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The Crisis in Journalism Is Here

 

Back in the early 1980’s two budding disasters were about to hit the media world — my career in television and the arrival of the personal computer. The first disaster was mitigated to a great degree but the second one is just now beginning to hit its stride. Let me explain.

One of the first things I did upon graduating with a degree in Mass Media was to purchase a subscription to Broadcasting magazine (now rebranded as Broadcasting & Cable) In the back section on electronic journalism in one issue was an article I remember as being titled, “The Coming Crisis in Journalism.” The author cautioned that digital compositing of images was going to reach a point where even the most cynical and demanding journalist could be duped into running a story that simply wasn’t true because he couldn’t deny the images he was being shown by a source.

In the late ’80s the Knoll brothers, Thomas (a Ph.D. student at Michigan) and John (a pioneer in image manipulation at Industrial Light and Magic), created Image-Pro, a set of computer tools that would eventually emerge commercially as Photoshop when they sold the idea to Adobe Software. But the “coming crisis” would prove slow in coming.

It wasn’t until home computer equipment became powerful enough to replicate the things folks were seeing in the movies that the real mischief was about to begin. Suddenly kids (and I do mean kids) were doing things in the basement that would have taken millions of dollars to pull off just a decade earlier. And not just in photography and graphic arts but in video as well.

Which brings us to today and the Age of Trump.

Donald Trump is an essential part of this equation, primarily because he is the most reviled political figure since Richard Nixon. Whereas George W. Bush had his share of lunatic detractors on the fringes of the far left, Trump has made the lunatics mainstream, not only on the left but on the right as well because he has upended decades of conservative dogma.

Bury My Heart on the Dakota Pipeline Access Project

Here’s the most recent example. When the President ordered a reversal of his predecessor’s decision not to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, someone took a publicity still from the 2007 HBO movie Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, cropped it, digitally added snow and haybales and announced to the world that the Feds and local LEOs were burning down the encampments set up by Native American protesters.

It was a little too clumsy. Not many professional journalists bit on that one but it still was widely shared on social media by the people who truly wanted to believe it was true.

One bit of fakery that was picked up originated with the husband and wife film making team of Laura Moss and Brendan O’Brien. Using public domain footage they created two “commercials” for the non-existent campaign of the President’s father for New York City mayor. After they were uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, independent producer Devin Landin shared them on Facebook with the following description, “See if you can catch all the subtle allusions in this ad for Fred Trump. (Spoiler: they’re not subtle at all!) What is it they say about apples and trees and distance?”

Hillary Clinton’s rabid chihuahua, Sidney Blumenthal ran with it from there. Writing in The London Review of Books, Blumenthal wrote:

In 1969, Fred Trump plotted to run for mayor of New York against John Lindsay, a silk-stocking liberal Republican. The reason was simple: in the wake of a New York State Investigations Commission inquiry that uncovered Fred’s overbilling scams, the Lindsay administration had deprived him of a development deal at Coney Island. He made two test television commercials. One of them, called ‘Dope Man’, featured a drug-addled black youth wandering the streets. ‘With four more years of John Lindsay,’ the narrator intoned, ‘he will be coming to your neighbourhood soon.’ The ad flashed to the anxious faces of two well-dressed white women. ‘Vote for Fred Trump. He’s for us.’ The other commercial, ‘Real New Yorkers’, showed scenes of ‘real’ people from across the city, all of them white. Fred Trump, the narrator said, ‘is a real New Yorker too’. In the end he didn’t run, but his campaign themes were bequeathed to his son.

The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler, the man who writes their “Fact Checker” column shared them on Twitter until someone pointed out an anachronism in the videos. Supposedly produced in 1969 they carried “Paid For” disclaimers not in use until the early part of the 21st Century.

The London Review of Books deleted the reference in Blumenthal’s essay and put in this “correction”:

A paragraph referring to Fred Trump’s campaign for mayor of New York, although it accurately reflected Trump’s racial attitudes and his hostility towards Mayor John Lindsay, has been removed because the campaign ads referred to appear to be clever fakes.

Oh, my. They went full Dan Rather there, didn’t they? “Fake” but “accurate.”

Daniel Payne, writing in The Federalist, recently listed 16 Fake News Stories Reporters Have Run Since Trump Won, which includes stories that were even repeated on this website.

