Ron Bischof: Learning to evaluate the ‘fake news’

By Signal Contributor

Last update: Friday, February 24th, 2017

“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to,” Former President Barack Obama said at an innovation conference in Pittsburgh last October.

“There has to be, I think, some sort of way in which we can sort through information that passes some basic truthiness tests and those that we have to discard because they just don’t have any basis in anything that’s actually happening in the world,” Obama added during the White House Frontiers Conference on Oct. 13.

It’s a curious proposal that the press, and by extension free speech, be curated in the USA with its constitutionally recognized right not to be infringed by government.

Such “curating function” would require an entity to ‘select, organize, and present (information, etc.) typically using professional or expert knowledge,’” according to the OED. And that raises the question: who is to perform such filtering and validation? By what criteria will information be evaluated?

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” wrote Roman poet Juvenal.

Translating the Latin literally, that’s “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or “Who will watch the watchman?”

As an American citizen, I find this concept suspect, calling to mind a quote from noted American journalist and skeptic H. L. Mencken:

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

So is “fake news” a new phenomenon that’s uniquely threatening in our current society? A review of journalism history includes the “yellow” variety, i.e., news that isn’t based on research, facts and reliable public sources, instead offering sensationalism to sell newspapers and drive up media ratings/clicks.

Should we, therefore, trust media organizations to be unbiased sources of information? A Pew Research Center poll conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 10, 2016, before Election Day, found that the majority (59 percent) prefer news media to present facts without interpretation.

Consider what Jim Rutenberg, media reporter for the New York Times, wrote in an opinion piece last year:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

“Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.

“If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.

“That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”

Mr. Rutenberg then proceeds to argue that one candidate in the election is unique and journalists therefore have a duty to do more than report facts, contrary to the preferences of most news consumers.

Is it any wonder that just 28 percent of American adults believe journalists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being in a 2013 Pew poll?

How, then, does one evaluate news for veracity? Do it yourself! Draw from a range of disparate sources to avoid confirmation bias.

Take advantage of forums, such as those sponsored by The Signal, to gather information directly. Attend in person or via web video Santa Clarita City Council sessions.

Engage with those whose opinions vary from your own to consider fresh perspectives. Do your own research online or at your local library.

That’s what it takes to evaluate “news” objectively. Otherwise, you accept that others, who may not share your values, will “interpret” news according to theirs.

Ron Bischof is a Saugus resident.

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Ron Bischof: Learning to evaluate the ‘fake news’

“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to,” Former President Barack Obama said at an innovation conference in Pittsburgh last October.

“There has to be, I think, some sort of way in which we can sort through information that passes some basic truthiness tests and those that we have to discard because they just don’t have any basis in anything that’s actually happening in the world,” Obama added during the White House Frontiers Conference on Oct. 13.

It’s a curious proposal that the press, and by extension free speech, be curated in the USA with its constitutionally recognized right not to be infringed by government.

Such “curating function” would require an entity to ‘select, organize, and present (information, etc.) typically using professional or expert knowledge,’” according to the OED. And that raises the question: who is to perform such filtering and validation? By what criteria will information be evaluated?

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” wrote Roman poet Juvenal.

Translating the Latin literally, that’s “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or “Who will watch the watchman?”

As an American citizen, I find this concept suspect, calling to mind a quote from noted American journalist and skeptic H. L. Mencken:

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

So is “fake news” a new phenomenon that’s uniquely threatening in our current society? A review of journalism history includes the “yellow” variety, i.e., news that isn’t based on research, facts and reliable public sources, instead offering sensationalism to sell newspapers and drive up media ratings/clicks.

Should we, therefore, trust media organizations to be unbiased sources of information? A Pew Research Center poll conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 10, 2016, before Election Day, found that the majority (59 percent) prefer news media to present facts without interpretation.

Consider what Jim Rutenberg, media reporter for the New York Times, wrote in an opinion piece last year:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

“Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.

“If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.

“That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”

Mr. Rutenberg then proceeds to argue that one candidate in the election is unique and journalists therefore have a duty to do more than report facts, contrary to the preferences of most news consumers.

Is it any wonder that just 28 percent of American adults believe journalists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being in a 2013 Pew poll?

How, then, does one evaluate news for veracity? Do it yourself! Draw from a range of disparate sources to avoid confirmation bias.

Take advantage of forums, such as those sponsored by The Signal, to gather information directly. Attend in person or via web video Santa Clarita City Council sessions.

Engage with those whose opinions vary from your own to consider fresh perspectives. Do your own research online or at your local library.

