Now from China comes word that human television newscasters will soon be joined by salary-saving, computer-generated simulations that can work around the clock. Here’s Xinhua News Agency’s first English-speaking artificial intelligence anchor, bringing you news of its existence:
I suppose fake news anchors are the logical next step in technology’s gutting of an honorable profession now willfully confused with “fake news,” a term logically associated with false information that has been hijacked to encompass accurate but unflattering reportage.
The hijacker and chief promulgator of fake news — both the term and the substance — is, of course, the president of these United States, who purports to be its greatest victim. Unimpaired by ethics and unconcerned with facts, he understands that consistently repeating even the most outrageous falsity will magnetize people who, like him, care less about truth than having their own unexamined biases supported.
This apparently is a mind-numbing, heartbreaking number of Americans: According to a recent Knight Foundation report, most of us say accurate stories portraying politicians in a negative light sometimes ( 51 percent) or always (28 percent overall, 40 percent of Republicans) constitute “fake news.” That’s right: What’s demonstrably true becomes “fake” by dint of being critical, though journalists are supposed to be watchdogs, not lap-dogs.
But, I digress.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of digital technology in America has been its destruction of intelligent civic engagement through an undermining of professional journalism. Newspapers once were regarded as gatekeepers, agenda-setters — not an enemy of the people but their greatest ally, a pillar of democracy that helped citizens understand what mattered and why.
Before the Internet, the ignorant and morally bankrupt did not have direct access to a large, intellectually lazy and easily distracted audience. Individuals and organizations who wished their perspective widely and credibly circulated had to rely on reporters, who are experts in bullshit detection and truth-telling. Accuracy was — and is — journalism’s pole star.
It was an imperfect system, especially in the days when newsrooms were comprised almost entirely of middle-class, straight white men with their limited, privileged perspective. It’s true as well that all journalists are — or at least, were — human, and thus possessed of personal biases that, absent awareness and vigilance, can compromise the work.
Yet they were trained and credentialed and adhered fiercely to professional standards, which for most journalists converged with personal integrity. These included, notably, independent verification of information and an understanding of the contexts in which news occurs, in addition to the crucial responsibility of determining what merited coverage and what did not.
In the early days, television news was as serious an enterprise as newspapers, populated by print and radio veterans who brought these high standards to a new medium. Perhaps the best known was Walter Cronkite, who happened to be the University of Michigan commencement speaker when I received my master’s degree in journalism in 1984. He was a giant in the profession I was about to enter, so I queued up for an autograph.
By then, the gravitas of television news was being undermined by the unholy marriage of profit-minded media managers and viewers who preferred entertainment to education, sorry facts of American life that presaged — though greatly underestimated — the present sorry state of affairs. (This likely explains my brief conversation with Cronkite on that spring day 34 years ago. “Are you going into newspapers or television?” he asked. “Newspapers,” I said, acutely aware I was speaking to an icon of television journalism. “Good,” he replied.)
I thought of Cronkite — often described as “the most trusted man in America” — when I learned of the AI anchor. Not just his acumen and authority as a newsman, which artificial intelligence might plausibly imitate in ordinary circumstances, but his humanity — a quality that can never be replicated in an artificial journalist — in the extraordinary circumstances that shocked the nation 55 years ago.
What happened in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 was perhaps the most traumatic event the nation has ever known, and Cronkite’s struggle to keep a stiff upper lip conveyed what we had lost fully as much as the words he spoke.
Walter Cronkite died in 2009, among the last journalists who came of age before television. The influence of my generation — which came of age before technology gave a public platform to anyone with opposable thumbs — is also coming to an end. Most have been laid off by news organizations unwilling to pay the cost of competent reporting for an audience that prefers flashy, free entertainment, which advertisers leverage to foster individualized consumption rather than civic engagement. It turns out that supporting democracy is expensive, while supporting capitalism is easy and profitable.
“We’ve always known you can drive circulation or viewers by cheapening the product,” Cronkite once said. People who prefer that cheapened product — mindless entertainment over earned understanding, fake news over real — are “suckers for demagogues,” he observed.
Point taken, and now proven. And that’s the way it is on Friday, November 16th, 2018 — another day in the era of fake news, and fake news anchors.