months, the Times has failed to report properly even on its own internal controversies. Take the publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, which called for the use of the U.S. military to quell rioting while taking pains to separate rioters from peaceful protesters. The piece caused a freakout among Times staffers that ultimately cost editorial-page editor James Bennet his job. The news desk at the Times, in its own navel-gazing story on the controversy, falsely described Cotton’s op-ed as a call “for the federal government to send the military to suppress protests against police violence in American cities.”
Digital media has made the emergent clichés of journalism seem more sinister. On June 2, in a story on criticism of how Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD had responded to the protests in New York, the Times reported that “widespread looting had taken place as many officers were dispatched to oversee what turned out to be largely peaceful demonstrations.” (Emphasis added.) On June 5, the Times reported that the NYPD had turned what had been “largely peaceful” protests into chaos. The phrase then spread like wildfire through the rest of the media. The protests were “mostly peaceful” according to Vox. “Largely peaceful” protests had occurred, said NPR. Even the author of the BBC’s Twitter account seemed to get the memo and wrote a hilarious tweet: “27 police officers injured during largely peaceful anti-racism protests in London.”
Nearly half the days of June featured a New York Times news story employing that phrase “largely peaceful” to describe the protests that sprung up in response to George Floyd’s death, even as cities across the country saw rioting unlike almost anything since the late 1960s. For people who both follow Twitter and carefully read the newspaper, it seemed like the half-spontaneous emergence of a party line; it felt manipulated and manipulative.
Such manipulation is everywhere in our “information environment.” The Times recently commissioned an unscientific study in which people self-reported their mask-wearing, and it showed that Democrats wear more masks in the coronavirus hot spots and most dense parts of the country. The lovely infographic comes complete with the catchy headline, “A Detailed Map of Who is Wearing Masks in the U.S.” You can zoom in to your own town. I did. Though it is one of the most-masked places in the country, according to the Times’s data, from what I’ve been able to tell with my own eyes, far fewer of my neighbors are wearing masks than the map would suggest. The Times’s data set is surely accurate, just as it was accurate to say that a hospital official in San Antonio was sharing the tale of the 30-year-old man who died of COVID — accurate, but with no discernible relationship to the real-world truth.
A lot of news is like this now, especially on points of political contention or embarrassment relating to the coronavirus pandemic. News outlets have uncritically accepted stories that the early warnings not to wear masks, given by public-health officials, were a “noble lie” to preserve available masks for medical personnel during a shortage. Of course, this isn’t really believable, as those early warnings came buttressed by dubious, preexisting studies assuming improbable things about human nature. But journalists have participated in the retcon anyway.
At the end of the day, that may be the most troubling thing of all: The journalists themselves don’t seem bothered by the obvious double-standards and shoddy practices that have infected their own work and the wider information environment. They look zealously for evidence of a COVID spike after a single Donald Trump re-election rally. They shrug as New York City’s contact tracers are instructed not to ask COVID-carriers whether they’ve attended the massive “largely peaceful” protests.
We should have seen this coming. Less than two weeks after his 2016 warning that hoaxes would have higher production values from now on, Ben Smith decided to publish the unedited “Steele Dossier,” containing all sorts of sordid allegations against Donald Trump that Smith said his reporters could not confirm or disprove. The stories in the dossier were compiled by a British spook talking to Russian intelligence as part of opposition research for the Clinton campaign, and they formed the basis for treating the just-elected president as a suspected Manchurian Candidate controlled by Moscow. After a few years, an impeachment trial, and endless breathless updates on how the walls were closing in, we discovered the very thing any news-literate reader would have guessed at the time if the relevant journalistic investigations had been done: The dossier was filled with misinformation that Russian intelligence hoped to get the U.S. media to run with. The media that had warned against fake news willingly and happily propagated it.
And thus another critical democratic institution decided it would be more fun and emotionally satisfying to fail than to perform the function with which the public entrusts it.