The way people receive their news has changed dramatically over the last twenty-five years. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, the only news source outside of the major networks and talk radio was CNN. The internet was in its infancy, with AOL still a year away from a full launch. There was no Fox News, MSNBC, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or blogs.
Times have certainly changed. Chances are, unless it is breaking news, by the time NBC Nightly News or ABC’s World News Tonight reports on a story, the general public already knows about it. We don’t live in an era where the news changes day to day or even hour to hour. It changes minute to minute.
Instant news is both a blessing and a curse. Instant access to news creates an environment where news outlets emphasize getting the news out first instead of getting it right. The term “fake news” is a common term among pundits, journalists, and politicians. The complication is, people have unfortunately conflated truly “fake” news (stories that are entirely made up) with reactionary news stories that are either wrong or leave out important contextual information for the consumer.
The latter was on display last week when President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven nations for ninety days and suspending the admission of all refugees for 120 days. Before the ink was dry on his signature, people began accusing President Trump of signing a “Muslim ban.” Media outlets such as Salon, The Huffington Post, The NY Times, Slate, and others all used the phrase. However, that is not an accurate description of the executive order. It doesn’t matter if Trump once proposed a ban on Muslims. All that matters is what he signed. The countries affected were not chosen by President Trump. They were identified in 2015. From Sarah Harvard at Mic:
“According to the draft copy of Trump’s executive order, the countries whose citizens are barred entirely from entering the United States is based on a bill that Obama signed into law in December 2015.
Obama signed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act as part of an omnibus spending bill. The legislation restricted access to the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from 38 countries who are visiting the United States for less than 90 days to enter without a visa.”
People have made the argument that since the countries in question have a majority population that it is by default a “Muslim ban,” but that is a matter of opinion, not fact. The media has a responsibility to report the truth, not their perceptions. It is up to the public to determine whether or not Trump’s executive order is appropriate (recent polls suggest nearly half of Americans support the order).
Worse, media hysteria can lead to further hysteria. Adam Blickstein, a former Obama administration official, tweeted the following:
This is astonishing from same lawyer friend on the ground at Dulles. CBP basically creating travel ban black sites pic.twitter.com/UjZXFpKoCH
— Adam Blickstein (@AdamBlickstein) January 29, 2017
At the time of this writing, the tweet has been retweeted over 8,500 times. The information contained within the tweet, however, wasn’t close to the truth. There is zero evidence to suggest it happened. The 109 people detained at various airports have all been released.
This reactive and sloppy tweeting is in some ways worse than outlets that publish completely fake news stories. Many people can discern the garbage from reports from mainstream news outlets, but when a paper of record such as the New York Times mistakenly refers to President Trump’s executive order as a “Muslim ban,” people are much more apt to believe it, especially those who are looking for confirmation of their biases.
It leaves the public less informed and far more divided, and in the end, that’s not good for the country.
So what is a consumer of news to do? One suggestion is to step away from social media. Close out Twitter and Facebook, even if it’s just for a few hours. Another suggestion is to broaden your horizons by reading publications you don’t agree with. Go to a bookstore and pick up copies of National Review, Commentary, Harper’s, Reason, and The Atlantic. There is good journalism that exists outside your own political point of view. You’re likely not going to agree with what every writer says, but it will give you a better perspective on events, and immunize you against the growing reactionary nonsense that is now masquerading as news.