Which brings me back to the Ivanka Trump/Nordstroms controversy from earlier this week. Two Wall Street Journal reporters wrote that it was purely a business decision and that was backed up by internal Nordstrom documents. Since no one from Nordstrom actually commented on the record, how did these reporters verify the provenance of these documents? Even if they had seen previous examples (that are no doubt computer-generated in the first place) would they know false documents if they saw them? Probably not. But because it ran in the Journal no one stops and asks if it’s true. I’m not saying that is or isn’t. But it was a single-sourced story and the track record of the truth is getting poorer and poorer. So, don’t disparage me if I take anything and everything with a grain of salt. No. These days I usually need a salt block.

It’s getting harder and harder to kick in the needed amnesia to believe anything that comes from the media. They’ve shot the wad of their credibility and we’re all poorer for it.

Published in Journalism
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Members have made 157 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of Judge Mental Member

    At this point, they’re writing hit pieces off of a single anonymous source. Expect their record to continue to suck.

    • #1
    • February 11, 2017 at 1:36 pm
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  2. Profile photo of Jimmy Carter Member

    The nature of the evidence is irrelevant; it’s the seriousness of the charge that matters.

    • #2
    • February 11, 2017 at 1:43 pm
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  3. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    Woody Allen will be extremely lucky if no one uses shots from “Zelig” to “prove” that he was a member of the Nazi Party.

    • #3
    • February 11, 2017 at 1:47 pm
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  4. Profile photo of Randy Weivoda Thatcher

    I’ve always said you should never trust anyone who is adept at Photoshopping.

    • #4
    • February 11, 2017 at 1:53 pm
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  5. Profile photo of EJHill Contributor
    EJHill Post author

    Randy WeivodaI’ve always said you should never trust anyone who is adept at Photoshopping.

    Heh.

    But I’ve said on these pages before, I only strive to make it believable enough to carry the joke. I’m cognizant of how quickly this stuff spreads. I sent my Marine the Photoshop of Hillary in an Atlanta Falcons uniform the morning after the Super Bowl only to be told that at least four of his friends had already shared it with him on Facebook overnight.

    There are two telltale signs of Photoshopping. The first is competing light sources. The second is the width of a human hair. On modern digital photography it’s easy to see every strand of hair on the human body. If it’s too neat, or if it looks cutoff with no strays, it ain’t real.

    • #5
    • February 11, 2017 at 2:11 pm
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  6. Profile photo of ctlaw Coolidge

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Heh.

    But I’ve said on these pages before, I only strive to make it believable enough to carry the joke. I’m cognizant of how quickly this stuff spreads. I sent my Marine the Photoshop of Hillary in an Atlanta Falcons uniform the morning after the Super Bowl only to be told that at least four of his friends had already shared it with him on Facebook overnight.

    “With great power comes great responsibility.”

    • #6
    • February 11, 2017 at 2:27 pm
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  7. Profile photo of drlorentz Member

    EJHill (View Comment):There are two telltale signs of Photoshopping. The first is competing light sources. The second is the width of a human hair. On modern digital photography it’s easy to see every strand of hair on the human body. If it’s too neat, or if it looks cutoff with no strays, it ain’t real.

    Maybe those are just signs of mediocre Photoshopping. Wouldn’t you expect the fakers to keep getting better? It’s an arms race.

    • #7
    • February 11, 2017 at 2:42 pm
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  8. Profile photo of EJHill Contributor
    EJHill Post author

    drlorentz: Maybe those are just signs of mediocre Photoshopping.

    Not mediocre, underfunded. If I truly wanted to Photoshop to deceive, I’d stage the fakery to match the light source on the subject (read “victim.”) That takes time and money, certainly not beyond a campaign or activist group.

    The general rule of thumb is work big and reduce. The re-pixilation helps hide the cuts. A skeptical person should always demand to see anything they doubt is real in high resolution.

    This is hard to cut:

    • #8
    • February 11, 2017 at 2:57 pm
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  9. Profile photo of Judge Mental Member

    EJHill (View Comment):

    drlorentz: Maybe those are just signs of mediocre Photoshopping.

