Note: I started this on 12/27/16. The topic of fake news is still standing like a windmill under siege by Don Quixote. And-da-one-and-da-two . . .
Fake News has become a hot topic, almost as if it had been cued up by the late Casey Kasem for an America’s Top 40 Countdown, all 40 songs being about the topic of fake news rather than fake love, unrequited love, teen-age love, true love, casual carnal love, or self-absorbed-self-love. Fake news is not a worthy topic for the news, as news-mongers could only report on the fakery of others, each blinded to his own.
Everyone else has fake news, but the news I distribute and consume, well, it’s the truth and the whole truth. If one is not sure, one can check it out on Snopes, which has never had anything but the complete truth. They have been able to find and discern the complete, objective truth, truth that others have sought, fought, and died trying to find. It is a great comfort to know that whenever the truth is desired, it is only a simple mouse click away.
Fox news watchers think that the truth comes from Fox News. MSNBC watchers think the truth comes from MSNBC. New York Times readers think that the truth comes from the New York Times. Wherever News A disagrees with News B, the other one is wrong, or vice versa. Someone recently sent me a link to an article claiming it verified the dangers of the fake news reporting of the right, but it seems that the one who sent it to me doesn’t know the difference between hard news and an editorial, which may be the biggest part of the problem. Editorials frequently, nay constantly, cite studies within their texts. “Studies Show” is no help at all, as recent studies show that people are sick of hearing about what studies have shown.
There is, of course, a lot of difference between news and editorial, though the boundaries are a bit fuzzy since most editorials are based on the news. Editorials are where people draw conclusions about the news. Editorials are where people put two and two together to come up with what seems to them a sum that reveals the truth. Since the existence of language, people have been interested in what thinking people think about things, as no one ever seems really interested in what non-thinking people think; I know I’m not, but many non-thinking people seem completely unaware of this and tell me what they think, anyway. It can get beyond tedious from time to time, especially when they are allowed to editorialize on live TV. TV news is filled with people who look good, read well, are superbly tailored and well-coiffed…and have good agents.
“What do you think about the problems with Italy ever since the collapse of the Roman Empire?” Marco Polo once asked a Chinese silk weaver.
“I have heard of Rome, but what is an Italy?” the silk weaver asked.
Marco went on to explain everything he knew about Italy and the former Roman Empire to the Chinese silk weaver, throwing in several things he didn’t know just to make the tale more palatable. The Chinese silk weaver now at least knew something about Italian politics of the last 700 or so years, but he only knew what Marco knew, since Marco had been the one to tell him, and he also knew a few things that Marco had told him that Marco didn’t know himself. It turns out that Marco didn’t know very much at all, but the Chinese silk weaver had no way of knowing what Marco may or may not have known about something he had never heard of before…but he absorbed what Marco had told him, and he trusted Marco, at least as much as Marco trusted himself, which was far more than warranted.
Like a lot of us, Marco didn’t understand everything he knew, but he did understand how embellishments might fill in for what he didn’t know, and he added some outright prevarications to the embellishments, just to seal the deal. Marco cited the now ubiquitous, “confidential sources” already gaining popularity in the thirteenth century. The silk weaver did not know the truth from the embellishment, which was which, which is to be expected. Marco didn’t know which was which about some of the things the told, and this was to be expected, too. Neither Marco nor the Silk weaver had Snopes to go to. They didn’t have WikiPedia. There was no Google. No one else in Old Cathay had ever heard of Italy, except Marco. The Italy viewed by the Chinese silk weaver through the descriptions of Marco was far removed from the Italian experience.
I have seen times in the past where a single press release triggered a storm of copy-cat media reporting. The media are always looking for news. They must have it. Sometimes it is provided for them in the forms of press releases, which are frequently similar to late-night, two-minute, weight-loss/colon cleansing, TV infomercials in their veracity. Yet, just a day or two after the release, media outlets everywhere are publishing articles about the material in the press release, many of them even publishing it verbatim in places without so much as a quotation mark, much less a footnote at the end of the article. This is particularly true with anything picked up by the Associated Press (AP) wire services and then redistributed by news outlets as their own reporting. This happens all the time.
Not wanting to be scooped, and just as advertising salespeople look at competitor’s broadcasts and publications to see who is advertising there (future leads for more sales), journalists look at the same thing for almost precisely the same reasons. While the scoop may have already been published, the real news may be in the exposing of more critical information about the issue than was first published, or perhaps the items published can be debunked successfully, turning the post-original-publication debunking into the real news. We know the following is true: Something must be published; space must be filled, air-time must not be dead.
