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Journalism’s Real Hoax Problem | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Journalism’s Real Hoax Problem

Victor Yanukovych

Ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych (Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin)

My new Nation column is called "Whodunit? Liberals?" (From celebrity deaths to the crisis of the middle class, it's all their fault.)

Alter-reviews:

1) Maude Maggart at the Café Carlyle

I fell in (unrequited) love with Maude Maggart many years ago when she would make regular appearances at the Algonquin Hotel. That much-lamented space is no longer and now Maude has made the move uptown and eastward to the rarified confines of the Café Carlyle, where she made her debut on Tuesday night. As Maude has gotten older, she has grown more confident, more charming, more beautiful and her voice richer and more controlled. Working both in the (helpfully) pedagogical mode of Andrea Marcovicci, Maude is wonderful both at discovering previously unknown gems and giving her audience mini-lessons on their historical (and often times) emotional context. But she is also all about her wild family. She does not mention her famous sister, Fiona Apple, but she is enthralled by her grandmother, a Ziegfeld girl, who, at 65, married a “toad” thirty years her junior, her grandfather, a big-band vocalist and saxophonist, and her parents, who met during a 1970 Broadway run of Applause. (I love the way she talks about her dad.)

Tuesday night’s performance began with three songs from black and white movies about the middle period between falling in love and being in love. Many of her stories focused on the antics of her grandmother and some of the more colorful friends of her father. She closed the formal set with one of the most beautiful renditions of Over the Rainbow I’ve ever heard and then came back for some Irving Berlin to a deliriously appreciative audience. Maude will be at the Café for the rest of the week. If you’re not in the city—and rich (the cover is $70)—you can pick up her new CD Speaking of Dreams, which will be released on April 8. Her previous ones are here.

2) Bobfest 30th Anniversary Show—Rerelease on Blu-ray, DVD and CD

It sure took a while but we finally have a hi-def video version (with remastered audio) of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration on Blu-ray, DVD and CD. The former two include forty minutes of previously unreleased material including behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage, interviews, etc. 

The concert took place on October 16, 1992 at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bob Dylan's first Columbia Records album. It began with the worst version of Like A Rolling Stone by John Mellencamp and a woman who wouldn’t stop screaming, of all time. It had a lot of filler and crappy versions of songs designed to plug CBS artists too. But much of it was just sublime.  

Among the performers were Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Lou Reed, The Clancy Brothers, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, George Harrison (then making his first US concert appearance in eighteen years) and many, many more. Just some of the highlights include:

It Ain't Me Babe - June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash

Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues - Neil Young

All Along the Watchtower - Neil Young

Love Minus Zero/No Limit - Eric Clapton

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right - Eric Clapton

You Ain't Goin Nowhere - Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash and Shawn Colvin

Absolutely Sweet Marie - George Harrison

My Back Pages - Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison (which is one of the greatest bands ever assembled and an absolutely wonderful performance. It even made it onto my funeral play list.)

I don’t see how you can live without it. Info on the “Deluxe Edition” is here.

3) Johnny Winter Four-CD Box Set

Johnny Winter also played at Bobfest. People I know tell me that Winter is among the greatest guitarist they’ve ever seen and perhaps the most underrated. Sony Legacy is seeking to strengthen this argument with a new four-CD box set that collects fifty-six tracks from twenty-seven albums on a gazillion different labels as well as previously unreleased live cuts from 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival and other places.  

True To The Blues: The Johnny Winter Story also includes performances, with Winter, by Michael Bloomfield, Dr. John, Willie Dixon and Walter “Shakey” Horton, Muddy Waters and his band featuring James Cotton, “Pinetop” Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, among many others. 

Now here's Reed:

Journalism’s Real Hoax Problem

by Reed Richardson

On Saturday, as the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine was unraveling and opposition protestors began overrunning the presidential palace, one damning detail of the deposed president’s excess spread like wildfire across the Internet. It was a photo of his toilet, a regal-like throne covered in resplendent, jewel-like tiles and adorned with sculpted lion’s heads. Among other photos of Yanukovych’s faux Spanish galleon restaurant, vintage car collection, personal zoo, and golf course, the garish commode succinctly spoke to the oligarchic corruption fueling the opposition’s outrage. There was only one problem: the toilet retweeted around the world by thousands of people—including former New York Times editor and current Mashable executive editor Jim Roberts, actually sits inside a two-bedroom apartment in Cyprus. (If you care to see Yanukovych’s actual toilet, gold feet and all, check out #29 in this photo array.)

Halfway across the world in Venezuela, similarly violent anti-government protests are still taking place. And though Venezuela’s President Maduro threatened some independent press outlets, including CNN, over their supposed anti-government coverage and temporarily shuttered some social media sites, plenty of reports about the protest still got out. They, too, came with their share of bogus elements. As this CNN slideshow documents, several popular (and graphic) images of the Venezuela conflict widely distributed online were, in fact, lifted from other recent street protests in Bulgaria, Chile, Syria and Brazil.

