A friend of mine recently sent me an email about President Obama’s daughter, Malia.
“Bet this didn’t make the national news! The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this case....but they pick up on every other word said by the President and his family. No report in the media. I wonder if the press would have reported it if one of the Trump kids were caught.”
What followed was a “story” about Malia Obama being fired from her cushy internship at the Spanish embassy.
“How does an 18-year-old girl fresh out of high school land a job as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Spain? In this case the daughter of a president was moved to the front of the line. It didn’t last long, however, because just like at home, Malia has issues with staying out of trouble. She was caught, by Embassy Security — aka the U.S. Marines — on the roof of the building burning a doobie.
“Malia was terminated immediately, her room was cleared and she was escorted from the private areas of the embassy to the common area where she could wait to change the dates on her travel visa so she could return home. She was last seen in the lobby when a black SUV pulled up out front and she willingly got in. Looks like Daddy probably saved the day again.
“No word now on Malia’s next move. She won’t be starting Harvard this fall and she has no future in government, since all government jobs require drug tests. Maybe she can go to work with her benevolent father collecting huge speaking fees for destroying the country.”
This emailed story was forwarded to dozens of people, many of whom commented in disgust. I know many of these people and they are well-read and intelligent.
Yet they fell for it. Who knows how many millions of people have seen this email and believe it to be true. Further, they believe the mainstream media repressed it, further eroding their confidence in legitimate news organizations.
Being a veteran of decades in the news business, I sensed a fakery. Sure enough, it didn’t take long to find reports from the Washington Post and other legitimate news sources that Malia is doing just fine as a freshman at Harvard.
Snopes, a website dedicated to debunking fake news, states, “Although it was widely reposted and shared on social media as if factual, the report is entirely fictitious. As it happens, Malia Obama did work as an intern at the United States Embassy in Spain the previous summer (2016), but she was not fired from the job at that time, nor did she return to it in 2017 — so she couldn’t have been fired from it then either. This year, according to mainstream press reports, Malia Obama completed a spring internship in New York City before vacationing with her parents overseas in June.
The original source of the false report, Freedom Crossroads, bills itself as a “satirical” website dedicated to lampooning conservative politics.
No doubt Freedom Crossroads got millions of pageviews for its “satirical” piece of fake news. In doing so, they were able to get money from automated, anonymous Adworks. There is big money to be made in fake news. And zero accountability.
This trend has created a new word, “clickbait.” Clickbait describes posting an outlandish headline or photo that gets people to click out of curiosity. In doing so, the website makes ad money. Real news is far more boring and a lot less lucrative.
I am reminded of the old tabloid publication called the National Enquirer. Decades ago it was displayed at just about every grocery store cashier’s line. “Martians discovered,” “Headless man kills wife,” etc.
Most of us knew better than to read such trash and we didn’t waste our money buying the National Enquirer and other such scandal sheets. But today, the Internet puts fake news in front of the unsuspecting relentlessly. It is damaging our society and culture.
My colleague Charlie Smith, publisher of the Columbian-Progress, recently wrote a column about this. He wrote, “The Internet hurts more than it helps. It wastes our time. It rots our children’s brains. It robs our local businesses. It puts down our defenses to allow foreign countries to meddle in our elections. It ruins families with pornography. It gives hate groups like ISIS a platform to recruit within our nation.”
I have always embraced technological advances, but there is no doubt the Internet is posing substantial challenges to our culture and our society.
I am reminded of my son John who used to try to steal my smartphone from me and hide it. “It is destroying your brain,” he would cry. He refused to go anywhere near a smartphone, preferring books, magazines and newspapers instead. He became obsessed with making sure anything he read was from a legitimate source.
What happens when we have an entire generation that doesn’t know reality from fake news?
This is particularly discouraging because I have spent my life trying to publish legitimate, documented news. How sad to see my industry diminish and lose ground to fraudulent clickbait. It’s like crying in the wind.
President Trump isn’t helping when he calls what few legitimate news organizations we have left promoters of fake news. To be sure, mainstream media has its biases, but they rarely publish fake news and when they do, they quickly own up to it. There is a difference between biased news and fake news.
Political operatives are using fake news and it’s not just the Russians. Just like the anonymous fliers of old, political campaigns are rife with the transmission of electronic fake news.
We still have slander and liable laws, but these are practically useless in cyberspace where websites can appear and disappear without a trace. There is no accountability.
What does the future hold? I don’t know. But I know that the average age of our newspapers is 125 years. That’s a long time over which a huge amount of technological change has occurred. Yet we remain. We still have loyal readers and advertisers. We still make a profit.
What makes newspapers endure is not our mode of transmission but the fact that we are dedicated to the truth and fairness. I pray readers will see through the idiocy of clickbait and embrace dedicated journalism with renewed appreciation in the coming years.