According to a poll released earlier this month by Monmouth University, over three-quarters of Americans believe major news outlets report “fake news.” Gone are the days when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. In this strange new reality the news media has been forced to ask itself: How do you fight the proliferation of fake news in a world where bad actors are actively pushing it, unregulated social media platforms are promoting it, unwitting users are sharing it, and the president of the United States can’t stop talking about it?
On Saturday, the PEN World Voices Festival hosted a conversation to discuss this crisis of confidence in the media, moderated by PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and featuring Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a contributor for NBC News and MSNBC; William Kristol, founder and editor at large of the Weekly Standard; John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards at the Associated Press; and Peter Barbey, president and CEO of the Village Voice as well as the Reading Eagle Company in Reading, Pennsylvania. In a lively discussion at the Cooper Union’s Rose Auditorium, the panel discussed the challenges facing the news media as it fights the spread of fake news, even as it is accused of spreading it every day.
Last year, PEN America released the report Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth, in which fraudulent news was defined as “demonstrably false information that is being presented as a factual news report with the intention to deceive the public, and the related erosion of public faith in traditional journalism.” The problem, as Saturday’s discussion made clear, is that not everyone shares that definition: To the president, “fake news” seems to be anything that he disagrees with or that calls into question his legitimacy; to his opponents, it’s anything he says or promotes.
For Kristol, who has been outspoken as a conservative voice in the anti-Trump chorus, the rise of fake news is inextricably tied to the president’s shaky relationship with the truth. “The presidency is a bully pulpit, and the president is using it to be a bully,” said Kristol, noting that this one-sidedness is only reinforced by outlets like Fox News. Daniszewski pointed out that Trump’s actions mirror that of autocrats around the world who have weaponized fake news, using it as a cudgel to attack a free press.
But the problems facing journalism are also playing out on the local level. Barbey, whose family has run newspapers in Reading for eight generations, pointed to the importance of a free press in helping communities define themselves. With Google and Facebook deciding what counts as news, he noted, there’s less and less accountability. “Now it’s these platforms deciding what’s news,” he said. “It used to be that the local paper was the platform.” Barbey addressed some of these issues in a Hollywood Reporter editorial last week. “Unable to prevent digital platforms from aggregating their stories into free news alternatives supported by programmatic advertising, legitimate publishers have seen almost two decades of plummeting revenues and shrinking (or, in some cases, vanishing) newsrooms,” he wrote of the unintended effects that Facebook and Google have had on local news. “Meanwhile, hyper-partisan and fake news aggregators…have flourished. In an instance of unintended consequences of monumental proportions, the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] precipitated a situation in which professional writers, rigorously trained to report facts and truth, find it next to impossible to make a living.”
As Alcindor noted, the importance of local news extends to sources that cater to sectors of society with less of a voice, like the African American community. While everyone onstage seemed to agree that the mainstream news media is facing an existential crisis, there was no shortage of ideas as to how the tide might be turned, from a Consumer Reports–like service to monitor the news, to a university model where editorships might be endowed like professorships, to a “journalism Peace Corps” to get young Americans involved and invested. What’s clear is that legitimate news sources have never been more important, and that if America is going to get through this chapter of our history, it’s incumbent upon the press to do its job. “Real journalists,” said Alcindor, “shouldn’t change anything.”