I spent a lot of years writing for television and have written for every major network and for several cable outlets.
During this time, while the requirements and limits changed, the dynamic between the “writers room” and the “network” stayed the same — we all knew we were writing defensively, i.e. that we needed to protect what we were trying to say and how we were trying to say it from the censors.
As this was fiction television and not news, the standards were different. The censors weren’t trying to make sure our facts were unimpeachable. Under the guise of “standards and practices,” they were protecting their brands.
This ranged from the ridiculous to downright irritating. For example, it was understood in the ’80s and ’90s that a story that described a woman as “angry” would never make it. Instead, an angry woman was described as “upset.” Ridiculous.
As for downright irritating, take abortion — which was legal in every state and a common option. Except on TV where it never happened. We could write right up to the brink — the woman decides to have an abortion, even gets to the clinic and onto the table. But at the last moment, she’ll change her mind. Or, more likely, someone — a boyfriend, a male doctor — will change it for her.
Not because the “network” disapproved of abortion – the powers that be might or might not disapprove. The real issue was that they didn’t want to “upset” viewers or have anyone turn them off or boycott the products being advertised.
Nothing has changed.
This protection of brand is still job one.
And branding can be useful. I was in London for a couple of weeks in April of 1986 when a bomb went off in a discotheque in West Berlin killing a U.S. soldier and triggering a massive retaliatory attack against Libya. I distinctly remember craving an hour or two with the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour. I wanted their calm discussion of the facts and the reassurance that the adults were in charge and our democracy would prevail. I trusted them — more to the point, I trusted their brand.
But with the birth of the internet and the proliferation of platforms, the speed at which news was reported and devoured increased exponentially. Trusted brands like the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour or the New York Times or the Washington Post simply couldn’t deliver that fast. Real journalism depends on redundancy to guarantee accuracy. Reporters were accustomed to pursuing a story, then corroborating everything they’d just learned, having all those facts re-checked by a second set of eyes, then the story edited by a third set of eyes before it was printed/distributed or broadcast. This could take hours if not days.
While online platforms could get “news” out in moments.
Was the content comparable? Of course not. But as Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote in her excellent book Merchants of Truth, The Business of News and The Fight for Facts, the creation of factual, thoughtful content wasn’t the point. The “news” outlets that sprang up in the late ’90s and early 2000s, weren’t concerned about “journalism” per se. Vice and Buzzfeed just wanted attention, i.e. eyeballs. Or “clicks,” to be more exact, as this is what advertisers wanted.
And apparently what a big desirable segment of the population wanted also. The Vice and Buzzfeed brands — shocking, irreverent, iconoclastic — attracted lots of young white men and this was the audience advertisers wanted. No one appeared to care if the stories were true as long as they were “truthy,” i.e. they appeared to maybe be true to a certain population with a particular confirmation bias. In other words, they appealed to people with certain beliefs because these stories seemed to confirm these beliefs.
Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 to capture this phenomenon. The outrageous persona he created to host the satiric Colbert Report on Comedy Central was the avatar of “truthiness” — i.e. gut feeling as opposed to facts. And it’s been downhill ever since.
Remember “alternative facts” coined by Kellyanne Conway in January of 2017 when photos confirmed that the Obama inaugural attracted a larger crowd than the Trump inaugural in direct contradiction of Trump’s claim?
Remember “fake news” a term that has actually been in use for decades but has become particularly popular these last few years?
All of this points to a crisis in confidence. We don’t know whom or what to believe. A study by the Information Society Project at Yale Law School and the Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression found that, “the most salient danger associated with ‘fake news’ is the fact that it devalues and delegitimizes voices of expertise, authoritative institutions, and the concept of objective data — all of which undermines society’s ability to engage in rational discourse based upon shared facts.”
But as Jill Abramson found, shared facts are no longer the point.
So what is the point?
I had the bejeezus scared out of me the other night when I watched The Social Dilemma, a new documentary airing on Netflix. A lot of the findings are familiar — that Gen Z and Gen Alpha spend far too much time online, that online viewing can be addictive, that much of what you see online distorts if not denies the truth. We also know that social media companies collect data, that in fact they follow every move you make. They know what you click on, how long you linger on any image or page, what you buy, where you live, whom you support be it a politician or a musician or a shop. And most of us know that all this data is regularly packaged and sold to advertisers.
But what we may not have realized is what this all means. As Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology reminds us, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
Which means that you — your attention — is what they are after. Yes, to sell you stuff. We’ve all had the experience of googling “tires” and having 19 ads for tires pop up unbidden on our screens. And to be honest, I dismissed most of the concern about privacy online because I figured that if we couldn’t be trusted to choose a tire shop out of the multitude of ads, we probably didn’t deserve to have smartphones.
But hang on because the endgame is way more creepy.
This encyclopedia of information these organizations buy about every one of us enables them to build models to predict our actions – which enables them to feed us curated content designed to change the way we think.
I’m going to say that again. They are changing the way we think by serving us content designed to feed into our biases, fears and desires.
What does this mean? It means that as a society now glued to our phones, we no longer share a set of facts. Because the social media companies have sold us to companies that are determined to shape our thoughts to fit their needs.
So for example, political organizations and foreign powers feed us distorted facts to sway our loyalty to a particular candidate and demonize the opposition. Ever wonder why the “other side” is so vehement and unwilling to listen? It’s because we have been fed separate news streams.
Think about it. If one neighbor has been fed images of babies in cages at the border and another neighbor has been fed images of babies being sold in pizza parlors, neither side is apt to listen to the other.
And if you think that sounds crazy, Edgar Maddison Welch shot up a pizza parlor in Washington DC on Dec. 4, 2016 because his newsfeed convinced him that children were being trafficked in the basement. The pizza parlor didn’t even have a basement let alone a trafficking ring. This poor man - who was actually distraught at the thought of children being hurt and kept insisting to the arresting officers that they had to go down into the basement to save the children — is now in jail.
Which is not to say that children aren’t being abused at the border and by traffickers but that entities who have nothing in common with real journalists, are pumping us full of curated stories in order to sell us stuff.
Because that’s what it’s all about. Whether they’re selling a candidate or another pair of sneakers, these “news” feeds set us up by ginning up our interest with what seems to be very “truthy” news but is in fact disinformation. And then they auction off our attention to the highest bidder and hit us with the winning ad.
It’s diabolical. And we’re in serious trouble. We will never be able to talk to one another and come to reasonable compromises that will enable us to move forward if our points of view are being shaped by organizations with agendas. And until we wise up and insist on holding social media to the same standards as real journalism, we are all just guinea pigs in a maze of lies.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)