That’s what it takes to evaluate “news” objectively. Otherwise, you accept that others, who may not share your values, will “interpret” news according to theirs.

Ron Bischof is a Saugus resident.

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Signal Contributor

  • Brian Baker

    Well said, Ron.

    For those of us old enough to remember it, this press jihad against a non-Dem President isn’t anything new. We saw the same thing when Reagan was a candidate and then President: years of hysterical hyperbole predicting the literal end of the world in a flash of nuclear fireballs as the “actor” and “cowboy” took the reins of power. Instead, he brought about the peaceful end of the Soviet empire.

    Trump is now doing the same thing Reagan did. He’s ignoring the Establishment press and taking his message directly to the American people. Naturally, just as in the Reagan era, the press loathers him for it, as well as for his “heretical” policies.

    But now we’re in the internet age, and information flows much more freely. The Establishment press is no longer the gatekeeper of information, and they simply CAN’T have THAT! Hence the calls for “curation”, which is just another word for “censorship”.

    Orwell’s “1984” paints a grim picture of what happens when the government controls what information the citizenry is given. That’s not a road we want to travel.

    • Ron Bischof

      I’m old enough to remember how the media treated President Reagan. It was exactly as you describe, Brian. However, I wish our current President dealt with media hostility with the humorous élan that RR did.

      History has proven Reagan to be a great statesman and the main stream media was and is composed of those with less vision.

      Here’s but one example:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJIOcGNFRMU

      • Brian Baker

        Ron, NO ONE has that great “humorous élan” that Reagan brought to the table. He was one of a kind.

        • lois eisenberg

          “NO ONE has that great “humorous élan” that Reagan brought to the table. He was one of a kind.”

          Being an actor got him elected as others before him and after him,
          and you can see where that got us.

          Also having Alzheimer was a great way to govern a country.

          • Jim de Bree

            Lois–I worked with President Reagan and your comment is a cheap shot. He had Alzeimer’s at the end of his term in office, but not earlier. He accomplished many great things including the end of the cold war, and fixing our economy after that disaster of a President, Jimmy Carter.

          • Gary Bierend

            I can only imagine what she said, I, like many others, have her blocked. All I can say Jim is that you have to consider the source.

          • lois eisenberg

            Per his son Ron, Reagan had Signs of Alzheimer’s before the end of his presidency !!!

  • Hope Inme

    I agree Ron; in order to find the truth, one must read from a variety of sources, which takes time and effort. However, one must also be open-minded enough to let the facts and review of past events shape their stance on important issues in order to make a difference.

    Unfortunately, ideologues are not willing to do the hard work necessary to be properly informed; they prefer to be a member of the pack because it is easier.

    • Ron Bischof

      Agreed. It’s the intellectually lazy habit of confirmation bias, Hope.

  • Jim de Bree

    Great column with good suggestions. It seems in this day that we need to be skeptical of anything we read. I find purported news from both side is suspect.

    It is almost like you have to audit the news source, which is extremely difficult to do. All one can do is look at the news from a variety of sources and try to ferret out what makes the most sense.

    In our modern age the issue is exacerbated because people tend to listen only to news sources that reinforce their existing biases. This especially true with on-line sources, but also applies to cable news, talk radio, etc.

    As a side note, I was extremely troubled by the Trump Administration barring news sources from attending press briefings. Reagan had issues with the press, but he always took the high ground. He also communicated directly with the people clearly and concisely without all of the narcissistic impulses of Trump.

    • Ron Bischof

      While I don’t consider it wise policy to respond in kind to the biased NYT, WaPo, BBC, etc., I don’t view it as a dire threat to the Republic, Jim. It wasn’t the usual WH Press Briefing due to CPAC and not prominently reported is that Bloomberg provided an audio feed to the “gaggle”.

      It’s business as usual for administrations to be selective and it’s only news now because it’s Trump.

      The President is a preening narcissist, as was the prior one, but so are the pearl-clutchers at these “elite” media outlets. As they’re all purportedly serving the public, a dose of humility for all is in order.

      Frankly, Washington, D.C. has always been a soap opera. I sincerely believe local news is of more real import in our lives.

      • Jim de Bree

        I am extremely troubled because it once again is emblematic of the Trump Administration’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the media. This will come back to haunt him.

        • Ron Bischof

          We’ll see. Each believes they can tame the other in the D.C. circus.

