The biggest challenge to explaining the evil of social media and the existential threat it poses to free speech, freedom of expression, a free press, and democracy is that most Americans don’t understand how news is processed.
They’ve never seen the inside of a newsroom and think reporters are beautiful people. Like the talking heads they see on television yelling questions at politicians, doing windblown stand-ups in the middle of hurricanes, and shuttling between foreign battlefields. When the painful truth is most journalists are print animals – not actors playing journalist – and about 90 percent of our time is spent winnowing through press releases and dealing with nut-jobs.
Eyes glaze when we talk about that side of the business at Thanksgiving dinner. So, we focus on the cool stuff. Like rubbing elbows with Stephen Colbert at a White House Correspondents Dinner, while skipping over the fact that most working journalists are barred from the annual shindig.
Reporters and editors are deluged with press releases and public relations hacks. They arrive at our desks in every shape and size. From emails, faxes and physical letters; to pretty young women slathered in lipstick looking to flirt you into covering their client, to former journalists seeking favors.
They’re all selling something and it’s very rarely the unvarnished truth or even something with legitimate news value. Whether it’s a real estate developer claiming their new casino is the bomb or a politician trying to attract attention by yelling some variation of “you in danger girl.”
During my 30 years in the mainstream news media I probably handled upwards of 250 frivolous press releases, phone calls, faxes, and emails a day. Easy.
How’d I do it?
Delete, delete, delete, delete. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
It’s a form of journalism triage. I kept whatever was news, whatever was most likely to get me in trouble if I got beat by a competing scribe, and whatever was most likely to get me a scoop.
When you’re going that fast you’re not doing anything but separating garbage from possibles. You’re not spiking news based on whether it leans Left or Right. Unless you work at some biased news organization like Fox News.
Most news organizations have only one bias: beating the competition.
The best reporters also have a single bias: Beating the hell out of eachother.
That’s why Chelsea Clinton, Meghan McCain and Jenna Hager Bush were such busts as national correspondents at MSNBC. Sure, they had political connections and networking skills, but they didn’t have the motor or the ability to hit delete, delete, delete, and say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Because it might hurt somebody’s feelings.
Eff that noise.
A kickass journalist has to able to keep moving until they find a legitimate news tip, and then dig in like a tick.
That’s where the word “scoop” comes from. Take it from someone who has earned this informal badge of honor at a bunch of different news organizations.
Scoop is news industry slang for a high-energy reporter who habitually beats the competition like a drum. And it doesn’t matter to them where the legitimate news they’re mining comes from.
That’s why the whole notion of journalism’s alleged Liberal bias is such nonsense. Man, that’s like accusing a dog who chases cars of only chasing Toyotas.
It’s like a claiming hole-chasers like Donnie Trust Fund and Slick Willie only bone single women, or short women, or young women. As if they care.
It just doesn’t happen.
When a journalism lifer chases scoops in a competitive news climate they do not discriminate on the basis of anything but news value. Anymore than hole chasers discriminate on anything but sex appeal and availability, or dogs start their day off with a To-Do-List that says “Only Fat Mailmen Today.”
I’m a huge Liberal, but many of my best scoops came from Republicans before I left the mainstream news media in 2014. People like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former FEMA Director Michael Brown – they all gave it up.
So did U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.); singer Jon Bon Jovi; gunman Larry Davis, who shot six New York City police officers in 1986; the chief engineering investigator for 9/11; and the folks who rode U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into the river during The Miracle on the Hudson.
I didn’t ask the survivors about their political or their religious views.
Cause they weren’t relevant to surviving a plane crash and I don’t give a fuck.
They didn’t ask me about mine either.
Cause they didn’t give a fuck.
I’m Jewish but that didn’t stop me from interviewing one old boy who was a former member of the Klu Klux Klan during my time at The Savannah Morning News. And when I moved up to management at The Associated Press I made sure my team was first with stories about the New Jersey Nazi fighting the state to keep custody of his kids.
Anyone who thinks we’re a better nation because Facebook has decided to make those people invisible doesn’t understand how democracy and a free press work. It’s about tolerance for dissent and minority views. Not sanitizing the news to suit the beneficiaries of the status quo.
As social media is now doing to promote the myth they care about how they boost corporate profit growth.
If journalists had pulled that kind of elitist garbage during the Vietnam War there would have been no antiwar movement. If we’d done that during Jim Crow, there would have been no Civil Rights movement.
The only reason I’m Liberal is because all the Founding Fathers were Liberal, and because the foundations of America are the Liberal principles of freedom, equality and democracy.
That’s good enough for me.
Look, when I’m working I chase scoops the way a Bloodhound chases escaped inmates. As in “we’re going through everything – brambles, thorns, poison ivy, rivers, streams, fire ants, hornets, snow storms” – I don’t give a fuck what it is. And the editor on the other end of my leash better hold on for dear life and look out for low-hanging branches.
