Fake News, the Future of the Country, and Forward Kentucky

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)

“Fake news” is all the news, these days. We are surrounded by, and drowning in, a tsunami of fake news. What does this mean to the future of our state and our country? And, what does this mean for Forward Kentucky?

In a 1998 essay, Ralph Nader predicted that since “the march of time has become the blitz of time … the sound bite will be replaced by the sound bark in a couple of decades.

Nader argued that as a result of life’s faster pace, which he referred to as microtime, “Attention spans and patience for sequential thought shrink.” In an observation that foretells how modern media isolates us into groups of people who are just like us, he wrote: “Microtime means spending more time in virtual reality than concrete reality, day after day. The results are social and personal estrangements we have hardly begun to understand.”

Nader’s narrative seems as good as any to explain the past year-and-a-half of politics so bizarre that it turned a campaign that seemed a fantasy into the reality of a presidential victory. It’s fitting that the Oxford English Dictionary dubbed “post-truth” as the word of the year. OED says use of the term increased 2,000 percent over 2015, which it defines as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Any consumer of information these days has watched that term in practice. Unfounded assertions are enough. Fact-checks and follow-ups get buried in a blizzard of so many counter-accusations that denials aren’t even necessary. Stephen Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report identified the power of post-news when he said, “It feels like it should be true.”

These trends have led almost logically to the current hot topic: fake news. People around the world this year discovered political gain, and entrepreneurs even found financial gain, in flooding social media with stories as made-up as the old supermarket tabloid covers.

The commentary on fake news focuses on its possible effects on election results and damage to democracy, and rightly so. It’s fitting that the First Amendment comes first; self-government won’t work without unrestricted information.

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But the First Amendment doesn’t give us much help on assuring the accuracy of that information. We’re on our own against the strong tides indicated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he said, “You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Or more recently by MSNBC anchor Chris Hays, who critiqued the lack of concern for observable facts by saying, “There is such a thing as gravity.” Skepticism of facts is dire for democracy.

One possible hope could be in the nature of the internet to develop niches. A place for accuracy needs to be a more widely recognized and sought-after niche.

Newspapers have traditionally filled that role, and through their struggle into the world of electronic information, many are succeeding in transferring their reputation for credibility to digital and social media. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times may approach reporting the news with different biases and successes, but accuracy comes through as a clear commitment.

We at Forward Kentucky aim to help fill that niche in Kentucky by championing accuracy and fairness. We will have our biases and clearly-stated point of view, to be sure. And we intend to employ toughness and accountability when reporting and commenting on those who make policy and shape society. But, even as we work from a commitment to progressive principles and causes, we pledge to approach our work with integrity, and with an emphasis on “getting it right.”

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Forward Kentucky takes that mission seriously – just as seriously as The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, who said in All the President’s Men, “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

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