During the last three weeks alone, major national news organizations have issued important corrections admitting that they’ve gotten two front-page stories completely wrong, and another has been caught red-handed in a comparably important misstep.
Contrary to two New York Times reports, the Biden administration has confirmed that there was never any credible intelligence indicating that Russia was paying Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan bounties for killing American soldiers – and therefore no good reason for former President Trump to raise the issue with Russian officials. Contrary to claims in the Times, the Washington Post, and NBC News, the FBI never warned former New York City Mayor and Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani that he was being “targeted” (i.e., “used”) in a Russian misinformation campaign. And contrary to Fox News, the Biden administration has no plans to require Americans to reduce their consumption of red meat sharply.
And it’s not like these are the only badly dropped balls by such news organizations in recent years – or even close. Moreover, since there are no evident penalties for such incompetence or bias (or both), there’s no reason to suppose that the media’s performance will impove significantly. Indeed, it’s clear that the most troubling kinds of “Who guards the guardians?” questions are being raised by these incidents, since it’s the news organizations themselves who – sensibly – are supposed to serve as our democracy’s watchdogs over its other main instit utions. Unless you want any government agencies, at any level, stepping in to play this role?
But perhaps not all hope is lost – at least in principle. For there are powerful actors in America who have tried to stop the spread of misinformation: Facebook and Twitter. As widely known, they’ve taken it on themselves to identify cases of misinformation, label them for users, and on a regular basis punish the perps by limiting their access to their enormous and influential platforms. Why can’t they apply the same policies and practices to journalists and even entire news organizations that admit major mistakes, or whose mistakes have been admitted by politicians or others who have made or benefited from consequent allegations?
Any number of criticisms can be made about how these social media giants currently go about fighting misinformation, ranging from their questionable expertise on subjects they rule on, to the biases they bring to these exercises, to the broader matter of whether most of the transgressions they’ve spotlighted are misinformation at all – as opposed to expressions of opinion or interpretations or analyses of events or data that are completely legitimate.
But when it comes to journalistic retractions or corrections, none of these problems should arise – because the error has already been acknowledged. Similarly, it should be easy for such technologically advanced companies to track and tag repeat offenders, whether individuals or entire organizations, with contemporary versions of (truly deserved) Scarlet Letters.
Equally easy should be justifying suspending them or kicking them off for good if they don’t mend their ways. Indeed, it would be a valuable service to the reading, viewing, and listening public, and because the use of social media is so crucial to news organizations’ business models, would create powerful incentives for journalists to use anonymous sources in particular much more responsibly.
Ideally, in a free market system, quality news would eventually and consistently prevail over the alternative by customers rewarding the good performers with bigger audiences that fattened their bottom lines, and penalizing the bad performers by tuning them out. But for whatever reason or combination of reasons (like growing partisanship or more general political polarization, and the resulting tendency of news consumers to follow only ideologically congenial news outlets), it’s not happening. And when news organizations do report on their industry critically, they rarely shine the spotlight on themselves – and wind up in “Coke versus Pepsi”-like dogfights, or thinly disguised ideological vendettas.
Since in theory, anyway (yes, I keep using this kind of qualification), the social media companies aren’t competing directly with either legacy or on-line news organizations, their misinformation monitoring needn’t be so self-interested. And if they stuck to calling out admitted corrections and retractions or other unmistakably debunked scoops, they’d steer clear of any genuine controversy.
Maybe just as important: If Facebook and Twitter won’t reorient their content policing to focus on or even simply add this relatively simple task, everyone will be entitled to wonder whether their main concern all along has been fighting misinformation, or simply the kinds they don’t like.