        • Brian Baker

          I’m not so sure about that, Jim. Polling clearly indicates that the public’s pretty fed up with the antics of the Establishment media, and in fact, as Trump continues marginalizing and excoriating them, his own poll numbers rise as theirs fall.

          We’re in a period of tidal change right now in this country. Trump’s success is symptomatic of that change, not the causative agent. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out.

        • lois eisenberg

          Ya betcha !!

        • Ron Bischof

          More perspective here:

          On Saturday the paper ran a piece taunting Mr. Trump based on the Times conviction that even the highest elected official in the U.S. will ultimately lose a power struggle with Washington’s un-elected establishment. Reporters Glenn Thrush and Michael Grynbaum fault Mr. Trump for “believing he can master an entrenched political press corps with far deeper connections to the permanent government of federal law enforcement and executive department officials than he has.” The Times report adds that the President “is being force-fed lessons all presidents eventually learn — that the iron triangle of the Washington press corps, West Wing staff and federal bureaucracy is simply too powerful to bully.”

          When trying to play the sympathetic victim whose rights are being violated, referring to oneself as part of an “iron triangle” is generally not recommended. Also, how often did Soviet dissidents get the chance to force-feed Stalin? If they could have found anything to eat presumably they would have kept it for themselves.

          Apparently CNN can’t stick to the script either. The ubiquitous Mr. Grynbaum of the Times observes that both friends and foes of CNN President Jeffrey Zucker “say he can handle — and even relishes — a harsh spotlight.” The piece recounts how, while nibbling on filet mignon at a recent gathering of select reporters, Mr. Zucker said that his team wears Trump insults “as a badge of honor.” The headline notes that Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker are “2 Presidents Who Love a Spectacle.”

          If Mr. Zucker seems unconcerned about the possibility of being sent to the gulag, it’s perhaps because he knows that his First Amendment rights are not threatened. It is not essential to our democracy that the White House gives information first to particular entrenched media incumbents before sharing it with the public. And the First Amendment does not say that the New York Times and CNN must have an edge over smaller competitors.

          https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-and-the-media-1488223333?mg=id-wsj

    • Frank Rizzo

      Bobs here. While I agree with most of what you stated, I would like to point out that many consider the Obama administration the most anti-press in many regards. Not saying that makes it OK, but the Media was in love with Obama, so then let it slide for the most part. Now its trump, they act all shocked.

      -Obama wire-tapped the AP
      -Obama only took pre-screened questions
      -Obama targeted and shut out news organizations such as Fox News, but would go on fringe outlets like “pimp with a limp”
      -Obama wire tapped and used the Espiange Act agaisnt Fox News reporter James Rosen, then “mislead” congress about it
      -Obama stonewalled FOIA requests from the press
      -Obama would go long stretches with no Press conferences, and when he did, he often filibustered.
      -Obama Lied to media about the Iran deal

      Time to be honest. This is not new with Trump. Just ignored by media due to their love affair with the past president. Hypocritical to say otherwise.

  • lois eisenberg

    “This is not Fake News”
    The son of an immigrant is now going to head the DNC ”
    “Felicidades por tu nuevo trabajo! b. enhorabuena.” Mr. Perez

    • Frank Rizzo

      Was he Illegal? As per usual you leave out important information as it suits your false narrative.

      He was the son if Legal Immigrants. Like myself.

      #Facts

  • lois eisenberg

    “The White house big “Fake News” Cop-out”
    “The biggest problem with “fake news” is that it’s a blanket dismissal that requires no elaboration or proof. And almost without fail, this White House doesn’t provide any.”

  • lois eisenberg

    “President Trump announces he won’t attend White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner” Cop-Out, Cop- OUT

  • Gil Mertz

    A very welcome column Ron, with more to come I hope.

    I think if Trump had a filter on his mouth and tweets it would help but the media has become little more than the propaganda wing of the Democratic party. If Trump walked on water, the media’s headline the next day would be “TRUMP CAN’T SWIM”

  • Gil Mertz

    Last night’s “fake news” at the Oscars over who won Best Picture was c-l-a-s-s-i-c-!

  • lois eisenberg

    The Oscars decided to follow Donald’s ways of chaos and thought that they would
    one-up-man-ship him on how he handles his inept governing.
    Truly c-l-a-s-s-i-c!

  • lois eisenberg

    Per Donald our military is depleted and a disaster:
    Another lie added to the hundreds and hundreds going for thousands and thousands, which will not take too long !

    “Pentagon leaders bristle at the idea their force has been “gutted” or is a “disaster.” The U.S. remains far and away the world’s foremost military power.”

