Weaning ourselves from clickbait news

The American news diet is filled with the real and the absurd, challenging the ability of everyday Americans’ to filter out “Fake News.” The regular feces throwing monkey show that is the Trump administration is responsible for this. Headlines frequently draw concern over whether the president’s mental health can handle reality and whether the president’s handlers can keep the president from shooting himself in the foot. Our news feeds are filled with talking heads screaming at each other in bold type, You’re Not the Victim!, while online news clips of Trump-backing union workers admitting Republican tax cuts only benefited their asshole bosses become a viral meme.

The associate director of Project Censored, Andy Lee Roth, warns, however, not to confuse Trump’ politics as the source of the social problems afflicting our communities and republic.

"Displaying brazen disregard for the First Amendment, Donald Trump has routinely demonized the press as 'the enemy of the people,'" Roth stresses. “It must be noted that many of the stories featured in this year’s book cannot be fully understood simply by focusing on either Trump’s dizzying contempt for the truth or the plots and intrigues of his administration. From reporting on a global decline in the rule of law, to the root causes of the opioid crisis, and military expropriation of public lands, among other stories, we hope Censored 2019 alerts the public to social problems whose roots run deeper than Trump’s politics.”

Like Project Censored director Mickey Huff and Nolan Higdon, the authors of the Junk Food news chapter last year, Professor Susan Rahman and student intern Isabelle Snow referenced Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death to frame this year's junk food news chapter, “Blurred Lines and Clickbait.”

Postman says a particular medium can only sustain a certain level of ideas. Since the advent of television Americans receive a great deal of their information through television news, sitcoms, and dramas. But this form can’t articulate complex ideas the way print can. Shortcomings of television dilute politics and religion. And "news of the day" becomes a packaged commodity. Postman argues that television de-emphasizes the quality of information to satisfy the far-reaching needs of entertainment. The result is that quality information becomes secondary to entertainment value.

Postman’s analysis originated from a talk he gave in 1985 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he participated on a panel focused on George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four and the contemporary world. During this talk, Postman said that the contemporary world was better reflected by Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World, whose public was oppressed by their addiction to amusement than by Orwell's book whose people are oppressed by state control.

Rahman and Snow go on to document the instances in which Trump’s every word, twitch, and fart churns the news cycle and effectively bury real news of the havoc his administration is wrecking. And the kicker here is that the corporate media are hyper-aware of this phenomenon, to the point that they bemoan the plight in editorials while continuing to allow reality TV updates to displace real news.

In the fall of 2017, No. 45’s feud with kneeling National Football League players distracted from the Interior Secretary’s announcement that 76.9 million acres of federal waters were sold in the largest lease sale to the oil and gas industry in United States history.

In January 2018, it was No. 45’s comments about “shithole” countries during private meeting among lawmakers to discuss a bipartisan deal that would protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals participants doing the distracting.Rahman and Snow observe that corporate media coverage of the comment generated 162 indecency complaints for the verbatim use of the word “shithole,” Conservative and liberal talking heads offered arguments and counter-arguments over whether the the comment was racist, elitist, and/or just unkind profanity.

What was missed in all of this hoopla was the purpose of the meeting in the first place, which was immigration reform and the [radical? Inadequate?] solution that emerged: Republican Bob Goodlatte’s Securing America’s Future Act. A bill that would provide only contingent non-immigrant status and offers no pathway to legal permanent status or citizenship. In addition, the legislation would limit family-based immigration to spouses and minor children and would grant the government the right to use DNA verification.

Throughout "Blurred Lines and Clickbait," Rahman and Snow also take a hard look at social justice-related media coverage. Taking on the lack of exposure for research relating to racial disparities in women’s health and infant mortality, Rahman and Snow echo reports showing such disparities to be the result of racism rather than race. Case in point: from the fall of 2017 through Feb. 1, 2018 news consumers were treated to a steady diet of coverage of Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Stormi Webster. The authors point out the striking fact that black women with advanced degrees and high-paying prestigious professions are more likely to lose infants than white women who haven’t graduated from high school.

“Were it not for tennis star Serena Williams’s childbirth complications making headlines, this story might have all but faded into oblivion,” Rahman and Snow wrote.

"Blurred Lines and Clickbait" also takes aim at the lack of coverage of Frontline’s documentary about modern day slavery and human trafficking in the United States. The documentary focused on a group of eight minors who were granted immigration status from Guatemala.

The traffickers set up a system where fake sponsors for these minors posed for immigration officials at the border. The minors were then enslaved on a Trillium egg farm in Ohio to pay off the $15,000 fee their traffickers charged. When the workers refused to pay, the traffickers threatened physical violence against them and their families.

What most households saw on their television screens and news-feeds instead were segments about 10-month-old bulldog puppy dying during a United Airlines flight. Rahman and Snow noted that the coverage followed the familiar pattern of directing attention to human interest stories that do not threaten corporate interests while shielding viewers from coverage of corporate wrongdoing.

In a segment entitled, “Sex, Lies and Shark Week,” Rahman and Snow highlighted the attention and coverage adult film actress, Stormy Daniels received after revealing her alleged affair with President Trump before he ran for office. From the perspective of corporate media, the scandal/non-scandal has been a gift that’s kept on giving in a steady flow of stories about sex, money, politics, abuse of power, threatening goons, lies and cover-ups, lawsuits and countersuits . . . and possible federal crimes.

The authors noted that the coverage related to the Daniels story also shined a light on two pieces of congressional legislation merged into one: Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or FOSTA-SESTA. Combined, the bill was intended to protect victims of online trafficking by permitted authorities to hold websites used as platforms for solicitation liable to civil as well as federal prosecution “even if they were unaware of users promoting sex trafficking.”

Sex workers and human rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, The National Center for Transgender Equality, and Freedom Network USA, have spoken out against the bill, claiming that it would force traffickers to go further underground, making it more difficult for the government to find them.

What flew under the radar during this time was how FOSTA-SESTA will undermine Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, — a 22-year old piece of law that protects internet sites against legislation that may hold them accountable for their users’ content. But FOSTA-SESTA amended that provision so that victims of online trafficking could “legally pursue websites that facilitate trafficking . . . and [make] it easier for federal and state prosecutors and private citizens to go after platforms whose sites have been used by traffickers.”

Website operators are now responsible for anything that users generate on their sites and are open to litigation. Impacting vital communication platforms that sex workers use to warn one another about dangerous clients, find emergency housing, and assist in screening potential clients.

Rahman and Snow report that following the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, Craigslist personal ads, and Reddit subforums used by sex workers were expunged from the internet in order to avoid future fallout — pulling a vital safety net right out from under those who need it most, as well as concerns about free speech protections.

Rahman and Snow conclude this chapter noting that the above three instances of junk food news trumping real news are but a small sampling of what media consumers are missing as they are deluged by entertainment disguised as real news.

College of Marin professor Susan Rahman and student Isabelle Snow wrote this chapter with the editorial support of Marin College students: Tonatiuh Beltran, Tate Dobbins, Jacqueline Gibbons, Maria Granados, Christina Hamilton, Whitney Howard, Katie Wong, and Kyle Zucker.

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