America Has a Media Literacy Problem

Yes, this post will trigger your parents.

There is a great piece by Ben Smith in the New York Times about two potential lawsuits that have a lot of right-wing media companies on their heels:

Dominion Voting Systems has hired another high-powered libel lawyer, Tom Clare, who has threatened legal action against Ms. Powell and the Trump campaign. Mr. Clare said in an emailed statement that “we are moving forward on the basis that she will not retract those false statements and that it will be necessary for Dominion to take aggressive legal action, both against Ms. Powell and the many others who have enabled and amplified her campaign of defamation by spreading damaging falsehoods about Dominion.”

These are legal threats any company, even a giant like Fox Corporation, would take seriously. And they could be fatal to the dream of a new “Trump TV,” a giant new media company in the president’s image, and perhaps contributing to his bottom line. Newsmax and OAN would each like to become that, and are both burning money to steal ratings from Fox, executives from both companies have acknowledged. They will need to raise significantly more money, or to sell quickly to investors, to build a Fox-style multibillion-dollar empire. But outstanding litigation with the potential of an enormous verdict will be enough to scare away most buyers.

The quick summary of it is that Sidney #PowellMovement, Rudy Giuliani, Fox News, and a whole other host of people on the Right have targeted two voting machine companies and spread pretty blatant (and easily debunked) lies about them. The companies - Dominion and Smartmatic - have now hired lawyers and are ready to go to court for defamation.

I really can’t overstate this: Both have companies extremely good cases and will probably see big payouts. This is incredibly sad, but lots of counties in the U.S. are just not going to do business with Smartmatic or Dominion anymore; there is no way a small county in Indiana is going to use Dominion machines and risk upsetting their constituents. And these business losses are due to conspiracy theories that were cooked up by a lot of people on the right.

The lawyers at places like Fox News are not stupid and they know any case brought by Dominion or Smartmatic (the latter does less business in the U.S.) will be pretty strong. That’s why they’ve already begun issuing corrections:

[Lou] Dobbs, an opinion host and conservative ally of President Trump who has consistently raged over the past month that the president was robbed of a second term by a rigged election, introduced a segment that calmly debunked several accusations of fraud that Rudolph W. Giuliani and other Trump supporters have lobbed against the election technology company Smartmatic.

Newsmax - which is an even Foxier version of Fox News - also issued a correction, so you know things have to be bad. There is no word yet from OAN, another nutty news network that is a Fox-alternative and a favorite of President Trump’s, but to put things in perspective: If a defamation lawsuit is filed against OAN, it is such a small company that it may not survive the litigation. For Newsmax it’s less clear, but its recent valuation was somewhere in the neighborhood of $200-300 million, so while they might survive a defamation lawsuit it would still hit them really hard. Fox News, on the other hand, projects to generate at least $3 billion in advertising and affiliate fees this year.

Why are we going through all the legal issues surrounding right-wing media companies? It’s mostly to show that these companies are happy to push false stories so long as there are no consequences for them. When the consequences come, they change their tune. And here’s where it gets worse: Most people in media (and even people working at Fox News) all know that most right-wing commentators are in on the joke; they know that the goal isn’t to inform the base of the Republican Party but to just keep them angry. But they do it anyway.

Candace Owens, for example, ran an anti-Trump website as recently as 2016, just before she became a huge conservative star. Her website bashed Republicans, compared Trump to Hitler, and heavily criticized the “All Lives Matter” slogan, something Owens would certainly not do today. Did she have a change of heart and genuinely do a 180? It’s possible, but Owens’s Come to Jesus Moment™ just happened to coincide with her being evicted from her apartment (which cost $3,500 a month) in January of 2017 after not paying rent for six months. So, she was in a big financial hole and then miraculously became a giant conservative media personality.

Owens is a pretty cavalier example of a conservative grifter: Someone who, in reality, either believes in nothing or (in her case) believes the opposite, but saw an opportunity to make the big bucks telling right-wing Boomers what they want to hear. People who are media-savvy or who work in the industry (politics or media) are generally aware of this, and know to ignore public figures like Owens and instead engage conservatives who argue in good faith (this list is getting shorter, but it is not short).

The fundamental problem is that the good faith media conservatives are not saying things the base of the GOP wants to hear. Most Republicans want to hear that the election was stolen from Trump, so they are ignoring even places like Fox News (which does have great reporters working for them) and turning to places like Newsmax in hopes of being spoon-fed the lies they love to hear.

Another offender is the Epoch Times, whose articles have been shared by so many of our relatives on Facebook. The Epoch Times is fully on board with the idea that the election was stolen from Trump, so of course its traffic has increased in the weeks following the election. What our parents probably don’t know is that The Epoch Times is a newspaper outlet for the cult Falun Gong, whose leader believes he is a divine, inter-dimensional being. The pro-Trump motivation for the Epoch Times is centered around Trump’s supposed aggressiveness towards China, which has persecuted the Falun Gong (and yes, China is extremely bad), but it is obviously not a news source worth citing.

Part of the problem with so many conservatives running to these sources is that they have been told for the better part of 50 years that the mainstream media is liberal and will not publish the truth. The problem with that assertion is that it’s only half-true: The mainstream media is largely made up of journalists who either lean or lurch Left, but they do not “make up” the news. A great piece I always try to send people is How to Read the Newspaper by Kevin Williamson. He addresses the mainstream outlets - like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and even the TV networks like CNN - and makes a great case that reading/watching these sources requires some critical thinking, but you should generally trust the words on their pages:

Which is to say, a critical eye is warranted. Newspapers, like all the works of men, are imperfect things, and the nation’s newspaper editors and television-news producers are very much at fault for the low general level of trust in the media. But they do not traffic wholesale in fiction. All of the cries of “fake news!” in the world are not going to change that.

I’ll also add that where I think media fails is that most of the people working for news organizations are primarily coastal and from large cities, whereas most of the country is not. The things that seem culturally normal to me as a Denver transplant from New York are not the same as someone who grew up in Pueblo County, Colorado.

To that end, I think a primary issue with media in America is the conglomeration (real word) of news companies in cities and not enough organic, local reporting. As we close out the year and do our tax-deductible charitable giving, I would encourage everyone to find a local newspaper or media company that they adore and give them some cash. I am personally choosing the Colorado Sun, which is an independent newspaper that was started by a bunch of former Denver Post journalists, who left the paper because they did not like the objectives of the hedge fund that owned it (longer story).

More local reporting will also help with some of the issues we’ve discussed here about polling: Nothing can give your more insight into a community than a reporter on the ground talking with the people who live in it.

Since this is the last Jackal of the year I wanted to give you lots of reading material. Tom Nichols is a little mean but he has a great piece in The Atlantic.

The Colorado Sun has a great op-ed calling on public officials to model the COVID-19 restrictions they enforce on the general populace (Though he isn’t mentioned in the piece, Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, recently made national headlines for encouraging Coloradans to stay home for Thanksgiving and then promptly flew out of state).

The New Yorker has an incredible piece by Ben Taub about a journalist’s murder in Malta. It’s long, but there is no rule that says you need to read it in one sitting!

I’m on vacation so I should give everyone a cocktail recipe (this is my new rule and it makes perfect sense). This is a Gin de Cassis:

Recipe is:

2 oz of Gin
1/2 oz of Lemon Juice
1/2 oz of Creme de Cassis

Creme de Cassis is a blackberry liqueur that is pretty versatile. So, if you want to make gin drinks that are a little bit lighter, de Cassis is perfect (and it also works in a bourbon drink like a Renewal too).

Merry Christmas to everyone and have a Happy New Year.