Of course, major news stories have always been shadowed by exaggeration, rumor, and conspiracy. (A crazy, 9/11 Truther still thought it necessary to crash the most recent Super Bowl’s post-game press conference.) But these days, anyone with a smartphone and a social media account can be both a reporter and publisher with a potentially instantaneous global reach. Not coincidentally, almost every big breaking news event now occasions fake photos or fabricated storylines that can metastasize across the Internet long before the truth gets sorted out. That a few bad actors might exploit this new technology to exaggerate or manipulate isn’t surprising given human history. That a gullible public might unwittingly magnify their impact isn’t surprising given human nature. Together, they create a fertile ground for perpetrating hoaxes on the media, which presents an increasingly thorny dilemma for modern journalism: How to embrace an increasingly egalitarian ethos of newsgathering without undermining the press’s integrity and legitimacy in the long term?

This is particularly important since the value proposition many news organizations now cling to—having lost their monopoly on distribution—is one of trusted authority. We check the facts, we talk to the sources. Unlike some random, anonymous Twitter account where you’re liable to get the equivalent of news placebos, a worldwide news network like CNN, the thinking goes, is a reliable source precisely because of its professional adherence to standards, its infrastructure, its institutional history.

One obvious way of demonstrating your newsroom’s journalistic rigor is to not fall for hoaxes in the first place. CNN has been doing that with its user-generated iReports from Venezuela—of the 2,700 submissions it received last week, it could confirm less than five percent. And yet, CNN and others proved once again this past week that they’re also not impervious to the irresistible allure of a clickbait hoax. To be fair, it wasn’t alone, as more than  thirty news outlets jumped all over a radio morning show prank that had suburban Atlantans protesting Justin Bieber’s potential move into the city. This embarrassing episode for journalism came on the heels of another successful hoax—perpetrated by ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel—about a wolf prowling the Sochi Olympic Village dorms. That one took in esteemed news outlets like New York Magazine and The Washington Post. (To be fair, ABC News seems to have known about this stunt ahead of time and kept quiet; not exactly ethical behavior.)

It’s easy to brush off these lapses in due diligence as inevitable or inconsequential. No news organization is perfect, after all. They all get things wrong from time to time. But that lets the press off too easy. For it really does matter when the same “share first, check later” mentality that social networks get dinged for starts to seep into so-called establishment journalism. It’s indicative of a longstanding problem plaguing the professional media here in the U.S. as well as around the world: a nagging credulity.

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There’s a thread that connects a blithely rebroadcasted snippet of dubious Justin Bieber news to larger transgressions, however. The Beltway media’s negligence in vetting the Bush administration’s Iraq WMDs claims might be considered the biggest and most tragic hoax of our generation. More recently, the mainstream press has taken to dutifully repeating the latest horror story trotted out about ObamaCare. Time and again, these tales have proven to be misleading at best and outright lies at worst. Much like a phony photo on Twitter that’s impossible to remove, these false narrative-reinforcing stories simply can’t be corrected with as much verve as they were originally promoted. So, when one political party embraces an alternate universe that thrives upon doctored reality, a media hidebound by objectivity becomes their helpful accomplice.

In the end, a tragic irony results. The very same naïveté and carelessness that the powerful rely upon to manipulate the press is likewise used as proof that the press isn’t deserving of broad protection to do its job. This can stratify the press and leave strong accountability journalism in the hands of an increasingly cloistered group. Case in point, the DOJ’s recently released guidelines for requesting records or surveilling the press. Its constant reference to “members of the news media” comes across as extremely establishment focused and suggests a very circumscribed approach to who the government considers worthy to be called a journalist. This is especially troubling after DNI Clapper’s recent Congressional testimony suggested “freelance journalists” could be considered “accomplices” rather than Constitutionally protected members of the fourth estate.

The responsibility to the truth should always be paramount to the press. Given the enhanced ability of anyone to find and broadcast the truth these days, however, a more open, transparent approach to how and where we get the news is necessary. But as we define out who journalists might be, we can’t define down what journalism really is, lest we find our country again falling victim to a great big hoax.  

The Mail

Theresa Bennett-Wilkes
High Point, NC

Thank you for your thoughtful, well-written truth [“Ted Cruz is Trolling Congress”]. I so agree with you. And while your colleagues in the fourth estate continue to fail miserably at their jobs, at least you have taken the time to discuss Cruz' depravity and its frightening impact on American governance. He's a truly despicable human being and he knows it. Once again, thank you. I really appreciated your article.

Cathy Fricke

Thank you so much for stating the truth about journalism in this day where lies are never corrected. The people don't know what's really wrong with our country, or they think they do because they watch Fox News. Wouldn't be wonderful if news show made sure it was true. If some lied like Ted he couldn't get away with and the papers too. The news would be such a treat and so much fun real reality! Thanks again.

Dan O

Ted Cruz is ten-times smarter than you midgets - fact!

You are the political status quo...schiffer is the status quo...Obama is the status quo....bush is the status quo. You're all owned by elite bankers and oil corporations that really run this country.

Ted cruz is the first man to threaten the status quo and you people all feel threatened. You're exposed.

Reed replies: Dan, I agree that money can play a pernicious role in influencing politicians, which is why I feel it worth noting for the record that 10 out of the top 20 political contributors to Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign just so happened to be elite bankers and oil corporations. So, about that “threaten the status quo” bit…

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

 

Read Next: Stephen F. Cohen writes about media malpractice in the West's coverage of Russia and Ukraine.

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