Consider the Source

You hear it now more than ever: “You can’t believe everything you read.”

But what – or whom – CAN you believe? That’s not an easy question to answer: even before Facebook decided to ignore its complicity in aiding and abetting Russians attempting to influence the outcome of U.S. elections and not even bother trying to figure out what constitutes a credible news source worth sharing with its more than two billion users, The Curmudgeon was thinking about news sources and their credibility.

How do we know whether a news source is credible?

Some are easy – at least to The Curmudgeon. If you read a news story – we’re talking about news here, not commentary and editorials – in the New York Times or Washington Post or Wall Street Journal or even USA Today, you can be pretty sure it’s accurate. The same is true for something that comes from Bloomberg, the Associated Press, Reuters, and probably Time, too – although most of us are too young to remember when Time was pretty much an organ of the Republican party under that magazine’s founder, Henry Luce (The Curmudgeonly Sister gave her big brother a biography of Luce when The Curmudgeon was eighteen or nineteen and he’s had a hard time taking that magazine seriously ever since even though it’s obviously changed over the years). The major television news organizations are a mile wide and about an inch deep when it comes to reporting the news, but what they do report, mostly borrowed from real reporters working in print, seems pretty accurate, too: we’re talking ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN.

Sure, they all make mistakes, although not many, but those are mistakes – virtually always quickly corrected – and in no way “fake news,” which is an utterly meaningless term.

MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR news reports seem reasonably accurate but they often select their stories based on their respective biases – that is, to support those biases. So when you tune into Fox News and it’s interviewing some poor schlump of a college kid who doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t get invited to any of the cool kids’ parties because he’s conservative, The Curmudgeon doesn’t think the kid is lying about his sad story. Fox News may have had to search far and wide to find this needle in a haystack, but the story itself is probably true but it was broadcast to make a political point. The same is true of MSNBC, especially in the evening, when it clearly works overtime to bring in experts and observers whose role is to confirm the opinions of the network’s hosts. The HBO series The Newsroom offered a brief glimpse into how this works; see it for yourself here.

But what about some other sources?

The Curmudgeon’s been thinking about this lately for three reasons.

First, Mrs. Curmudgeon watches a lot of MSNBC in the evening and that network features a veritable parade of reporters, experts, and authorities who come on the air and ostensibly tell us what the real stories are behind the stories we’re learning about from other, generally more conventional sources.

Second, The Curmudgeon has taken to spending a few minutes on his iPhone most evenings with Apple News in search of information about what’s going on in the world and for material he might use in this space.

And third – and this really seems trivial, but it annoyed him to no end – The Curmudgeon recently read an item off Mrs. Curmudgeon’s Facebook news feed (sorry, he refuses to call it a “newsfeed”) about stores to visit and places to eat in the town in which he currently resides. One of the recommended restaurants was a storefront festooned with a big “coming soon” sign for the better part of a year, followed by several months as a very slowly developing construction site, and at the time The Curmudgeon read this particular piece the restaurant still hadn’t opened. That, however, didn’t deter some “reporter” from recommending it to readers. Surprised and, well, irked by this, The Curmudgeon did a little digging and tracked down the person who wrote the article. She’s not a professional reporter, just a kid a few years out of school, and her response to him was that she drove past the restaurant and saw the sign, assumed it was open, and recommended it because it has stores in other places and she likes them. That was some pretty poor logic and pretty poor reporting, if you even want to call it reporting, so he asked her if she was paid for the plug (surely you don’t have trouble imagining this). She said she wasn’t, didn’t seem at all insulted by the question, and was absolutely unapologetic about the inaccuracy of her “reporting.”

So together, these three things got The Curmudgeon thinking about the quality of the reports he is consuming.

Some of the sources, as noted, he trusts. Others? He wonders.

When you run across a piece from the Daily Beast or see someone from that site speaking her piece on MSNBC or elsewhere, how do you judge the reliability of that source? Is the Daily Beast a credible source?

How about BuzzFeed? Should we believe what we read from BuzzFeed or hear on television from one of its reporters?

Vox News clearly has a liberal bias in its commentary but its news reporting appears to be credible – at least so it seems, in much the way that Wall Street Journal reporting is generally impeccable even as its editorials are somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.

Breitbart we know about. Don’t believe a word you read.

What about Axios? It’s fairly new and seems credible but how do we really know?

The…what?

The Curmudgeon’s not entirely sold on Politico, which tries to be serious but seems to go for the sensational, but it seems reasonably reliable, as does The Hill, but what about The Verge, which The Curmudgeon never even heard of until earlier this year?

What about Vanity Fair? When The Curmudgeon thinks of Vanity Fair he thinks about that cover with Demi Moore showing off her baby bump, but that was – ready to feel old? – in 1991, nearly 27 years ago. Is it the same magazine? It certainly publishes serious pieces about serious subjects, although with a sort of “pop” slant, but should the reporting itself be trusted?

Or Yahoo News: does Yahoo employ real reporters of its own or just glom off the work of others? And are those reporters any good or are they people better publications/sites didn’t want?

Finally, The Curmudgeon has noticed that most television news programs use a lot of retired government officials as experts in some discussions: retired generals, retired FBI agents, retired CIA agents, former prosecutors (some dating back to the Watergate days), alumni of the Obama, Bush, Clinton, and even Reagan administrations, and more. Some of these people still seem to be plugged in to the organizations they were once part of but some appear to be completely winging it, speaking hypothetically based on how things w ere in their good old days but with little direct knowledge of what’s actually happening in the here and now beyond what they read in the newspapers like the rest of us. Many of them seem mostly clueless, out of the loop, and theorizing about what they think might be going on without making it clear that they’re just making it up as they go along.

MSNBC uses a fellow it describes as “a former double agent.” Double agent for whom? For us or for them – and if for them, which them? And are viewers really supposed to believe a word that comes out of the mouth of a person who is, when you think about it, a professional liar?

Should we believe what these folks write?

The Curmudgeon has tried looking for commentary on the biases and reliability of some of these sources and sites but with only limited success. Some of the sites, like The Verge, haven’t been around for very long and others, like BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast, have undergone makeovers that may – or may not – render past commentary about them outdated. Then there are our own prejudices: The Curmudgeon, for example, long ago concluded that the primary purpose of Huffington Post was to entertain and that nothing it says should be taken as fact. If his wanderings through Apple News lead him to a Huffington piece – he hasn’t visited the Huffington site directly since he stopped doing the monthly news quiz and was desperate for things to write jokes about – the only way he considers writing about it in this space is if he can find another source that says the same thing. But is his perception of Huffington Post outdated? He has no idea.

The Curmudgeon wishes he had a solution to offer for this problem but he doesn’t beyond the old expression caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. There’s a lot of news to consume, if you’re the kind of person who likes to follow what’s going on in the world, and there are a lot of people out there who either are intentionally seeking to deceive or manipulate us or who are simply not qualified to comment on whatever they’ve been put on the air or given a few column inches or a blank screen to comment about – and The Curmudgeon includes himself in that latter group. Figuring out who’s worth listening to and who’s not is hard, and with the way new internet news sources come and go and change on the fly, that’s probably going to be harder, not easier, for the foreseeable future.

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