The only difference between chasing inmates as a Bloodhound and chasing scoops as a journalist is that I have to wade through bullshit artists. As quickly as possible.
That means if you don’t have a real story I don’t have time for you. And no, I don’t want to have lunch. And no, I didn’t get the tray of cookies you left downstairs. And no, I don’t want any free Lasik in exchange for a story about some fucking eye doctor.
That’s how it works.
Except with social media. They short circuit the traditional vetting process by selling bullshit artists access to the public (that’s you), so bogus stories wind up beside legitimate articles on your newsfeed.
Without Facebook and Twitter, there would be no Breitbarts, no Infowars, no Fox News, no Rachel Maddows and no Keith Olbermans. There would also be no TMZ, no Kim Kardashians, no Paris Hiltons, no Amber Roses, and no damn Russian puppets in the Oval Office.
Speaking of Breitbart, you want to know how I first heard of them?
They were picking up more of this proud Liberal’s wire stories than anybody else on Planet Earth in 2009. So, I decided to visit the website just to see who was filling up the Google search page for “by Victor Epstein.”
Turned out it was a modern-day snake oil salesman with no journalism education or experience, whose sole claim to fame was peddling other people’s articles. Preferably anything that made black people look bad.
I was running The AP news bureau in Newark, N.J, where drug distribution gangs were fighting over corners in a predominantly black city. Hence the pickups.
It’s no coincidence that the Right Wing Noise Machine got started two years after the birth of the Internet and gained momentum as Facebook took over the public forum.
Unlike me, Facebook doesn’t give a shit about scoops. All they care about is money. Just like Twitter.
Their criteria for what’s a story and what isn’t is based solely on getting paid. Not getting beat.
That’s why America is drowning in fake news.
We’re drowning because there are no ink-stained wretches working at Facebook going delete, delete, delete, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
All of which brings us to the other problem with social media, which is that it’s not just a pest for the news industry. It’s Stage IV Cancer.
Social media generates none of the news it distributes, and almost none of the propaganda it squirts into the mix, like piss into a vat of cafeteria soup.
Subtract all the hijacked news and the impact of Facebook and Twitter is negligible. It’s just pet photos, recipes, and rants about being stuck in traffic.
Who gives a fuck, right?
However, by allowing this new distribution system to hijack news, our political hookers are undermining America’s free press; sidelining a generation of invaluable and irreplaceable public service reporters who put scoops ahead of getting paid off; and allowing the paid liars of the public relations industry to sidestep those who filter their garbage from real news.
The outcome is predictable. Without its journalism filter, the free press chokes on debris like a car engine without an oil filter. Then sputters and freezes up
There’s nothing particularly special about social media as a news delivery system.
We had news before social media. And we had it before TV and radio, too.
The big difference is social media hijacks news, instead of just delivering it, and simultaneously hijacks the advertising money which pays for space beside the articles, instead of allowing it to flow to the people creating them.
Why do Facebook and Twitter et al get away with flouting U.S. copyright law?
Because we have two corrupt political machines right now whose sole purpose in life is to sell protection to corporate miscreants, like Wells Fargo and Wal-Mart, and foreign interests like The House of Saud and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
That’s why you have sawdust and pink slime mixed-in with your ground beef now when you grab a fast-food burger or taco.
That’s why you get ripped off by Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T with hidden fees.
That’s why gullible kids are being turned into debt slaves for life at the age of 16 by for-profit colleges.
That’s why the nation’s loan sharks have been put out of business by big banks and payday lending operations that charge interest rates which would have made The Mafia blush back in the day.
And that’s why we have money for tax breaks for the rich, but none for the working poor logging 70 hour weeks and going broke every time they fall ill from overwork.
In that respect, Facebook is actually a fatal parasite on The American Dream. One which is metastasizing our freedoms of speech, expression and the press by luring readers into a convenient private venue, where those rights may be legally and discreetly monetized for corporate profit growth.
This is not what our grandfathers fought and died for during World War II.
Social media is supplanting the part of the news industry which sifted the flow of incoming content for sins of omission and knowing lies. By eliminating those distinctions, it allows the rich to purchase audiences, instead of earning them.
Just like the businesses which sell fake Facebook and Twitter followers by the thousands.
All this bullshit makes us less free, less democratic and less informed.
How do I know?
Well, one of my big scoops back in the day was about the rise of politicians on social media. It ran all over the world.
Social media doesn’t have a problem with stories like that. It’s painful truths like this which they seek to suppress.
By what right?
By no right.
Their behavior is pure corporate tyranny.
Hey Vic, nice piece, and obviously true. But where tf did you get off to?