Perhaps it’s time we stop obsessing so much over fake news and worry a little more about fake reviews.
It’s not that fake news isn’t a problem. It’s a big one. But constantly complaining about the fake variety elevates the “real” news to a lofty position it probably hasn’t deserved in a long time.
The fourth-estate ideal, of the press as an honest watchdog of government and a fair and impartial chronicler of the passing parade, buckles under the weight of the reality: Media moguls squandering our faith in them by dishing up whatever nonsense they can find in a desperate attempt to curtail declining readership and shrinking audiences.
According to the Gallup organization, the percentage of Americans with a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media dropped from an already anemic 40 percent in 2015 to a horrible 32 percent in 2016. Where is that fine line between fake and real nonsense, and what’s the point of trying to find it?
Reviews, on the other hand, continue to inspire trust, and we still look to them for guidance in our decision making.
I remember fondly looking forward each week to the half-hour broadcasts of the Siskel & Ebert movie reviews. They frequently disagreed, and it was fun to watch a movie and figure out which one I sided with. On those rare occasions when they agreed, the movie was a must-see, if only for the chance of calling them both blockheads. They wielded enormous influence in their day, and it was clout properly earned with the offering of authentic opinions.
I highly value newspaper restaurant reviews for the same honesty. It’s one of the few places left where I trust that the opinions offered, whether I agree with them or not, are genuine, with no hidden agendas or secret sponsors. The newspapers that still employ restaurant critics are scrupulous about paying for all the meals, and most of them omit the critics’ photos from the reviews to ensure that they get no special treatment at the eateries.
Of course, the more we depend on reviews, the greater the danger we will be seduced by fake ones, aiming to inveigle weak minds with bought-and-paid-for phony praise. They’re proliferating on social media and online sales outlets like dandelions on a summer lawn.
The secret, as you may have already discovered, is to look for products or services with reviews numerous enough for the genuine to drown out the phony — preferably in the hundreds, but at least in the dozens. And pay particular attention to the one- and two-star reviews; the negative reactions are more likely to be real and more helpful. Hard work, perhaps, but necessary, and nothing to get that upset over. Those people are just trying to make a buck, after all.
What is dismaying, and not so easy to forgive, is encountering fake reviews where we should not expect them to be, from sources that should not be dispensing them.
Government agencies, for example, when they use our tax dollars to tell us what a great job they are doing, pretending the words of praise are from disinterested observers when they are, in fact, the fervid outpourings of their own public-relations machines.
There is this website out there called Input Fort Wayne. There are similar sites elsewhere — Tampa, Fla., for example, and Flint, Mich. — so you might see one in your city before too long. Be forewarned.
It purports to be an online, “editorially independent” magazine that just happens to have the mission of reporting on the positive aspects of Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana, including of course, the magnificent job being done by their public officials. But the site’s sponsors, that is to say, funders, are the very organizations, public and otherwise, said to be doing such a wonderful job, such as Greater Fort Wayne Inc., Northeast IN Regional Partnership, Visit Fort Wayne and the Downtown Improvement District.
Oh, and the governments of Fort Wayne and Allen County, each of which contribute $6,000 a year, for which they are given “a seat at the table,” membership on the site’s editorial board. Of course, we are told, that does not mean they get to shape the site’s coverage.
Can you say, “Pee-euww”?
Granted, this isn’t the scandal of the ages. In fact, it is rather tawdry, mean, small and petty, a grubby little deception by insecure little functionaries who don’t have the courage to stand up and be judged fairly by their actions.
But they thought they could get away with it, and they were probably right.
Remember the uproar back in 2015 when then-Gov. Mike Pence tried to get a state-run “news” site started? There was such ridicule from across the political spectrum and such outage from media organizations (“Pravda on the Plains,” some dubbed it) that Pence was forced to scrap the idea.
On the other hand, when the Input Fort Wayne story was broken last week, in one of WPTA21’s “Digging Deeper” segments by Alexis Shear, there wasn’t a single peep from any other news organization. No follow-up story. No editorial or op-ed telling officials they should be ashamed of themselves. Complete and total silence.
If I were trying to reach that plateau of ideal journalism, I would say that WPTA has fulfilled its constitutional duty of trying to create an informed citizenry and that all the other news outlets in this city are asleep on the job, in fact have run fawning stories about the mission of Input Fort Wayne. (Query to Dan Rather: May I say, “That dog won’t watch”?)
But since we’re trying to keep it real, let’s just say that WPTA has given us an honest review of what local government is actually doing, and all the other critics are leaving us on our own.
Which is the only way to avoid the awful question of the day: Who does more damage to our faith in the institution of journalism, those who pervert it to their own ends, or those who can’t be bothered with it at all?