When choosing what to publish, if there’s sexual scandal involved, then of course, everything else must yield. A nip slip/wardrobe malfunction, which is not even sexual, just taboo, gets major coverage while a report on 65,000 people killed in an earthquake in China gets printed on the same page and in the same size type as that in the legal announcements. If there is death, gore, and blood, that is somewhat sllghtly behind the sexual scandal, but far ahead of the truth or anything so mundane as the facts. That’s one of the problems with facts…it simply doesn’t fill much column space or air-time to relay them. Analysis of the facts, however, can take days and days, or at least can continue until the the unseen Casey Kasem behind the curtain cues up the next record, destined, just because Casey played it, to become the new number one, knocking down last week’s number one several notches.
“Just the facts, ma’am,” said Jack Webb in the character of Police Sergeant Joe Friday. Sgt. Friday didn’t say much. His partner, Officer Smith, played by Harry Morgan said even less. Facts don’t require much. They do occasionally require analysis, though, particularly when all of the facts cannot be obtained, or are so disjointed as to require some sort of assembly. Hopefully, the fact assembly operations manual is easier to interpret than the instruction manual that came with my granddaughter’s flying drone she got for Christmas.
The drone was made in China. The manual was as complicated and useless as a thirteenth century Chinese silk-weaver trying to explain Venetian intrigue to a Beijing Imperial diplomat from what he remembered of Marco’s wistful description of Italy. Now, I reckon the factory that made the drone got the person that works there who was thought by everyone to be the most fluent in English to translate the manual from the original Mandarin. They may have also hired a consultant. I do not possess the facts, but I have every reason to believe that to the best of their knowledge, they chose someone they genuinely believed actually capable of doing it so this native English speaker could reasonably understand it. Since they didn’t speak English themselves, they had to rely on what someone else told them.
“Mae Ling, you speak English well, don’t you?” asked the Vice President of Dragon Drone Ltd. to the company’s newest junior office clerk trainee.
“Yes. Velly velly well,” she lied.
Believing he had chosen the best person for the job, he allowed Mae Ling to proceed with the owner’s manual translation. That Mae Ling was a file clerk trainee and had never assembled or flown one of the company’s drones was not considered to be important, just her mastery of English. She was very proud that she had been chosen, but somewhat apprehensive. When the translation was completed, the Vice-President looked at it. It looked like English. It read like English. It sounded to him like English. It was, to an English speaker, however, completely unintelligible, though English words had been strung together with a series of random periods and commas with the occasional exclamation point thrown in. The only thing that truly read like English was the legal boilerplate warranty language that had been lifted from some competitor’s product manuals.
The problem was not just Mae Ling’s poor English…part of it exists in the strange phenomenon of language in that words are developed by cultures to express the way in which those cultures think about things. That way of thinking may be so foreign to another culture there may be no actual word for a concept, thus requiring many words instead of a precise one.
“Set the trim of the control surfaces so the drone will hover in level flight,” would have worked far better than, “Precision operator co-option, facilitating flight characteristical controlling surfacing! is desirable, to achieving satisfaction for, stilled placement flighting Prior to operator operation.” It is entirely likely that the vice president of Dragon Drone Ltd. would have rejected the former in favor of the latter had it been shown to him, thinking that the latter was giving hm far more for his money.
Before anyone could stop it, every single drone manufacturer in China had adopted the language in Mae Ling’s manual as their own, confirming to the Vice President of Dragon Drone Ltd. that he had made the right choice, and falsely confirming to Mae Ling that she was a good Chinese to English translator. She quit her junior clerk trainee job and started her own consulting agency. Mae Ling is now assisting in the writing of owner’s manuals for thousands of Chinese products. You likely own several of them and have used some bad, very precise language about Mae Ling’s translation capabilities. She would be embarrassed if she knew, but the falsity of the entire situation is enhanced by its repetition as the truth. Well, we English speakers know that anyone who thinks Mae Ling is good at it is completely mislead. Mae Ling, on the other hand, has come to believe she is an expert. Somewhere in there is the truth, and Snopes does not have it.
“6.8 magnitude Earthquake reported in Chile,” is a news fact, but note that the fact was that the magnitude of the quake was merely reported as 6.8. Who reported it? Was there actually an earthquake, or merely the report of one?
“Government efforts bring relief for thousands after Chilean earthquake,” may also be a news fact, but the relief for thousands may be sitting in a warehouse in Santiago, with the remaining 10% of it, after the appropriate tolls were taken, ready for final delivery to those in need a hundred miles away, where the roads have been wiped out. The relief for thousands is on hand. The relief to thousands is perhaps weeks away. The relief in the hands of the thousands may be beyond the expiration date stamped on the relief. One has to watch the headlines. They can be misleading.
