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Column

Wimbiscus: Your guide to media present and past

BILL WIMBISCUS
BILL WIMBISCUS

Hey pardner, having trouble sorting fiction from reality?

Join the club.

Because between alleged and real “fake” news, social media, Russian dirty tricks, anonymous rumors, opinion veiled as fact, marketing ploys and a host of unrelated horse manure, it’s become almost impossible to grasp what’s going on in the world these days.

Or maybe I’m just stoopid. 

As an ancient refugee from small newspapers, I’m of course prejudiced, favoring local journalism over what we used to call wire, print over digital, and objective reporting over unsubstantiated gossip. 

Which may be one reason I’m out of a job these days.

But I can’t help it. It’s the way I was brought up. It’s the way they learnt us things last century on the journalism ranch.

Back then, you were taught to rustle up facts, and facts only. And they only came in five breeds: Who, What, Where, When and How. Occasionally you could wrangle a long-horned Why, but you had to be careful with those, lest you end up gored in the rear end. Guess that’s why we called those kind of stories Analysis.

News stories were kept carefully segregated, over in the Objectivity Corral. Subjective pieces, such as editorials and opinions, were kept across the ways in the Subjective Stockade, where they were always carefully tagged and labeled as such.

Letting the two breeds intermix was a hanging offense.

No, really. 

I’ve worked at about 10 different newspapers over the years, and at every one you had to sign a contract. Not in blood but in ink, which is still lifeblood to a writer. One clause in those contracts always stated that you acknowledged interjecting your own opinion into a news story was a fireable transgression. 

And we all signed it. 

Because even though we ink-stained wretches were held in perhaps deservedly low esteem in the communities we served, we still took our jobs seriously. It was all about responsibility and accountability back then.

And not getting fired.

We also had two sheriffs in town patrolling the media, Libel and Slander. You didn’t want to run afoul of them, neither.

All that changed when a new operation, the Internet, came into its own. Our near-monopoly on news gathering and distribution was slowly rustled away. Why pay four bits for a newspaper when you could get the same story or something very much like it online for free? 

Better yet, the new online breeds were much sleeker and sexier than the boring old traditional inverted-pyramid heifers we’d been driving for the last century. Never mind if they weren’t always fully attributed. Never mind if they weren’t always objective. Never mind if they were sometimes written anonymously.

It took about 20 years, but that kind of reporting now pretty much dominates the range, with all kinds of exciting new hybrids. Here’s a look at some of the new breeds:

“Fake” news: Just because the president doesn’t like story doesn’t mean it’s fake. On the other hand, the practice of using anonymous sources in Washington-based stories seems like it’s at an all-time high, so maybe he’s got a point. Plus it turns out there really is a lot real fake news going around, no matter whether it’s spread by the Russkies, political media consultants, YouTube marketers or Facebook friends. Or Tweets. Can’t forget them Tweets.

Agendized news services: Bureaus like The Associated Press, Reuters and UPI used to dominate the news dissemination industry. Now they compete with specialized services ranging from Breitbart News Network and The Drudge Report to Slate and The Huffington Post. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize many of these sites have agendas beyond just spreading information.

Advertorials: Cleverly designed to look like news, these doppelgängers exist only to sell products, usually investment newsletters, wrinkle creams and erection pills.

Celebrinews: Among Thursday’s offerings on MSN.com (I use Hotmail, which defaults there when I sign out of my emails) “Channing Tatum … loses director,” “Seal slams Oprah,” “Ridley Scott furious … over pay discrepancy,” “Helen Mirren shocked to learn her real age,” and “Mama June gushes over new beau” are all included in the list of the day’s top 20 stories. Surrounding the lead story, “Trump attacks protections for immigrants,” are no less than 27 “Sponsored Links” (see below).

Triviatainment: What are the “22 Things Only A Child of the 70s Will Know?” Or “What should you never shop Amazon without?” Or who are “20 Celebrities Whose Siblings Are More Attractive Than They Are?” Or what are the “14 Pictures of Goats That Are More Important Than Whatever Else You Are Doing?” I dunno, but if I click on these or any of the other 27 “Sponsored Links” surrounding MSN.com’s top story, I end up on a cheesy slideshow page surrounded by dozens more sponsored links. If I’m actually naive enough to click on the slideshow link, I’ll end up wasting about 30 minutes looking at ugly celebrities or cute goats, though chances are that my browser will crash before I get to the end, requiring me to force quit the program and/or reboot the computer, and … there, I just locked up. Now there’s a half hour I’ll never get back.

Anonymous Postings and Due Process: It used to be you couldn’t write that someone was a child abuser, rapist or criminal without either a lawsuit or an indictment to back up the claim. All that changed in the new millennium, where you can now post virtually anything about just about anyone without fear of reprisal. And as much as I embrace the current trend of outing celebrity scumbags, I can’t help but have concerns about the slippery slope we’re traversing.

Mass Volume: Part of the problem is that there simply are too many stories being written, broadcast, podcast, shared, Tweeted, whatever. News feeds are now instantaneous, most with experts I’ve never heard of providing constant commentary and analysis, most of which is deeply troubling and profoundly disturbing. There’s just no way to keep up.

Whew.

I heard a song on the radio the other day, “Spent the Day in Bed” by Morrissey. There’s a great line in it: “I recommend that you stop watching the news.”

Probably not a bad idea. For one day anyway.

• Bill Wimbiscus, former reporter and editor for The Herald-News, has lived in Joliet for 25 years. He can be reached at news@theherald-news.com.

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