“Pink Slime Journalism” and a history of media manipulation in America

 

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STUART ANDERSON-DAVIS

It is now over a decade since the label “pink slime journalism” was first applied to the proliferation of low-cost, low-quality local news content oozing across the United States. During this time, pink slime producers (such as Metric Media, which operates a network of more than 1,200 websites) have become synonymous with hyper-partisan content and loose ethical standards – as detailed in a new report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. 

These sites are familiar yet misleading – masquerading as the digital equivalent of traditional, well-trusted, locally-based newspapers, but actually promoting political, ideological, and commercial interests in strategically-significant locations. From boosting political candidates to providing positive publicity for under-fire corporations, pink slime publications seek to exploit audience assumptions about the type of content published by a “news” organization; in particular, the expectation that journalism (and local journalism, in particular) is motivated by public interest and newsworthiness, not commercial deals or hidden political agendas. 

Such a bastardization of the journalistic process – comparable to filling a news organization with the fluorescent pink meat paste used by food manufacturers – seems like a novel phenomenon. After all, many of the trends examined by the Tow Center rely on relatively recent technology, including advances in automation and audience microtargeting on social platforms. Churning out “pseudo-journalism” – and pushing it out to the right people – has never been easier, faster, or cheaper.

And yet, for all that this process is now digitally-driven, the strategy of misleading audiences using the media is older than the United States itself. Indeed, the so-called “Founding Fathers” would have been far more familiar with the commercially-compromised, politically-patronized “pseudo-news organizations” described in the Tow Center report than any of the venerable institutions now considered bastions of the free press. Furthermore, this first generation of American leaders would not be the last to manipulate the media to advance their own interests – whether that be personal advancement, or a genuine belief that such actions were necessary to save the republic.

PRESS AND PROPAGANDA

The American Revolution was the first of many episodes from U.S. history in which the press – and the popular formats and channels through which news is communicated to the public – was used to spread disinformation and legitimize falsehoods. The similarities between past and present are numerous: from politicians producing fake newspapers to outmaneuver their rivals, to reporters lying about their location in order to produce “local”(ish) content, to billionaires buying news outlets to create their personal propaganda organs. Today, such behavior undermines the notion that journalism is an integral part of a healthy democratic society – compounding already daunting challenges facing every media organization and further eroding public trust in their work.

The evolution of the journalist from political propagandist to professional watchdog is the central theme of U.S. media history. According to this narrative, the press gradually freed itself from dependence on (and subservience to) politicians and their parties by securing new sources of revenue, including advertising and subscriptions.1 As the legendary newspaper editor and publisher Joseph Pulitzer once quipped, “Circulation means advertising, and advertising means money, and money means independence.”2 

Pink slime journalism seeks to exploit comparatively modern assumptions about this “independence,” and the other values that guide credible news outlets – not least the belief that in America “the press swapped partisan loyalty for a new compact – that journalism would harbor no hidden agenda.”3 While the reader of a revolutionary-era newspaper may have expected partisanship, financially-compromised proprietors, and the occasional “hoax,” the professionalization of the press was supposed to herald a brave new dawn – one in which fearless reporting and fiercely-guarded editorial independence was paramount.4 That’s why today’s pink slime publications make little or no effort to communicate the connections between their content, their funding, and their purpose; concealing their true nature is crucial to any ability they might have to influence public opinion.

FOUNDING FORGERS

Pink slime journalism’s lack of transparency is one reason why it is so reviled across the mainstream media community. However, as Andie Tucher, a historian at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, outlines in her recent book, this type of “deceptive practice” has been going on for hundreds of years. Tucher uses the term “fake journalism” to describe the use of “some kind of authentic or authentic-seeming perch or platform” to “present false information or heavily partisan opinion or propaganda in a form specifically crafted to look or sound like ‘real’ independent journalism rooted in impartial investigation and rigorous verification.”5 Online pink slime publications are a modern iteration of this tactic – harnessing new technologies to produce a plausible imitation of local news content that can be micro-targeted at specific groups or spread far and wide. 

The fact that political actors are bankrolling so many of these operations is also unsurprising. Today, a tenet of American democratic life is that the press is independent of politicians and their parties. Journalists scrutinize these people, they do not promote their interests in return for financial support. Freedom from (direct) political interference is enshrined in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”), a statement that implicitly rejected the “Old World” of censorship and subservient publishers scrabbling around for state subsidies. 

Instead, “Founding Fathers” like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson hoped that the nation’s “free” press would be a unifying force – forging civic connections and informing democratic participation, while promoting the values and institutions that would make the United States truly exceptional. In 1787, Jefferson even claimed that with “the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Seguir leyendo: Columbia Journalism Review

Image: “Reading the War News in Broadway,” London Illustrated News, June 15, 1861

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