“You provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war.” – Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane
You are probably familiar with “advertorials,” the relatively benign mash-ups of information and advertising offered by many print and online publications. For instance, a regional electric service company that sells generators might publish a page that reads a lot like an article suggesting some good reasons to consider a backup generator for the coming Winter. This blurring of editorial and marketing is usually transparent to the reader and, in most cases, the publisher explicitly states somewhere on the page that it is a paid ad.
But according to a story published Sunday by the New York Times, millions of Americans are now reading articles they perceive as local news, but which are in fact the equivalent of advertorials, paid for and directed by political operatives and major business interests. And the articles are in no way identified as distinguishable from real news. Focusing primarily on a network owned by former TV reporter Brian Timpone, the Times states:
Maine Business Daily [MBD] is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.
The Times feature describes a content mill in which freelance writers—many who might otherwise be real journalists if the industry had not been gutted by the “free content” cluster bomb dropped by Google & Co.—are paid pennies on the dollar to write articles with very clear instructions as to what they should say about political figures or matters of public policy. Not only are the articles not local news in any sense, but a story aimed at, say, residents of Hanover, New Hampshire may be written by somebody sitting in her apartment in Atlanta, who has been paid between $3 and $22 for coloring in a few lines provided by “the clients.” How this is demonstrably different from Russian troll farms is a mystery to me, except that I imagine Russian trolls are paid better. The Times article states:
The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties. Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.
The most compelling (okay, infuriating) example cited by the Times describes how hotel magnate Monty Bennett, a major donor to President Trump, used the MBD network to lobby for a coronavirus stimulus bill in a manner that ultimately garnered his publicly-traded company a $70 billion government bailout. The Times also reports that Mr. Bennett also paid for articles designed to influence at least some of the rhetoric vis-à-vis U.S. China policy in response to the pandemic.
So, if you find yourself wondering how millions of Americans can believe any of the crap the president says, or why they are not outraged when millions of tax dollars allocated for “small-business” support winds up in the accounts of major corporations, at least some of this mass cognitive dissonance can be explained by the amount of professional propaganda online that is so easily disguised as journalism.
Thanks entirely to the democratizing power of the internet, the political propaganda game is bigger business than ever. The hippie/libertarian mantra that “information wants to be free” (which was not even the whole quote) became the business model for Web 2.0. Thus, the alleged monopoly on “information controlled by mainstream news organizations” was the cocktail shaker where the anti-copyright narrative collided with our political divisions, added a heaping dollop of conspiracy theory, and poured forth a river of yellow journalism that might even disgust some dormant scruple in Mr. Hearst himself.
Whatever was imperfect about mainstream journalism, it was professional and, in general, there were standards. As I said in an older post, there was a lot to be said for TV news before the expansion of cable. It was mandated by law and a money-loser for the networks. Consequently, there was no reason not to separate the news division from entertainment and let the journalists do their jobs. Millennials and Zoomers have no knowledge of this era, and I daresay a few Boomers have forgotten it. The fact is that less was way better than more. As I said in that same post, we used to argue about what to do next or how to do it but not about what has already happened. The truth was not nearly so subjective for the vast majority of citizens.
What cable TV initially did to news, the internet did to everything, and at logarithmic scale and velocity. Yet, even as we watch disinformation trample sanity in the streets, the tech-utopians in the blogosphere and many of the executives in Silicon Valley still cling to the narrative that more speech is the antidote to bad speech. This premise was naïve when Justice Scalia articulated it in context to the Citizens United opinion, and it was no wiser when the major internet companies asserted it (with the help of the EFF, Techdirt, PublicKnowledge, et al) in defense of their revenue streams.
Now, as we watch Twitter and Facebook try to stuff the arms and legs of their genies back in their bottles, this Times story reveals why those efforts are almost laughably futile. Local newspapers have been wiped out by the “natural price of zero,” and in their place, propaganda networks serve heaping portions of cheaply-made garbage to a public that not only can’t tell the difference, but increasingly doesn’t even want to know. Confirmation bias may have achieved its apotheosis this week when the President of the United States, in the middle of a pandemic, called one of the world’s top infectious disease experts an “idiot.” And yet, the tech-utopians and speech absolutists keep saying more—more speech is the antidote to bad speech. Really?