The Washington Post broke a story on the 9th to the effect that Russia hacked the American presidential elections this year.
As is becoming the new normal in modern journalistic practice, the story has several different headlines, each fine-tuned to appeal to the target audience. The main print version was released as “Obama Orders Review Of Russian Hacking During Presidential Campaign”, but the regional headlines differ slightly. The online version was titled the eminently clickable “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House”.
I’d like to take just a moment here to mention that, pre-election, I was rather enjoying my little stories here. Each side was flinging mud with exuberance and raw abandon, and I could debunk everything easily and with a clear conscience.
Thing is, I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t like his waffling on positions and I really mistrust some of his choices so far. His use of Twitter for petty personal attacks is quite frankly unPresidential, and for the sake of the country and what little national dignity we have left I very much hope someone takes it away from him. (Alas, it’s unlikely, but we can hope.)
But right now, horrible though it feels to say this, Mr. Trump seems far more reliable than a lot of the crap I’ve been reading out there.
Let’s take this Washington Post article as a perfect example. The internet version of the headline mentions a “secret CIA assessment”, and it’s later referenced in the story. And how did a major news outlet get their hands on a secret CIA document? “A senior U.S. official” apparently leaked it, and a “second official” confirmed it. (That’s editorial code, in this case for not one but two ranking senators.)
But digging into the story, a picture emerges: Two senators (best guesses Harry Reid and John McCain, but remember that’s just an educated guess; it could have been any of seventeen) decided to leak details of a recent intelligence briefing. One, likely a Republican, was looking for a little political payback; the other offered confirmation but is too canny to actually break the law by disclosing the contents of a classified presentation.
And the substance of what was disclosed? It’s a repeat of another report that already made headlines a month before the elections. That’s right; we knew all this on the 7th of October. There’s no new information. And that means — guess what? — it’s not news.
In case you don’t feel like clicking the above link, it contains the consensus opinion by the Director of the CIA and Homeland Security that Russia might have helped out the hackers that broke into the DNC’s email servers during the election and forwarded the information to WikiLeaks. It also says, quite explicitly, that the election was impossible to actually hack outright.
That’s not news to anyone, except possibly Jill Stein (and her Michigan efforts apparently did uncover some startling results in and around Detroit — again, that’s unsubstantiated, based on the personal reports of volunteers). But because of Jill Stein, election fraud is hot right now, and everyone that’s disappointed about the lack of a story coming from the recount effort now seems to be jumping back on this one.
To be fair, another foreign country may have tried to influence the recent election, and there wasn’t much outrage at the time. This much is at least plausibly true. So yes, it’s worth discussing. But why the pretense? Why the big dance around the leaks and the reports? Why not just say, “It’s been two months, and we still don’t know who was behind the WikiLeaks thing”?
The answer, I think, is clickbait.
Look, clickbait works. We see something that looks interesting and we click on it, and the website gets a fraction of a cent from their advertisers. The problem the major media has is, they seem to be losing the clickbait war to fake news sites and personal blogs like HuffPost, Drudge, and God help us The Onion.
Don’t get me wrong: I love The Onion. And, to be fair, they’re probably more factual than the overly-biased stuff that’s shoveled out of Drudge and HuffPost. But what does it say of Americans that at the height of the Information Age we prefer to educate ourselves with satire?
So they have to compete, which means provocative headlines. That’s always been the case; their job is to sell advertising, not educate the masses. And I can understand it; heck, right here, I’m doing the exact same thing.
The difference is, I told the truth — and when I wasn’t sure, I told you that too.