‘Fake News is the Cancer of Our Times’

New owner of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Tribune, Patrick Soon-Shiong, succinctly sums up the current state of the Fourth Estate with the right metaphor: “I believe that fake news is the cancer of our times and social media the vehicles for metastasis”. Read his letter, released today, at the start of his stewardship.

I agree: “Institutions like the Times and the Union-Tribune are more vital than ever. They must be bastions of editorial integrity and independence if they are to protect our democracy and provide an antidote to disinformation. We will continue our papers’ dedication to truth, integrity, journalistic independence, and storytelling that engages, informs, educates and inspires with care and compassion…We view the publications we acquired as a quasi-public trust…I grew up believing the best newspapers are the voice of the people”. 

Newspapers are the last hope for American journalism. Their newsrooms are steeped in deep tradition of first-hand sourcing; reporting what is known to be true based on first-hand sourcing; corroborated sourcing; putting accuracy before timeliness; and serving the local community and being accountable to that audience. Think about the irony. The Internet was supposed to kill the newspaper, but it is the print newsroom that can save us all from online disinformation.

But “truth” is too often subjective and “integrity” is regularly determined by the fleeting whims of online social mobs. To succeed, the two papers must also risk offending their communities with content that buttresses the audience when the right way to achieve “journalistic independence” is defying me-to flash mobs—and I don’t mean the #metoo hashtag but something much broader: The pileup of people looking to validate their beliefs and biases, while feeling part of a larger group/community. Their collective voices are the “vehicles for metastasis” that Soon-Shiong refers to—whether or not his intention. Fake news is not the orchestration of misinformation of nefarious conspirators from Russia, or another country of your choice. Social media’s Borg-like collective mind is the source.

As such, traditional newsrooms must consider another role to responsible, independent reporting: Authentication. Trained journalists should become beacons of trust, illuminating the social media fog by authenticating blogs, feeds, forums, podcasts, tweets, videos, etc. and in process navigate readers (listeners and viewers) to safe harbors of editorially curated content. The responsibility is enormous, and the task is daunting. But someone has to try.

That’s too much a challenge for a single media group. The entire Fourth Estate must arise in unison. But there is an opportunity that I challenge Patrick Soon-Shiong to make. Do with the Times and the Trib what Jeff Bezos has failed to do with the Washington Post—in your own words, Sir: “preserve the integrity, honesty, and fairness we’ve observed in our decades as avid readers…[our publications] “must continue to serve as beacons of truth, hope and inspiration binding our communities”. I loathe what the Post has become: An agenda-driven, subjective voice for political and societal agendas that subverts “integrity, honesty, and fairness”. The paper’s motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is arrogance personified (e.g. “we know better than you”).

I say, “truth shines in the light”. Please blind us all with its, glare, Mr. Soon-Shiong, such that we must wear sunglasses. Good luck to you and all your (new) employees.

Photo Credit: Mambembe Arts & Crafts