I don’t fancy myself the Chicken Little type, but the confluence of several troubling events has me worried for the future of our country.
Newspapers are dying. No wait, they’re not just dying — newspapers are being murdered, ever so slowly. The primary suspects are hedge funds that see newspapers and their real-estate holdings as a quick way to make a buck.
As a Washington Post story explains, hedge funds “buy newspapers already in financial distress, including big-city dailies such as the San Jose Mercury News and the Denver Post, reap the cash flow and lay off editors, reporters, and photographers to boost profits.”
Such is the case with the Hartford Courant. “For the second time in two years, The Courant’s newsroom has shrunk from buyouts, as daily print newspapers face a challenging and changing media landscape,” according to the Hartford Business Journal. “Four reporters and two editors recently accepted voluntary separation packages that parent Tribune Publishing recently offered to employees.”
The buyouts were offered by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital LLC, now the largest shareholder of Tribune Publishing, which owns the Courant. Might a third and fourth buyout be on the horizon? You can bet on it.
As news consumers increasingly hide inside personal information bubbles enabled by social-media platforms, ironically, they rank misinformation – enabled by social media – as one of the most serious issues confronting America.
“When we asked Americans about made-up news, about 50 percent say that it’s a very big problem facing the country today, and that places it above the environment, terrorism, or some of these other major issues,” said Amy Mitchell, Pew Research Center’s director of journalism research. “So they definitely see it as a very big problem, they think it’s getting in the way of the country being able to function well, of leaders being able to effectively make decisions and do their work, of Americans being able to stay informed about current events.”
Mitchell was interviewed in “Fake: Searching for Truth in the Age of Misinformation,” a new documentary produced by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. She explained how local news organizations – predominantly newspapers – receive the highest level of trust from consumers at 25%, while national news outlets rank at 20%. As for social media, “you’re down in the single digits when it comes to trust,” she said.
Misleading information shared via social-media platforms is influencing public policy. Forget climate change. The hot topic right now is vaccines.
The anti-vaccine groups, or “vaccine concerned,” have been flooding Public Health Committee hearings and meetings at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford over the last few days to protest a bill to repeal the religious exemption for childhood vaccines. Among their messages: “Parents Call the Shots” and “Made by God, Not By Pharma.”
A study just published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, meanwhile, found that “more than two-thirds of the YouTube videos [about vaccines] contained some type of unreliable information regarding vaccine safety and effectiveness. Much of the information accessible to patients and parents vaccinating their children is misleading to a potentially dangerous extent.”
As we near the 2020 election, social-media platforms will see a significant increase in misleading information. At the same time, the president of the United States has no interest in doing anything about it.
“Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected,” reported the New York Times. “Though intelligence officials have previously told lawmakers that Russia’s interference campaign was continuing, last week’s briefing included what appeared to be new information: that Russia intended to interfere with the 2020 Democratic primaries as well as the general election.”
The president, himself a prolific source of false and misleading claims, “pushed aside his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire,” reported NBC News. “Maguire was due to leave by March 12 but the election briefing precipitated his departure.”
So let’s connect the dots: Newspapers are disappearing; news consumers now seek news via social media, which they distrust; many citizens base their public-policy opinions on misinformation; and the president not only dismisses warnings of Russians meddling with our news, he also dismisses his own officials who provide him with these warnings.
It’s a perfect storm. When the Fourth Estate is replaced by a news source rife with misinformation, and when a country’s leader actually favors misleading news sources that are influenced by rogue actors, the sky could very well be falling on our system of government.
Chicken Little was onto something.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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