    Not mediocre, underfunded. If I truly wanted to Photoshop to deceive, I’d stage the fakery to match the light source on the subject (read “victim.”) That takes time and money, certainly not beyond a campaign or activist group.

    The general rule of thumb is work big and reduce. The re-pixilation helps hide the cuts. A skeptical person should always demand to see anything they doubt is real in high resolution.

    This is hard to cut:

    Looks like leftovers from a restaurant where they fold the foil into a bird shape.

    • #9
    • February 11, 2017 at 3:01 pm
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  10. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    I told him not to put his hand on the top of the Van de Graff generator, but would he listen?

    • #10
    • February 11, 2017 at 3:07 pm
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  11. Profile photo of Petty B Member

    Related: I was driving to work today and listened to an NPR show on the media, the host is named Brooke Gladstone. She was reverently interviewing a professor from Dartmouth who had recently written a book extolling the current “antifa” [as in “anti-fascist”] groups such as the Black Bloc that have moved beyond mealy-mouthed ideas of freedom of speech and were taking direct action to stop the coming of Fascism under Trump. Examples such as the You-Tube video posting of some racist nut named Spencer getting punched in the face or the “uprising” at Berkeley were lauded as direct action for our values, not aberations. It was not a parody, these lefties sincerely believe that the First Amendment is only for them, not Fascists or unenlightened people that can’t get professorial gigs at Dartmouth.

    • #11
    • February 11, 2017 at 3:30 pm
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  12. Profile photo of Bruce Caward Member

    Even if we all get schooled to understand that much of what we now see with our own eyes, right there on the screen, is probably false, and so we should grain-of-salt it all, doesn’t that kill the veracity of an actual real smoking-gun catch someone might make?

    How are we to function in a media-driven society if we can no longer trust anything that we see? Even if you tell me about the “hairs” thing (and I believe you), how is anyone else to believe that method, or any other, because it might just be a clever trick by the manipulators to once again get the better of we non-photoshoppers?

    The internet, and all of this great computer technology, was supposed to bring about the age of complete information – a totally accessible, 100% revealed media environment. Anyone can find out anything, know anything. Now it’s looking like we CAN know anything, including all the things that are false constructions of our enemies, designed to destroy us.

    This is going to be bad.

    • #12
    • February 11, 2017 at 4:40 pm
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  13. Profile photo of Fake John/Jane Galt Thatcher

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Not mediocre, underfunded. If I truly wanted to Photoshop to deceive, I’d stage the fakery to match the light source on the subject (read “victim.”) That takes time and money, certainly not beyond a campaign or activist group.

    The issue is that as computer power increases and image manipulation tools capabilities increase both these items will become easier and cheaper to obtain. We are still in the infancy of this stuff.

    • #13
    • February 11, 2017 at 4:46 pm
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  14. Profile photo of EJHill Contributor
    EJHill Post author

    Bruce CawardThis is going to be bad.

    Yes, it is.

    Think about Peter Cushing’s turn in the latest Star Wars movie. The man has been dead since 1994. And Disney is already in talks with Carrie Fisher’s estate to help her “fulfill” her three picture deal throughout CGI.

    If they can resurrect the dead what’s keeping Soros and Company from proving the dossier allegations against Trump?

    • #14
    • February 11, 2017 at 5:11 pm
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  15. Profile photo of Bruce Caward Member

    Michael Crichton adumbrated this in his book Rising Sun, and that was 25 years ago.

    I remember being more troubled by this prediction than by anything else in the book. The way the bad guys could manipulate the video, and the way they did it imperfectly so the one person who could detect it would be sent a message, that this was the new world and she didn’t stand a chance of beating them; I found it his most chilling book.

    Now it’s here. I honestly don’t know what we are to do.

    We’ve always feared the EMP. Maybe it would turn out to be a blessing.

    • #15
    • February 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm
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  16. Profile photo of Bruce Caward Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Looks like leftovers from a restaurant where they fold the foil into a bird shape.

    This is very funny. But jokes about his hair are, or should soon be, done already. The apotheosis was when whats-her-name made the comparison between Hitler’s moustache and Trump’s toupee. It’s not a toupee. And for them to keep on about it is low, and tired.

    Then again, screw it. Find all the humor you can, we are going to need it.

    Good one.

