The Poynter Institute is a journalism school and research center that owns the Tampa Bay Times in Florida and has stood tall for journalistic excellence in multiple, impressive ways for years now. Sadly, it recently clip-clopped backward to the point of tripping over an inanity and falling on its head.
We want true news, Poynter had been saying, but what it gave us was fake news about fake news, telling us 515 websites were guilty and should be pushed out of business, a tactic synonymous with oppression of the press. The list was reportedly put together largely from statistics merged from varied fact check sites and immediately upon release was identified as bogus.
Some of the “lying” news sites, after all, were highly reputable sources of splendidly edited, honest, well-researched stories and commentary, as anyone the least bit familiar with the industry would know. The composition of the list of mainly conservative sites had to have been careless and any vetting a matter of closed eyes and ear plugs.
Poynter, which withdrew the list with apologies, is conceding recklessness and says it will do a lot better next time, although I for one do not think there should be a next time. First off, if you’re going to publish such a list, you ought to spend time looking carefully at just about each and every widely used site on the internet and not just throw a lot of questionable data together in some kind of mishmash.
That’s a nearly impossible task, especially if you heed my next advice, which is do not rely too much on fact checkers.
Some sites are darned good at the chore and considerable usefulness resides within the effort, but there are problems. What you often get is the same debatable interpretations that you get in opinion pieces that admit to being opinion pieces. Sources can be questionable. Bias can raise its hand. Games played with the word “truth” are indeed games.
The sort of thing you can run into in their investigations is the claim that, even though Hillary Clinton said she was for “open borders” in a long-hidden speech to Brazilian bankers, “open borders” does not mean “open borders.” At any rate, some seemed to be telling us, she was not saying she was for open borders unless you take her words as evidence. I simplify, though not much.
Then there’s the suspicion of ideological bias when most of those assigned guilt were conservative sites and not a few reasonable suspects are sites managed by socialist or far-left zanies. To be sure, I have no idea how the numbers would work out in a truly meticulous study. I do basically trust Poynter if definitely not the way this project was carried out.
Finally, there is this reprehensible Poynter advice to advertisers supplying the 515 sites with the monetary means for their alleged villainy: Quit it. Yes, Poynter and other media lovers should reveal falsehood as falsehood, demand more accuracy from the 99% of us who do make mistakes and argue with ideas they find amiss. But let people speak. If you can shut them up, others can do it too, in other directions. It can help to inform the citizenry by subjecting certain outlets to intense analysis, but don’t try to arrange their financial funerals.
Let me end by saying I appreciate much of Poynter’s work, not least the way it analyzed the Obama administration’s spying on reporters and threatening jail in cases of reporters trying to safeguard the identity of sources giving them classified material.
I also recognize that we are in a state of media confusion. But here, in my view, was a step too far.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.