Fake news? It is not new, though it is influential. Does anyone really believe it? Well, someone actually buys miracle weight-loss supplements after the airing of those late-night, two-minute infomercials. Anyone who ever believed gossip or spread a juicy rumor overlaid with their own embellishment is susceptible to the fallacies of fake news.
Hmmmm! That leaves you, I’m sure. Definitely not me, though. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
1/3/17 – – I started this a few days ago and lost interest: not just in the topic, but in writing in general. The topic of fake news has not waned in the news, though. Casey Kasem has not cued up the new number yet. Perhaps Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve marvelous lip-sync performance failure, for whatever reason, will eclipse it. Why not….it was a fake performance gone bad. The world is full of fakes. As one President who faked his way through his term exits, a President-Elect, already famous for faking and bound to display his own opulent brand of fakery, is preparing to take his place at the helm of government after having defeated another faker who discussed her public versus private policy positions with large corporate donors. This reminds me of other presidents, one who lied under oath, another determined to get at those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and another who declared, “I am not a crook.” Sometimes, the fake is all we can rely on.
The great topic seems at the moment to be the dastardly infiltration of the electrical grid of a Vermont utility by Russian hackers. Remember, “The Russians are coming?” Well, it seems that they are here already. They hacked the election (not really: See “Fake News”). They hacked the electrical grid, too They are hacking everything except for what the Chinese have already hacked.
I have since seen what I am about to explain reported in other places, though I had already surmised the essence of the truth in what I had read in the Washington Post about the Russian malware on the Vermont utility’s IT system. Things are not what they seem.
What was reported to us was that malware coded by Russian hackers was found on a laptop belonging to an electrical utility in Vermont. It was implied that this was evidence of Russians trying to hack into the nation’s electrical power grid. While the Russians may indeed be trying to hack into the nation’s electrical power grid, hoping to cause massive power outages and complete chaos, catastrophe, and famine in America, this is a real long shot. Here is, more than likely, how the events unfolded.
SOMEONE who worked at the Vermont electrical utility (VEU) had a company issued laptop. That SOMEONE may have been in human resources, accounting, purchasing, marketing, safety compliance, risk management, administration, accounts payable, accounts receivable, customer service, or any one a dozen or so more separate divisions, none of them having anything to do with system engineering, operations, or maintenance. SOMEONE may have been a senior or junior person: senior enough, perhaps, to have a company laptop, but junior enough that he had access to nothing important and could do no damage. We do not know.
SOMEONE likely visited a website that was not appropriate, clicked on a link that was not appropriate, and infected his own laptop with the malware. It is doubtful that the Russians sent a military special-ops team from Moscow to Burlington to SOMEONE’s home in the dark of night to put the malware on his computer. When SOMEONE logged on the the network at the office, an automatic scan revealed the presence of the malware, perhaps in a spam email that SOMEONE had received, and the IT guys at VEU, now having a mission, jumped up from their computer screens where they had been watching highlights of the weekend’s football games, or re-runs of Bonanza, or drinking coffee as they wrote their own malware code, enjoying spying on the others working for VEU who were trying to watch YouTube videos and were unsuccessful in doing so, thwarted as it were, by the very IT guys who were able to watch YouTube themselves.
What was not reported to the world is that the guys in system engineering, maintenance, and operations can engineer, operate, and maintain the system (the GRID) from their workstations in their offices, or they can do so from their workstations mounted in their vehicles, or their tablets, or their smart-phones, or from their home computer via a simple log-in to VEU’s system, or from the computer kept for business travelers in the lobby of the Best Western motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, using their open WiFi system. Any one of these may have malware, which can spread as fast as a cold in the day-care center on a rainy January morning.
The Washinghton Post chose fearful headlines and conclusions, as these are far more likely to sell than the truth, which is far more common but much less interesting.
“A lie can travel half-way round the earth before the truth can get its boots on,” said Mark Twain. Nowadays, a lie gets thrice around the earth without needing any boots at all….just a mouse click. And that’s the truth
What next, Casey?
And, I am glad that Megyn Kelly is going to NBC. At her new post, I will be able to watch her at least as much as I watched her show on Fox News. Less or more, when all the values being figured are zeroes, the answer is still zero. In Kelly’s case, for me, she seems a divide by zero…this gives you ERROR not zero. You cannot divide by zero. Ambition seems to cover her like Dutch Boy Paints once covered the earth. She reminds me of Walter Winchell. She reminds me of Lonesome Rhodes. I never warmed up to Megyn. As a news reader, I think she is going from overpaid to even more overpaid. As someone who can deliver the ratings, she is perhaps not being paid, even at whatever she negotiated with NBC, what she is worth. When the ratings are more important than the truth, you should beware.
So, are you beware, already?
Happy New Year!
©2017 Mississippi Chris Sharp