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Fake news or state news? It’s a false choice

In this Jan. 26, 2017, photo White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, left, and senior adviser Steve Bannon, right, walk on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, after returning via Marine One from a trip to Philadelphia with President Donald Trump.
In this Jan. 26, 2017, photo White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, left, and senior adviser Steve Bannon, right, walk on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, after returning via Marine One from a trip to Philadelphia with President Donald Trump. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

“Any negative polls are fake news.”

That’s how Donald Trump reacted after CNN published a survey showing he now has the lowest approval rating of any newly elected president in polling history. Just weeks into his presidency, only 44 per cent of Americans said they approve of the job he has done — making him the only president in recent history to hold a net-negative rating at this point in his tenure. (Former president Barack Obama, in contrast, won 76 per cent approval in 2009, while Ronald Reagan had 51 per cent approval in 1981.)

But Trump doesn’t believe it. He’s president, so he figures he doesn’t have to believe it. It’s bad news, therefore, it can’t be true. So — following the fevered logic of America’s greatest proponent and consumer of fake news — legitimate news outlets should not report it. If they do, they’re fake. Get it?

READ MORE: Do we really know what ‘fake news’ is?

All political administrations attempt to shape reality. Only the Trump White House views reality itself — or those paid to report on it — as the enemy. As Trump’s chief adviser Steve Bannon told the New York Times last week, “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

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Bannon was the presiding mind for years behind Breitbart News, an online outlet that is emblematic of the new “news” business; its mandate is not to report the “truth,” but to question it. Conspiracy theories, half-truths and outright lies swirl about; the Information Superhighway has become a giant cesspool. “Activist news” sites pitch for support to bring their version of reality to their readers. Some, like The Rebel, fundraise for everything from cameras to reporters’ salaries. And they’re pretty good at it: with a global reach and an increasingly tribal political environment, the concept of “us vs. them” is a big seller.

READ MORE: Donald Trump refuses to take question from ‘fake news’ CNN reporter

The result has been a plethora of calls to clean up the system, or more specifically, for government to “save” the traditional news business. This would be a mistake – and not just because Bannon himself now works in the White House.

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The minute the government decides what news is worthy of publishing, it stops being news and starts being propaganda. News becomes whatever the president, or prime minister, says it is. Freedom of speech becomes history. Alternative facts become “truth,” or close enough for government work. And suddenly we’re all living in Orwell’s nightmare.

Despite this, the calls keep coming. This week, journalist Andrew Potter penned a very thoughtful piece which called for government subsidies for companies that advertise on “trusted” news sites, who adhere to ethics policies, fact checking and other hallmarks of traditional journalism. Recently, Edward Greenspon delivered an in-depth examination of the state of the news business, and suggested saving it through a combination of regulation and taxation — in part by establishing a $400 million taxpayer-supported fund.

The goal is laudable: preserving citizens’ access to truthful reporting. But with all due respect, this isn’t a problem the state can fix. The news business needs to save itself. And it will only do that if it finds a way to make consumers value its product — to make the truth pay.

The real issue is competition. The internet has democratized the news business and eliminated the middleman — the traditional news outlet. Anyone with a smartphone and a blog can claim to be a journalist. And since these platforms provide content for free — asking only that readers’ glance at the odd ad for quick tips on how to eliminate wrinkles — they can compete on a level with traditional news outlets, but without the overhead. No reporters, no offices, no presses. From a business standpoint, that makes traditional news gathering uncompetitive.

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READ MORE: Donald Trump rips into ‘fake news’ report about ‘compromising’ Russian intel

And news outlets now have to compete not only with each other, but with a limitless ocean of trivia. Recipes, cat videos, Facebook updates, 20 Historical Pictures That Will Blow Your Mind and, oh yes, news, are all available in the same place, in the same way: online, on your phone, with one click. They all compete for readers’ attention. And we only have so much attention to give. The shiniest piece of information will usually win. Very often, it’s not a news story.

It might, however, be a fake news story. Crazy headlines get eyeballs on screens. More eyeballs equal more ad revenue. The fake news industry is profitable in a way the old-school National Inquirer could only dream of being. Pre-internet, stories about two-headed babies or Illuminati world domination plots were only accessible in supermarket tabloids. Now, they’re posted on your cousin Sally’s Facebook page. In a world where clickbait is king, straight-up news — The Truth — is rapidly becoming the pauper, because it doesn’t sell as well as the competition.

If news outlets want to monetize truth, they cannot do it by relying on the same revenue streams as the competition. They have to disrupt the business model that relies on click bait, ads and donations. One way to do this would be to collect money upfront, in the form of micro-payments, every time a viewer browses a news story. This pick-and-pay model would not rely on search engines placing ads, or cluttering sites with junk. It would not rely on paywalls or subscriptions, both of which throw up barriers that discourage readers from reading. To do so would require co-operation between news organizations, or possibly the creation of an entirely new search engine — one dedicated to news that doesn’t profit from clickbait and the placement of ads.

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Another possibility would be to adopt a voluntary industry code of conduct which would be policed by the business itself, not imposed by government. If trust has value, then news organizations should find a way to monetize that trust — but not with government funds.

Doing so would open it up to accusations of manipulation by the state — or, worse yet, allow the state to define the code of conduct in such a way that benefits its interests, not those of readers. If sites like BreitbartInfoWars or The Rebel can convince readers to trust them, mainstream media must find a way to do the same, to regain the trust they have lost to these other outlets.

News outlets need to play by the rules of the market. They need to organize and innovate. I believe that truth can pay. If journalists, reporters and publishers believe it as well, it’s up to all of us to make that happen.

Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and iPolitics.ca, where this piece first appeared.

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