    • #16
    • February 11, 2017 at 6:12 pm
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  17. Profile photo of Guruforhire Member

    I read somewhere that we can alter video in near real time.

    Live video is even suspect.

    • #17
    • February 12, 2017 at 12:12 am
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  18. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    We may be getting there, fellas, but we aren’t there yet. For the time being, the biggest threat is as old as newsreel film: taking real footage out of context.

    • #18
    • February 12, 2017 at 12:31 am
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  19. Profile photo of Chris Member

    Bruce Caward (View Comment):
    Michael Crichton adumbrated this in his book Rising Sun, and that was 25 years ago.

    I remember being more troubled by this prediction than by anything else in the book. The way the bad guys could manipulate the video, and the way they did it imperfectly so the one person who could detect it would be sent a message, that this was the new world and she didn’t stand a chance of beating them; I found it his most chilling book.

    Now it’s here. I honestly don’t know what we are to do.

    We’ve always feared the EMP. Maybe it would turn out to be a blessing.

    For me the power of the technology became real in 2005 when watching the DVD commentary of the rom-com Just Like Heaven (I know, we are a funny couple like that).

    Not sure if both Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo spoke, but I remember we were surprised by the amount of CGI they described in the film. Although I had seen Forrest Gump and should have known better, CGI to me had generally been things like monster effects. Here, however, they were doing rooftop gardens. I guess I had been inured to CGI in Gump because it put things into situations we knew they didn’t exist – in a sense, a knowledgable audience was in on the joke, almost as if we had a part in the illusion.

    But here it felt different – this was a rom-com for heaven’s sake. Then came the kicker – at one point Witherspoon highlighted that the scene we were watching did not have the same dialogue that she/they had spoken but that they had redone the dialogue and CGI’ed their mouths to match. She commented on it because apparently it was a bit of a wonder to her that they could do this so well.

    When a professional was amazed by how “they” could change reality in that way, it was clear we were entering a new era when only a technical expert could verify that what was said on “film” really happened the way it was shown on “film”.

    • #19
    • February 12, 2017 at 1:41 am
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  20. Profile photo of ctlaw Coolidge

    Chris (View Comment):
    For me the power of the technology became real in 2005 when watching the DVD commentary of the rom-com Just Like Heaven (I know, we are a funny couple like that).

    In that way, Hollywood largely lulls us into a false sense of security. Most of the CGI publicized is the absolute cutting edge where the filmmakers are trying to one-up prior movies. Those special effects almost always have an uncanny valley aspect.

    This makes us think that we can detect special effects.

    What we don’t notice are the myriad special effects one or two notches less ambitious.

    • #20
    • February 12, 2017 at 4:56 am
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  21. Profile photo of Bruce Caward Member

    The other deep problem with these kinds of deception is that once they are out there no matter how convincingly and soundly they may be exposed, a percentage of the audience will forever believe the first lie.

    And a percentage of the audience will succumb to the rejoinder of the original liars that it was the exposure that was the fake thing, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

    At some point, in a media-driven culture, we are all going to have to admit that we have no idea if anything we are seeing is in fact true.

    And just wait til VR technology gets up to speed.

    Maybe Jeremiah Johnson had the right idea . . . .

    • #21
    • February 12, 2017 at 7:22 am
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  22. Profile photo of EJHill Contributor
    EJHill Post author

    Bruce CawardAnd a percentage of the audience will succumb to the rejoinder of the original liars that it was the exposure that was the fake thing, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

    Here’s a fun game. Go on Twitter and just look at your average reporter’s screw ups. They will say something totally unsubstantiated against Mr. Trump and it may get 10,000 retweets. He then posts a correction and, if lucky, that will get 125 retweets. The lie is a sprinter, the truth is on crutches.

    • #22
    • February 12, 2017 at 8:04 am
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  23. Profile photo of EJHill Contributor
    EJHill Post author

    • #23
    • February 12, 2017 at 8:16 am
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  24. Profile photo of Miffed White Male Member

    There is no crisis in journalism, because journalism is already dead.

