By MARK KENNY
WE hear and read a lot these days about fake news. Fake news is apparently everywhere. Cries of fake news abound.
It’s become a standard political response to news that people don’t agree with or that harms their interests. Fake news! The cry goes up as an instant, stock response, and by the time anyone checks things out, the 24-hour news cycle has rolled on to the next instant and ephemeral controversy.
But how much fake news is there really? I can’t answer this question but I have been thinking about it intensely owing to personal experience and observation. Fake news often doesn’t mean all that much when it’s about people and events far away, but it’s a big deal when you know the people directly concerned.
In my case the fake news relates to my sister. She’s Cassandra Thorburn, wife of the Channel Nine “Today Show” presenter Karl Stefanovic. For those who don’t pay attention to morning television, and that includes a lot of us, Karl is reportedly the highest-paid media personality in the country. He’s a big celebrity in the small pond of Australia’s show biz elite.
Hundreds of thousands of people imagine that in some way they really know Karl because his smiling face is on their television screens each morning. Many people see more of Karl than they see of other members of their own family. For the better part of a decade he’s been cracking jokes and presenting himself as an exemplar for Aussie fatherhood, very publicly doting on his children and spouse.
But that narrative has now changed. Not surprisingly there’s intense media interest in Karl’s abrupt separation from his wife Cass and his very public new relationship with a model and fashion-shoe designer. Many people are probably not interested in this, but clearly enough are to keep the tabloids and magazines in a frenzy of purported scoops and picture features. The paparazzi have been tasked to not only aggressively promote the new “loved-up couple” and their entertainment and fashion interests, but also to harass my sister and her kids at school sports events, grocery shopping, beachside holidays and even putting out the household trash.
I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of a painful marriage breakup and the distress felt by the children, all of which has been magnified by intense media attention. The secrecy provisions that surround proceedings in the Family Court are also an important thing to bear in mind.
However, what I will say is that I have been absolutely gobsmacked by the tidal wave of, yes, you guessed it, fake news – absolute fabrications, fake anonymous sources, falsehoods and garbage that has filled not only dubious magazines but also newspapers that supposedly adhere to editorial standards involving a commitment to truthful and fair reporting, checking facts and delivering news rather than outright fiction.
As a family member I was astonished to see one major newspaper report that the two sides had reached a settlement of their affairs with a purported division of assets and income, and arrangements to share custody of the children. I was then further astonished to see that “reporting” cut and pasted across a dozen papers and websites without anyone actually checking the facts.
When there was some actual journalism that suggested that the purported settlement might not have taken place, indeed that previous reports were “absolute garbage”, other outlets simply ignored that, preferring to stick to a script that had been adroitly inserted into the media narrative by public relations consultants trying to rework the image of a media asset.
Remarkably, newspapers preferred to get columnists and contributors to offer provocative opinions on falsehoods and unverified rumours rather than actually check facts.
I have a personal and emotional interest in this matter that I don’t expect other people to share. My purpose here is not to argue the rights or wrongs of things.
But on the basis of personal experience I have come to a realisation that fake news abounds, indeed we are drowning in it, and that there is little that is random or accidental about it.
So much of what we read has been manufactured, crafted for purpose. It’s often the work of well-resourced public relations and image management firms, working for the rich and powerful. At the same time, much of the media has been hollowed out by declining revenues, staff cuts, eroded professional standards and the demands of constant churnalism so that they are often mere channels for other people’s agendas.
It’s a sad state of affairs. It really hurts when members of your family are on the receiving end of fake news. But it’s not just the tabloids where fake news thrives. I wonder what it means for bigger things, like politics, business and the health of our democracy. Nothing good I think.