Fake news: A personal historic perspective
When I was growing up I had a black and white television set with two antennae ears. At the tips of the antennae we wrapped tinfoil to extend the ears in order to improve reception. While the TV set was big and bulky, the screen itself was small. It kind of resembled the face of the robot on the television program Lost In Space, which was a TV series that was popular during my childhood. It had three manual knobs, one to adjust the sound, a second to change the channel and a third to control the picture so it stayed still and did not vertically roll up and down the screen. In those days, watching TV was a physical feat — it required getting up and having to adjust the different apparatuses on the set, including the rabbit ears. Growing up in New York City in the 1960s I was privileged to get seven channels – 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13. There always seemed like there were many options to watch.
Each night, at six o’clock sharp, my family would sit around the television set to watch the news hour. In those days, the evening news was an hour of serious public affairs coverage. Many historians describe the three network news hours on channels 2, 4, and 7 as the Golden Age of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. My family was dedicated to watching the CBS network channel with the news anchor Walter Cronkite. Back then, there was no doubt that Cronkite was reporting the news in an object manner. He spoke with an authoritative tone and no one questioned the facts of his stories. Cronkite ended each program with the saying: “And that’s the way it was.”
In the 1960s, the news was broadcast in black and white, both literally and figuratively. It was about fact and was not allowed to be colored by ratings. The networks’ missions were to keep the news hour separate from the rest of their commercial broadcasting. This was due both to the image they wanted to present to the public as well as government regulations. The news hour was seen as a public service, and not a revenue base for the network.
As a child, I remember sitting with my family in front of the television, watching the news clips from the Vietnam war, each night seeing the number of casualties presented across the screen. The news was serious business. In the 1960s, the networks still had a code of ethics and sense of moral responsibly. Public figures were always protected by the media, their flaws and indiscretions were hidden from the public. The day John Kennedy was assassinated, the principal came into our classroom to tell us the sad news, and each student experienced his death as a personal loss. The nation grieved as if a family member had died on that day. John F. Kennedy was idolized as an iconic leader and his family’s life style set the cultural trends for the country.
In the 1970s, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) began to deregulate the broadcasting networks, paving the way to the elimination of the divide between news and entertainment. Tabloid news shows, like Current Affair, blended news and entertainment. By the end of the 1970s, tabloid news programming became a significant revenue source for the networks. The more dramatic and colorful the tabloids became, the greater its ratings and profit. Around this time, the networks began to upgrade their picture transmissions from black and white to color. With the demise of black and white television, the clear distinction between fact and fiction also began to narrow.
With the televised impeachment of Richard Nixon, a certain innocence was lost. We were no longer living in “Camelot.” I vividly remember watching the president resign on television and being shaken by the feeling of uncertainty and disbelief. How can the president of the United States do something so out of character of the highest office? I thought this event was so significant, I decided to tape the president’s resignation speech with my cassette recorder. Interestingly, on the flip side of the same tape, I recorded a standup comedy routine from George Carlin. Looking back, the idea that I placed Richard Nixon and George Carlin on the same tape, perhaps signifies the sense of cynicism that I was beginning to experience by the end of the 1970s.
By the 1980s televisions were now hooked up to cable boxes. TVs began to look more like the digital computers on Star Trek than the clunky robot on Lost in Space. With remotes in our hands, we now had access to hundreds of channels bidding for our attention. We didn’t ever need to leave our seats to make adjustments. With cable television came the creation of CNN, a news station driven by ratings. CNN was the first network to bring you 24-hour live coverage. CNN not only reported the news, it became an interactive force that shaped and created the news in real time. With the replacement of the anchor person with “commentators” and “hosts,” the news no longer was grounded in fact, and the divide between truth and fiction began to blur further.
When Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor, was elected president, a sense of what was real and what was theater was further called into question. I remember watching an episode of Saturday Night Live where they did a skit on Ronald Regan. In the skit he was portrayed as a tyrant to his staff, yet playing the character role of the goofy grandfather to an audience of children who were visiting the White House.
