How to Know If a Movie Actually Sucks or If the Russians Are Trying to Trick You
Bob Garfield Has a Plan for Overhauling Media Literacy
Back in the day, to choose a movie, you looked at the listings in your local paper. They included basic information about theaters and running times, but they were surrounded by an eye-catching display of advertisements promoting the flicks screening in your area. These were miraculous ads, actually, because they all declared that the movie in question was a timeless blockbuster. If you were paying any attention at all, though, you knew which ones totally sucked.
To crack the code, you needed to know a few things, such as recognizing leading critics and credible sources among the names whose blurbs supposedly endorsed the film. “Heartbreaking and timeless” from Pauline Kael at The New Yorker was money in the bank. From Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, who never met a movie he didn’t like, it was meaningless. From Fox 45 Albany, it was even meaninglesser.
You had to be aware of ellipses and other selective editing. Please note that “a bonanza of incompetence” can easily be shortened for blurb purposes to “A bonanza!” Likewise, “it was so thrilling after 105 turgid minutes to see the closing credits roll for this debacle that I cried tears of joy” can become “Thrilling! . . . Tears of joy!”
And it helped to know about the species of dubious journalists called “blurb whores.” They work for some obscure medium and get press passes in exchange for their gushing quotes, which don’t even need to be published, just filled out on a handy comment card after (or before) the movie is over. “Heartwarming masterpiece”—says guy nobody ever heard of, from bullshit website.
One of the biggest U.S. cinematic flops of the twentieth century, for example, was the Kevin Costner ego epic Waterworld. But not to Alan Frank (?) of the Daily Star (?): “SPLASH HIT!” his blurb incorrectly declared. “COSTNER PUTS ON OCEANS OF THRILLS . . . Spectacular entertainment—thrilling and suspenseful from start to finish. . . . Crammed with stunning stunts and rousing action . . . moviegoers will be getting great value for money.” Moviegoers, maybe. Investors, unfortunately not.
An even bigger flop was the high-priced buddy flick Ishtar, starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty. It cost 51 million 1987 dollars to produce and pulled in $14.4 million at the box office. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has an aggregate rating of 34 percent from critics and 37 percent from civilians. One of the most generous reviews came from Janet Maslin of The New York Times, who concluded that Ishtar wasn’t nearly as horrible as everyone was whispering. “It’s a likable, good-humored hybrid, a mixture of small, funny moments and the pointless, oversized spectacle that these days is sine qua non for any hot-weather hit. The worst of it is painless; the best is funny, sly, cheerful, and, here and there, even genuinely inspired.”
Not a pan, and not exactly a rave either. Here’s what the movie ad said: “HOT WEATHER HIT.”American students get at best a glancing exposure to the media-literacy basics.
The point here is not the vagaries of Hollywood film production. The point is media literacy. It really doesn’t take much knowledge or scrutiny to divine the truth behind movie-ad hype, and it doesn’t take much to evaluate what shows up on Facebook. And yet . . . fake news. These are some of the most widely shared headlines of the 2016 election campaign, every last one of them from a phony source:
“Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president.” This from WTOE 5, which may look like TV call letters, but is just a supposedly “satirical” website that made money when gullible people clicked on their bogus headlines.
“WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS . . . Then drops another bombshell.” This came from the ultra-partisan site the Political Insider (“Get breaking news alerts that the liberal media won’t tell you”), based on the entirely unhidden fact that the U.S. government sold weapons to Qaddafi’s Libya.
“FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide.” That fabrication was courtesy of the “Denver Guardian,” which does not exist and has never existed.
“FBI director received millions from Clinton Foundation, his brother’s law firm does Clinton’s taxes.” Completely invented by the fringe-right fake-news site called Ending the Fed News.
“ISIS leader calls for American Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton.” Another invented story, but another “satire” site, WNDR—which is also not a broadcast station of any kind.
What with the filter-bubble problems discussed throughout these pages, and the human nature that nourishes it, it’s not hard to see how Hillary haters would discard common sense to feed on this preposterous clickbait. But lack of media sophistication—or even basic understanding—is by no means limited to angry partisans. It is endemic.
The second annual State of Critical Thinking study by the Massachusetts education-technology firm MindEdge presented 1,002 college students and professionals, aged eighteen to thirty, a series of nine articles and asked them to identify real news or fake. Of the group, 19 percent were able to get at least eight of nine answers correct. But 52 percent flunked, with between four and nine wrong answers.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study presented 5,035 subjects with five statements of facts and five statements of opinion and asked them to identify which were which. “A majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set,” the authors reported, “but this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.”