  • lois eisenberg

    “Trump becomes only POTUS in modern polling history to begin with net negative rating”
    That is “true news” not “fake news”

  • lois eisenberg

    “George W. Bush critiques Trump on travel ban, free press”
    Not being a fan of George W. I commend him on his outspoken opinion
    about Trump’s claim that the media is the “enemy of the people,” Bush warned that an independent press is essential to democracy and that denouncing the press at home makes it difficult for the United States to preach democratic values abroad.”
    “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” Bush said. “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.
    Bravo to you George !

    • Phil Ellis

      Lois, I think we would all like to see an independent press as opposed to the left leaning one we now have.

  • lois eisenberg

    “The press is the light that makes the roaches scatter.”

    “Remember this every time you hear Trump attack the press:”

    “Only people with something to hide need be afraid of those whose mission is to seek”

  • Gil Mertz

    It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the
    middle ground between light and shadow, between science and
    superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit
    of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area
    which we call the Twilight Zone.

    • Frank Rizzo

      LOL exactly

  • Gil Mertz

    Yes Chuck, it was probably the Russians that switched the envelopes at last night’s Oscars or at least interfered with the outcome.

    • charles maurice detallyrand

      Why in the world do you think I care about the Oscars?

      • Gil Mertz

        Just joining in the fun of the evidence-free zone about all the Russian conspiracy theories.

        • charles maurice detallyrand

          What in the world are you talking about and what does it have to do with the Oscars again?

          • Ron Bischof

            No need to be obtuse.

            It’s an obvious joking reference to conspiracy theories about Russians, i.e. every unexpected snafu is caused by the sinister.

          • charles maurice detallyrand

            Actually I was hoping he could explain that part about the “evidence-free zone”…

  • Ron Bischof

    You tell us, Mr. Shalom.

    Didn’t you share that you were working with The Signal to clean up the forums? How’s that working out for you?

    By the way, can you update us on the actions the FBI has taken on your letter to the agency?

  • Ron Bischof

    If for some reason it wasn’t clear to you, I provided recommendations in my column on how one might confirm the veracity of news. I doubt I can be of further assistance to you.

    What do you think Mr. Rutenberg was proposing beyond reporting facts?

    • charles maurice detallyrand

      There was a book I read as a kid called “The Art of Plain Talk”. You could benefit from reading it I believe. Though honestly I think you’d benefit far more from reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”.

      While “fake news” is a term that should inherently be well understood, it’s meaning seems to vary depending upon who is using the term. Your article makes no attempt to define it. Trump uses the term seemingly to attack articles or mainstream media he merely disagrees with or is critical of him. It seems “fake news” has some new connotation among conservatives that has no basis on whether or not the news is factual or not. Pardon me for asking for clarification and a working definition or for engaging with someone who clearly disagrees with many of my opinions. I was curious if you’d agree with Trump’s usage of the term.

      • Ron Bischof

        The article quite plainly recommends people engage in fact checking themselves. Also, note the paragraph the mentions “yellow journalism”.

        Perhaps instead you’re perturbed that I’m not drawn in by your sophistry? Your attempts at set pieces do amuse.

        • charles maurice detallyrand

          It still begs the question Ron, what do you mean yellow journalism? Have any examples to speak of? Is this something we need to be concerned about? Obama’s use of fake news refereed to something entirely different to how it’s being used today among conservatives.

          Sorry I don’t think telling people they shouldn’t believe everything they read is anything novel or new. Sadly it might be more necessary today however.

          I guess to you asking for you to be specific and concrete is sophistry. Ok man. I tend to think it’s more a sign of one who can’t engage in sincere discussion or proof one isn’t really willing to engage with those that disagree with them. Honestly I think you’d even make William F Buckley jr. feel embarrassed for how hard you try.

          • Ron Bischof

            Again, the definition of yellow journalism is right in the column paragraph that contains the term. Did you read it?

            I see no benefit for myself or others in engaging with your pointless quibbling. If you have a point to make, surely you don’t require my assistance.

            You seem rather impressed with your own cleverness. May I suggest you write a column or two yourself to demonstrate how it’s to be properly done?

          • charles maurice detallyrand

            Yeah who is being obtuse again? Give me an example of the yellow journalism or fake news that we need to be so concerned about Ron.

          • Ron Bischof

            No.

            The point of the column is curation by the consumer of news rather than outsourcing it to others. Fellow commenters discerned this and yet it apparently escaped you.

            Your attempts to bait me are risible and we’re done, even if you fail to realize it.

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