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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Real life fake news

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“Fake news” is … real. But not in the way that you’re probably thinking. Recently, I re-watched the 1995 movie “Crimson Tide,” which stars two great actors: Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

“Crimson Tide” is the fictional story of a high-stakes clash between an “old sea dog” submarine captain (Hackman) and his promising, Harvard-educated second-in-command (Washington). While I would love to delve into the complicated, multi-faceted conflict between these two characters, I’ll save the movie review for another day. Instead, I’ll focus on the real-life implications of one of the movie’s minor “characters”: CNN. 

During the movie’s opening moments, we witness realistic — though fictional — accounts of an internal military conflict in post-Soviet Russia. Several “news organizations” cover a series of ominous events. Most of the news outlets aren’t real, but CNN is among them. Presumably, CNN’s presence is intended to lend “authenticity” to the story. Yet, in my opinion, the inclusion of a real news network covering a fake news event is, at best, distracting. More importantly, it highlights the inescapable irony of the attempt to lend credibility to said fake event.

Participating in this charade detracts from CNN’s legitimacy as a news organization as much as — if not more than — the troubling advent of “infotainment” (i.e., the melding of news and entertainment). I, for one, long for the days when actual journalists like Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel sat behind the anchor’s desk. Of course, I am intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that the “straight reporting of news” was not perfect. But, in those days, journalistic integrity and the pursuit of truth were actual principles.

Having launched in 1980, CNN was just 15 years old at the time “Crimson Tide” was released. (Interestingly, Fox News premiered roughly a year after the movie hit theaters.) Thus, long before a certain president became known for repeatedly leveling the charge of “fake news” — usually inaccurately — CNN was literally making “fake news.” (I should note that I don’t like the term “fake news”; generally speaking, it is an oxymoron.)  

Of course, the practice of including real news organizations in movies has been common for several years. To be clear, I understand that movie producers and studios are always looking for ways to cut their film development costs. “Product placements,” such as having characters drink a Coke, provide a good source of revenue. But news organizations are different — or at least they should be. News organizations should not be mere commodities; they should do everything they can to reinforce the importance of journalistic integrity.

Today, on-air personalities and network executives, especially at center-left organizations, bemoan the fact that the public is increasingly skeptical of news coverage. A recent poll of 20,000 Americans by Gallup/Knight Foundation demonstrates that 84% of Americans say that the news media is “critical” (49%) or “very important” (35%). However, there is a stark political divide between Republicans and Democrats; the former group is much more skeptical of traditional news media than the latter. The report found that roughly three-fourths of Republicans (71%) have a “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable opinion of the news media, whereas just 22% of Democrats and 52% of independents feel the same way.

Some of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I have written previously, the far right has spent several decades stoking mistrust in traditional news outlets and the government, while concurrently pedaling fact-light “news” and pushing absurd conspiracy theories. Thus, it is odd to witness the so-called “mainstream media” aiding and abetting their credibility problem by doubling down on infotainment and appearances in movies. (The definition of folly is trying to convince people that Alex Jones is not a journalist while Anderson Cooper appears in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”)

I’m not naive enough to ignore the two major factors that militate against changing this reality. One is ratings. The other — related — issue is ad revenue. But, the gatekeepers of traditional media have a moral obligation to try to prevent our further descent into the social and political morass in which we presently find ourselves. To borrow from Walter Cronkite (and Run-DMC), the “way it is” isn’t the way that it has to be. 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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