A Stanford University study published in 2016 found that more than 80 percent of middle schoolers could not distinguish between genuine news and so-called native advertising—advertiser content dressed up to look like actual editorial—even when it bore the standard (tiny) label “Sponsored Content.”
In the same study, a group of university students (including those at Stanford, which, the researchers ruefully observed, accepts only 6 percent of applicants) were shown Twitter messages from progressive organizations. Asked to evaluate them, fully a third of the subjects failed to consider how the organizations’ political ideology might influence the assertions within the tweets. “Overall,” the authors concluded, “young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows around social media channels, they are easily duped.”
This is what is known as media illiteracy, and it’s a problem.
It’s actually a weird problem, because, as dismally documented in chapter 6, hardly anybody trusts the press and imputes to it all kinds of evils—but, by and large, they identify all the wrong evils. At On the Media, we document errors of omission and commission, chronic and acute, on a weekly basis. They are plentiful enough to have produced a thousand-plus hours of OTM programming over twenty years. Yet, as inveterate, professional pointers of fingers, we’re faced constantly with the reality that the prevailing public criticism of the media misses the actual failures and obsesses over imaginary ones. This social media post pretty well sums up the prevailing narrative:
May 17, 2018
The very first misconception is that the MSM (news) knows what the hell they’re talking about . . . the “news” today is nothing more than a conduit for the left to spew its mantra by spinning most stories with a hearty slice of liberal politics/policies.
Thing is, Frederico, just for starters, there is no “the news.” Remember, please, that “the media” is a plural. We are not speaking of a monolith, but rather a sector composed of thousands of so-called mainstream outlets and countless more blogs, websites, YouTube channels, and so on. And they are by and large in competition with one another. They are not a cabal. They do not talk among themselves. They do not owe allegiance to any third party. There is no secret handshake.
As noted above, there are surely institutional tendencies—a sensibility—that invites suspicions (or, in the case of Frederico and many others, certainty) of political bias. And indeed there are biases, but they aren’t especially political. There is a bias, for instance, toward conventional wisdom, a.k.a. groupthink. There is a bias toward drama. There is a bias toward being first with information, whether especially relevant and important or not. And, of course, there is the bias toward exposing hypocrisy, malfeasance, scoundrels, foolishness, and lies. Because that is what watchdogs do. Also, per “drama” above, who don’t love that shit? (Watergate was a scandal and a crisis, but . . . oo la la!)
So, then, how to help Americans understand where the real problems lie, and how to evaluate the likely merits of the incendiary story Uncle Jack has posted on Facebook? How to promote at least the most rudimentary level of critical thinking? Surely there is no shortage of folks giving it a shot.
There is the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy, Center for Media Literacy, Common Sense Education, the National Association for Media Literacy Education, Media Education Foundation, the News Literacy Project, Media Literacy Now, Center for Social Media, and a whole mess of other organizations who have developed excellent programs, apps, and K–12 curricula with the common goal of helping Americans—especially young Americans—navigate treacherous and sometimes uncharted seas of information.
And how are they doing, as a group? Well, obviously, they are doing terribly—so terribly that Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) has floated federal intervention via the funding of media-literacy programs. It’s a swell idea, except that the problem is not a shortage of media-literacy programs; those groups I listed have among them produced a vast body of work. The problem is actual time spent with the information. As social studies and communications curricula shrink nationwide—replaced by all STEM all the time, and the constant standardized testing that goes with it—American students get at best a glancing exposure to the media-literacy basics.A Princeton University study concluded that while conservatives and Republicans disproportionately shared fake news online, the overwhelming predictor for careless media behavior was age.
As far back as 2011, writing in the journal Action in Teacher Education, professor Vanessa Greenwood of Montclair State University recognized the lopsided emphasis on technology education:
Although P12 schools cope with the chronic top-down push to achieve technological proficiency by the eighth grade, there simultaneously exists a bottom-up need to address specific challenges among young people, including (1) unequal access to a participatory culture (for which technological proficiency is prerequisite), (2) lack of transparency in the ways media shape young people’s perception of the world, and (3) the ethical challenges of preparing young people for their increasingly public roles as media producers… Media literacy education reconciles the clash between the standardized bureaucracy of technology education and the democratic implications of empowering youth as participatory citizens through their active and public uses of technology.
If only. We saw in the Stanford study how poorly equipped our next generation of leaders is merely to parse their own Twitter feeds. This is alarming, because—like knowledge and understanding— ignorance and misinformation lead long lives.
A Princeton University study published in Science Advances in January 2019 concluded that while conservatives and Republicans disproportionately shared fake news online, the overwhelming predictor for careless media behavior was age. Authors Andrew Guess, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua Tucker found that those aged 65 or above shared 7 times more fake news on Facebook than the youngest cohort, and 2.3 times more than those in the next oldest age group. This may point to the greater understanding by digital natives of the media ecosystem. It could point to GET OFF OF MY LAWN curmudgeonliness. But it certainly demonstrates that media illiteracy lasts a lifetime.
Once again, there are a lot of smart and well-meaning individuals and organizations on the case. You saw the impressive list. Just know that when you put a bunch of academics and civil-socialites on a committee and ask them to define the solution, as the Center for Media Literacy did, you get something like this:
Media Literacy . . . provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms—from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.
It’s a perfectly good, suitably comprehensive definition, if you can reach the end still awake. It is surely a satisfactory starting point, but what it has yielded is a lot of negotiation, hemming and hawing, nitpicking, and general overcooking of curriculum that (a) doesn’t necessarily penetrate the consciousness of the indifferent pupil, and (b) doesn’t command much instructional time because it isn’t math and the government doesn’t mandate endless standardized testing on the subject.
I propose, therefore, a broader, complementary approach to media literacy education. I call it the Three Eights Plus One, and I envision it as sort of the Food Pyramid of media literacy. Or a do-it-yourself TrueCar that gives consumers the info they need to be empowered in the news showroom. It’s three sets of fundamental questions that all citizens should be trained—and reminded of and reminded again—to apply to all ostensibly journalistic content, online and off.
The Three Eights Plus One can be distributed by the government, by news organizations, by libraries, by the PTA, by Facebook and Google, and by every other organization, institution, and private business with a stake in an informed public. Designed for approximately middle school to death, the checklists would look like this:
- Where did this content come from?
- Who is that person or organization?
- Is it professional and credible?
- Is it allied with a political or ideological viewpoint?
- Have I ever heard of it? And, if not, have I Googled it? It’s easy to make a website or a video look like a bona fide journalistic Does this URL pass the smell test?
- Is this news or content an outlier, or is it reported elsewhere by reputable sources?
- Is this headline and content designed just to get my click, and the ad revenue that goes with it? Or does the information have intrinsic worth?
- Does it seem designed to feed, pander to, exploit, or expand my worst suspicions about ? Is it too good to be true, or too bad to be true?
Okay. Like school and Jeopardy!, the questions get progressively harder. A related set of inquiries spins down from number 3 on the first list.
- Do I know how credible information is produced and the process behind reputable reporting?
- Are subjects dictated by fat-cat publishers? (Answer: no.)
- Are they dictated by omnipotent editors flogging an agenda? (Answer: no.)
- Do they follow marching orders of some outside third party, like advertisers, George Soros, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the Freemasons, the United Nations, Big Pharma, the military-industrial complex, or the Carlyle Group? (Answer: no.)
- Are those anonymous sources invented by reporters to support a preferred narrative? (Answer: no.)
- Is there a set of standard journalistic practices for confirming facts, qualifying sources, providing evidence, and immediately correcting errors? (Answer: yes.)
- Do politically and ideologically funded and motivated players wrapping themselves in the audiovisual trappings of genuine news organization adhere to those standards? (Answer: often.)
- When politicians respond to criticism not by furnishing facts, evidence, or reasoned counterargument but by declaring “fake news,” are they lying? (Answer: almost.)
Those items cover the absolute basics. Toward a more intermediate-level ability to evaluate journalism, I’d add these:
- Are assertions backed up—or challenged—by data, official records, history, or other documented evidence?
- Is the audience given the sense of the sources’ motives in saying what they say?
- Is the reporter following the herd of other reporting, offering conventional wisdom provided with little scrutiny?
- Are there signs that the elements of the story are the fruit of impartial inquiry, or do they seem cherry-picked to support a beginning hypothesis or narrative?
- Is there evidence of bias toward controversy, versus less provocative but more substantial information?
- Does the story fully contextualize statements and events to permit the audience to evaluate significance and meaning?
- Is the reporting pointlessly speculative? Red flags are the words “may,” “could,” “should,” “will.”
- Journalism can be slanted not just by what it includes, but by what it doesn’t Are there holes in the reporting that suggest a conflicting narrative has been suppressed?
And, finally, the One: the overriding point that still eludes a good portion of the population, including the president of the United States: Is the press permitted to criticize the government or its officials?
Answer: Yes, for crying out loud, that is the entire point of a free press. It’s in the First Amendment. To the Constitution. Ours.
Excerpted from American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves, copyright © 2020 by Bob Garfield. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.