Monday, June 06, 2022


I'm back. Thank you, Yas, for enlightening posts while I was away.

Yesterday, Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post was lamenting the rise of right-wing fake-news sites disguised as local media outlets.
While fact-based, accountable local newspapers are struggling to survive — many of them facing budget cuts or closure — what’s known as “pink slime” sites are sneakily trying to fill the void. They traffic in falsehood and exaggeration, paid for by political groups, especially on the right....

Named after a meat-processing byproduct used as filler — in other words, it looks like meat but isn’t — pink slime news sites are often funded through secret and politically motivated “dark money” contributions. And they are growing fast. In 2020, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School identified at least 1,200 such sites.

With names such as the Des Moines Sun and Illinois Valley Times, they leverage the trust that people have for local newspapers, built up over many decades, to boost their own dubious credibility. Their content is “rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency,” according to a New York Times investigation that referred to them as “Pay-for-Play” outlets. Most of them, for example, don’t disclose the funding they get from advocacy groups. Davey Alba, one of the reporters who co-wrote the Times investigation, noted that the “West Cook News” is part of a network of local sites run by Republican operatives.
The West Cook News, purportedly based in the Chicago area, recently ran a stiory claiming that some suburban Chicago schools would begin adjusting grades by race. Many media outlets and commentators picked up on the story (Andrew Sullivan jumped on it, naturally), but it wasn't true. Nevertheless, it had the impact it was intended to have.

Disinformation sites thrive even as local providers of real news struggle; as Margaret Sullivan notes, "Between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers were closed."

Sullivan published her column a couple of days after New York magazine's Choire Sicha wrote about media coverage of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial. As Sicha sees it, the mainstream press, which in the past few years has tried to provide serious coverage of the mistreatment of women by powerful men, lost the battle to frame the Herd-Depp story. The winners were "influencer detectives (Click Tracys?)" whose
reach and vitriol was, for many of us, shocking. Any given Depp-stanning TikToker camped outside the courthouse may reach many times more readers than the newspaper staffer dutifully covering the trial. We were busy believing women, while women online were calling for Heard’s head — and they, more than us, were shaping the general public’s understanding of the trial.
Sicha sees this as a battle between two business models. He describes the mainstream press as "the heavily paywalled, rule-bound, college-educated-reader-focused American news media." He writes,
Publications from the New York Times to the Atlantic to this magazine have doubled down on serving paying subscribers. Our paywalls have become tighter; our quest for elite readers more thirsty.
Meanwhile, the pro-Depp upstarts on TikTok, Instagram, and elsewhere were hungrily reaching for a mass audience.
... @houseinhabit’s Jessica Reed Kraus ... is a San Clemente, California, mother who got her start in the content mines as a lifestyle blogger.... Over the past year or so, she morphed into a trial-obsessed Instagrammer. Her gossipy roller-coaster ride through evidence and pop culture has earned her almost 1 million Instagram followers and apparently thousands of paid Substack subscribers. “In an era of growing censorship and distrust in paid media designed to divide and distract us, I hoped this space offers anyone looking for anything else, refreshing respite,” she told her audience. “Expect the return of unhinged humor, biting sarcasm, and people talking like real people again. Unguarded and uncut.” ...

Kraus is just one of hundreds who racked up huge numbers and built followers during the trial. Devotedly.yours has posted hundreds of times, attracting millions of views. A self-described Egyptian American single mom of two in Virginia, “forever a Swiftie & Potterhead,” she has spoken out about domestic violence in the past. But don’t assume that means she would side with Heard. On June 1, she joined the other Depp supporters outside the Fairfax courthouse for the verdict. “Johnny, Johnny!” everyone chanted.

“I’ve been following this from day one, and I believe him and the media has been so against him,” she said, in a fascinating expression, since as far as I can see, she is the media.

Cami Twomey, 19, has made a name for herself as a Gen-Z Peter Jennings. She pivoted from Met Gala looks and an item titled “Megan Fox and MGK Drink Eachothers Blood” into 118 nearly consecutive videos about Depp. Her news-anchor-style updates on the case — in which she speaks directly to the camera over still photos of Depp and Heard — have attracted 47 million likes on TikTok. She, too, cheered on the verdict as #justiceforjohnnydepp.
And so on. The mainstream media lost. These Depp stans won.

I don't know why the elite media has given up on non-subscribers. In the days of print, newspapers and magazines pursued subscriptions, but they also cared about single-copy sales at newsstands. I'm not aware of any major media outlet that makes it easy to read an individual story for a small micropayment, and you can't sign up for any site that provides even limited access to multiple news sites for a monthly fee. So people with money sign up for a few sites and Substacks, and everyone else makes do with what their Facebook friends repost, or what CNN and local free news sites offer, or what they see on TikTok and Instragram and YouTube.

And the result is that professional disinformationists and people suffering from toxic fandom have opportunities to dominate the news, because most of their content is free. That's bad for society, but it's what the market dictates, I guess.

No comments: