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The Mainstream Media's Fake News Problem

For years, the term fake news has been used to describe propaganda sites that literally fabricated stories to farm click revenue and/or sew political chaos. It was then co-opted by President Trump and used as a catch-all for any story or opinion he disagreed with. But what do you call the consistent practice of credentialed, mainstream news outlets deliberately misleading readers and viewers in an attempt to engineer what they defend as the necessary outcome? No wonder public trust in media and the government institutions they often conspire with are both at all-time lows.

For decades now, the left has made valid attacks on the Fox News network for amplifying right-wing spin of critical issues, ignoring stories that involve the missteps of conservative politicians, and presenting news in a way that seemed to be deliberately misleading. However, there has been a massive blind spot among left-of-center, establishment Democrats as their beloved networks–CNN and MSNBC–have, for quite some time, clearly decided to take the if you can’t beat Ôem, join Ôem approach in chasing the right-leaning network in the race for ratings and influence.
This was a particularly bad week for CNN. An article in journalist Adam Johnson’s substack The Column, titled CNN Won’t Say If It’s Running Undisclosed PR for a Gulf Dictatorship, exposes the network’s habit of publishing what seems to be state-media propaganda pieces for the United Arab Emirates. The media giant’s Dubai Now section is little more than a platform wholly designed as a space for which potential Western interests can be comforted by a surprisingly Western presentation of the brutally oppressive authoritarian dictatorship whose human rights record flies in the face of the network's stated values.

The network was further embarrassed when its top medical expert, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, went on the most-watched podcast in the world and had to face blunt questions as to why CNN insisted on routinely reporting that its host–comedian and MMA commentator Joe Rogan–was taking "horse dewormer" after recently testing positive for COVID. Rogan had been prescribed the anti-parasitic Ivermectin, by his physician, as part of an aggressive cocktail of multiple treatments. While Ivermectin is used to treat parasites in other animals, including horses, and has not been authorized to treat COVID by the FDA, a version made for humans has been prescribed to billions of people for the treatment of diseases like River Blindness and ... COVID, showing mixed but sometimes promising results in the latter.

Rogan repeatedly asked Gupta why his network would "knowingly lie" and continually present the story as if he had been taking the form of the drug used to deworm horses, rather than a human version of the same compound for which developers were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015. After much hemming and hawing, Gupta finally admitted that it was a dishonest way to tell the story and that he, as CNN’s chief medical correspondent, should have asked the network why it had made the choice to frame the story in such a manner.

Rogan went on to ask Gupta if he saw how a massive cable news network deliberately sensationalizing a story in order to fit it into a mainstream narrative undermined the trust the public had in mainstream media as a whole. Gupta was noticeably uncomfortable anytime such behavior by CNN was brought up over the course of the three-hour conversation, and it was telling to watch such an educated, intelligent, and otherwise articulate man bending himself into semantic pretzels to try and find the middle ground that so clearly did not exist. Gupta lost credibility in the days that followed, when, after being criticized for the performance, he penned an op/ed trying to explain his intent, and then participated in a cringe-worthy CNN segment that completely ignored criticisms of CNN and its coverage, focusing on Rogan as a vaccine skeptic, despite his advocacy for the vaccine on the whole (Rogan has questioned whether we might be moving too fast in the consideration of vaccinating children 5-11).

An article in the progressive online outlet The Daily Poster this week revealed that former Democratic Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel has been paid more than $12 million since 2019 from an "advisory group" with many clients in Big Pharma. Of course, none of the news networks that routinely had Emanuel on, ostensibly for his public policy expertise (including CNN and MSNBC), disclosed that he was getting rich lobbying against policies like Medicare for All.

As the viewer, you’re supposed to believe that the networks have him on because he was a member of Congress, advisor to President Clinton, and Obama’s Chief of Staff (all things they happily tell you to build trust in his analysis) and that, as such, he has keen insights on the politics of the issues, as well as the merits, or lack thereof, when it comes to public policy. Forget the fact that, as mayor, he covered up the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer, which should see him shunned from the public square rather than welcomed in order to advise on critical issues. But I suppose there’s no way someone so ethical would allow an eight-figure payday to interfere with their impartiality. After all, telling people who's stuffing the former mayor's pockets might lead them to believe he has ulterior motives. It goes without saying that Big Pharma and others who benefit from the current status quo buy a whole lot more advertising than government programs do.

There are a lot of reasons news networks behave as dishonest actors. For starters, we live in a corporatocracy of sorts, and CNN, its millionaire anchors, executives, and–most importantly–the corporate interests who give them that money, benefit from the status quo and policy positions that argue against paradigm shifts in any direction. Beating tribal drums is also a great way to juice ratings, which have consistently fallen in the post-Trump era (despite left-leaning MSM outlets scrambling to cover the former president any chance they get).

In fact, Gupta said he asked Rogan to appear on his podcast, specifically because he could reach such a broad audience. For perspective, CNN recently lauded the success of Gupta’s Special Report: The Truth About Vaccines for having achieved 659,000 total viewers. The network’s prime time shows average about a million total viewers each. By contrast, Rogan’s podcasts average 11 million daily viewers/listeners and around a quarter billion downloads each month. He recently signed a deal with Spotify worth more than $100 million.

The episode with Gupta crystalized why those numbers have moved so drastically. There was no question that Gupta was the more knowledgeable of the two when it came to COVID, or that he was sincere in his desire to have an honest conversation. However, his continuous discomfort anytime the subjects veered from the accepted institutional narrative was telling. He seemed verbally handcuffed and noticeably uncomfortable when Rogan pressed about Dr. Anthony Fauci getting caught through emails having lied publicly about concerns over the origins of the coronavirus and the existence of gain of function research in Wuhan that quite likely led to the outbreak of COVID.

Gupta eventually acknowledged that Fauci’s actions were troubling. He had previously been one of the earlier mainstream public health analysts to embrace the data regarding the lab leak theory, but his resistance demonstrates how dangerous it can be for even sincere actors to stray from the accepted institutional narrative. I think it also demonstrates the murkiest part of mainstream misrepresentations in that it’s likely also related to the fear that a truth, once known, could be misunderstood or manipulated in order to engender a result that the credentialed establishment views to be negative or even catastrophic.

In 2016, I was criticized by many Democrats for factually reporting on Hilary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, because there was already enough of a misinformation campaign waged against her and I would be contributing to the potential election of Donald Trump.It was clear that left-leaning outlets in the mainstream media were already self-censoring under that very logic, a tactic those platforms took again when it came to reporting on Hunter Biden having made tens of millions of dollars influence peddling and the potential concern for national security implications in the runup to the 2020 race.

The same can be said for those outlets' handling of the Fauci emails and the status of protected immunity the NIH Director has enjoyed in the MSM, despite the troubling revelations regarding what he knew vs. what he was telling Congress and the public. In both cases, the institutions decided what the necessary objective was and made calculations based on what seemed most likely to benefit such an outcome. And yes, part of that calculus is the equally dishonest perspective delivered by Fox News, OAN, and Newsmax who decided to vilify Fauci even before there was a reason, if only because the networks largely represented right-leaning interests that were not in favor of shutdowns, regardless of the data.

But as soon as the news decides that it’s no longer in the business of informing public opinion but, rather, shaping it, we’re talking about a completely different enterprise. What’s more, technology has made it so that there is no way to keep information from the masses, and the large media outlets themselves have squandered their longtime position as the ultimate arbitrator of what’s real by way of getting caught spinning or withholding such information for such purposes. You can't just say, Hey, we've decided mass vaccination is our best route, so, because there is already a whacko anti-vax movement that will be against us, let's not be upfront about any possible downsides lest too many people get nervous.That information is going to get to people who are not only going to be more likely to embrace counter-information (regardless of its veracity) but are going to wonder what else those outlets have been shading their coverage of.

Today, trust in the media among United States citizens is the lowest of any developed nation in the world. A study by the Reuters Institute and Oxford University recently reported that the metric has dropped to a stunning 29 percent, with 44 percent saying they actively do not believe what the news media tells them. Most troubling is that it gets twice as bad when you move from seniors to young news consumers, who aren't influenced by memories of a long-gone era when mainstream media was, by and large, an honest enterprise.

When you consider that of those million viewers CNN is averaging in primetime, only around 100-200,000 are under the age of 55, and that the vast majority of those tuning in to Rogan and other popular podcasters or internet news shows are in the so-called key demographic (18-49) which is most valuable to advertisers, you begin to wonder if their dishonest coverage of such figures might be twofold. It not only drives the institutional narrative, but it also gives the MSM a chance to delegitimize platforms that, while lacking credentialed status among elites, are nevertheless attracting much larger audiences precisely because consumers have decided they are a better place to get information from a variety of sources and make decisions for themselves rather than being constantly indoctrinated to an institutional narrative decided upon by a duopoly of right or left-leaning corporate outlets.

These dynamics also bleed down to local politics and expectations in media coverage. I received communications from many people following a recent column on the upcoming referendum on extending one of the two extra funding mechanisms that are currently in place for our local school district. I did not recommend voting against the referendum and acknowledged that, should it fail, it would be the students and teachers who would be hurt most. However, because I also acknowledged the many failures of the district and its board in terms of accountability for scandals and being good stewards of our investment in the past, some suggested I was irresponsibly contributing to its defeat.

To that, I say that it is decidedly not my job to consider the best possible outcome of an election or referendum and then shape my analysis of public policy in a way that is most likely to support what I believe to be the best endgame. My job is to analyze data and events, then present my honest, fact-based take so that, hopefully, I can help to inform the public opinion before voters make whatever decision they feel is best, based on their values and priorities. That's what the relationship between an independent press and a free democracy is supposed to look like, although I can understand why so many people have seemed to have forgotten that.

The success of both my column and this publication are based on our history of presenting fact-based news and analysis when the vast majority of larger, better-resourced outlets were pushing the institutional narratives and lost their credibility once those narratives collapsed. That’s the thing about such convoluted machinations: they get increasingly complicated, and the lines tend to blur between an immediate necessity and keeping a good guy who just made a mistake and will probably be replaced by someone worse should we make this little indiscretion known. When everyone occupying the ivory towers sees themselves as being in the same proverbial boat, grey is the only color that can exist.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of ourweekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County governmentsince 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Clickherefor his bio. His 4th novel, Burn Black Wall Street Burn, was recently released and is availablehere.