The 1990s saw the rise of several different 24-hour news channels. Each station tried to find its own niche in order to gain market share. For example, Fox News viewed the world from the political right, MSN and CNN more from the left. Networks no longer presented different perspectives of one reality, but different realities, based upon the political orientation of the channel you watched. The age of positivism — where we all shared a common black and white existence — has disintegrated into negative relativism — where different realities were strategic constructs devised by the networks to promote ideological agendas.
The networks no longer just presented the news, they now told you how you should think about the news. News now was less about facts and more about opinions. To quote Bill Moyers: “When you mix fiction and news, you diminish the distinction between truth and fiction, and you wear down the audience’s own discriminating power.”
The 2000s saw the arrival of social media. With the invention of the smart phone, individuals were now able to construct personalized realities and send them out on the World Wide Web. With a little bit of tech savvy, operatives were able to have their agendas go “viral” and target mass audiences. While social media has many positive applications, it also has a dark side in terms of its vulnerability to construct devious realities of lies and untruths. The internet’s ability to spread anti-social propaganda as well as harmful and infectious viruses has reached epidemic proportions. The news was no longer at home on your television, but it was now connected at all times and it followed you where ever you went. The news was 24/7, streaming in real time and in the palm of our hands.
By the year 2007, social media became a powerful controlling force, where in an instant a text or tweet was able to put thoughts directly into your head. Social media was like the Wild West, no regulations, ideas flying around from who knows where, with no sense of authenticity or legitimacy. Anybody can make news; even my friend Carla, letting the world know on Facebook that she had meatloaf for dinner.
Fake news has always been around. In previous times, it was referred to as propaganda.
Many people did not take Donald Trump very seriously during the 2016 election. They viewed him like one views an acting out child, not taking his antics with grave concern. I was in shock and disbelief when I woke up the morning after the election and discovered he won. During the campaign, I though he was just seeking attention and publicity, and did not actually want to be president. To many, it is still unclear whether Donald Trump is out of touch with reality, a calculative evil genius, or something in between.
While Trump was not a seasoned politician, at least by historical standards, he was in fact an accomplished Reality TV celebrity. He was well-schooled in the art of self-promotion and social media. For Donald Trump, what is right or wrong does not matter, what counts is how many clicks, and how much attention you get from your targeted audience. Trump created a unique message that resonated with a large enough disenfranchised population that enabled him to win the electoral college vote, despite not having the support of the majority of the population.
It was Donald Trump who invented the concept of “fake news.” Contrary to what the names implies, fake news does not signify news that is disingenuous. Rather it is a political tool utilized by a politician to destroy and suppress their opponent’s viewpoint, regardless of the validity of their arguments. Fake news is not the opposite of real news, but rather, the rewriting of history to promote one’s own personal agenda. In Reality TV, truth is not determined by facts, but rather, “the art of persuasion.” What is right or true has become replaced with who can shout or name-call the loudest, fastest and most often. In the world of social media, what mattered is no longer the content of your message, but rather how many eyeballs followed your tweet or “liked” your link so it can go viral or move up to the front page of a search engine.
Fake news has always been around. In previous times, it was referred to as propaganda. What makes fake news unique and different this time around, is the existence of social media — the internet’s ability to quickly spread propaganda worldwide in nanoseconds.
Despite other accomplishments, when historians look back upon Donald Trump’s legacy, it is his use of the term “fake news” that will likely be remembered as his most significant contribution to society. How he decisively divided the country into civil war — this time however, with tweets rather than ammunition.
As I sit on the couch in front of the TV with my iPad in my lap and the remote in my hand, I find myself surfing multiple sites in desperation to hear someone say “and that is the way it was,” rather than, this is the way I want you to think it is.
Martin H. Klein, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist with practices in Fairfield and Westport.
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