    • #24
    • February 12, 2017 at 8:19 am
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  25. Profile photo of Randy Weivoda Thatcher

    I’m not as afraid of technology in this regard as some of you. You don’t need high technology to spread false news, it’s been going on since before movable type was invented. It seems most historians think newspapers these days are probably more honest than a century ago or more. But the news stories are still full of errors. We assume that news articles are factually correct until we read, see, or hear one that we have actual first-hand knowledge of. How often have you read an article about something or someone that you know and you find two or three facts that are incorrect? Even if the reporter has the best of intentions, some news sources are liars, like the guy who’s running for a city council seat and told a newspaper reporter that he went to college at the local university and you know for a fact that the guy was a high-school dropout.

    Then we get to news consumers who are so eager to have their beliefs reinforced that they believe and repeat stories that they ought to be skeptical of. If you hate big business and you believe that Muslims are persecuting Christians in America, you’re going to run with it when you see a fake news story floating around Facebook saying that Walmart forbids Christian employees from wearing crosses because the Muslim employees don’t like it. Maybe you don’t even remember that it’s something from Facebook and in your memory it’s something you saw from a more credible source.

    So even if we could turn back the clock to a pre-computer age, you would not be able to believe everything you read, see, or hear.

    • #25
    • February 12, 2017 at 11:08 am
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  26. Profile photo of Fake John/Jane Galt Thatcher

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    There is no crisis in journalism, because journalism is already dead.

    This is true. Journalists are just political operatives with bylines. Anybody that still clings to the old unbiased, integrity, investigative model is fooling themselves. They are now muckrakers that publish made up or slanted stories to further their own agendas and line their own pockets. The whole Fourth Estate and that they server the public stick has grown old and is nothing more than an excuse for them conning the public and fooling the people.

    • #26
    • February 12, 2017 at 1:27 pm
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  27. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member
    Shelton cartoon for 6/4/06
    • #27
    • February 12, 2017 at 1:39 pm
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  28. Profile photo of Sabrdance Member

    Sabr’s Rule #3 of public policy debate: all statistics on sex, religion, and family are false until proven otherwise. I may delete the qualifiers.

    The problem is as it has always been, though. Most people don’t know much about a specific topic -it may be worse now than in the past but it has always been true. For anything -stats, image, theory, history, story -there will be errors that will tip off the knowledgeable about the problems. We saw this in the TANG Memos back in 2004.

    The best approach to take to new information about which you know nothing is to consider its implications very lightly, and consider its provenance and plausibility… Dang, I’m turning into a Bayesian over here.

    Look, if you can’t confirm the information, you should be very careful using it -it is far to easy to be mislead if you don’t know better.

    • #28
    • February 12, 2017 at 3:53 pm
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  29. Profile photo of Eb Snider Member

    You make some good points and other above. I’d add editing audio… which has already been done. Recall how NBC spliced the phone call of Zimmerman, w/o an editors notes or pauses to indicate a separation – just one example. It changed the meaning of what he said to give a different effect.

    • #29
    • February 12, 2017 at 5:27 pm
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  30. Profile photo of Blue Yeti Admin

    EJHill: Which brings me back to the Ivanka Trump/Nordstroms controversy from earlier this week. Two Wall Street Journal reporters wrote that it was purely a business decision and that was backed up by internal Nordstrom documents. Since no one from Nordstrom actually commented on the record, how did these reporters verify the provenance of these documents? Even if they had seen previous examples (that are no doubt computer-generated in the first place) would they know false documents if they saw them? Probably not. But because it ran in the Journal no one stops and asks if it’s true. I’m not saying that is or isn’t. But it was a single-sourced story and the track record of the truth is getting poorer and poorer. So, don’t disparage me if I take anything and everything with a grain of salt. No. These days I usually need a salt block.

    Look, either we trust the media on some level or we don’t. And if we don’t then why the hell should we trust any other institution, including the government?

    As for your specific WSJ example, it’s the paper of record for business and is mostly conservative in its editorial stance and certainly in its ownership. I see no reasonable reason to doubt their reporting — plus it just makes sense. Department stores are not political operations. Controversy is bad for business. If Ivanka’s line was selling well, they’d keep it. It wasn’t so they dumped it. Maybe it didn’t sell well because none of Nordstrom’s customers voted for her dad and they were making a statement. OK, but that’s not Nordstrom’s fault. Not everything is a media/Franken/Warren conspiracy.

    • #30
    • February 12, 2017 at 8:08 pm
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