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June 10, 2024

Fake News or Giving The Customers What They Want?

By Dan Mulhollen

Bart Anderson and Henrietta Papadopolis were friends, Anderson being Chief Counsel for Papadopolis' husband, now former State Attorney General Patrick Papadopolis. Their friendship lasted even after "the unpleasantness" where Bart represented Henrietta against his disbarred former client in a nasty divorce and custody case. The divorce soured Henrietta on her husband's hypocritical political views. But Bart and Henrietta remained friends. Dinner conversations between the two became lively debates, with facts always winning out over appeals to emotion.

This was when the Internet was becoming profitable for websites willing to monetize their content with banner ads, paid news stories, and click-bait "features."

"You know," Henrietta said, sharing a pizza and several beers for dinner one evening, "two websites are inexpensive enough to set up. What if we both had one, reflecting our differing philosophies."

"Interesting," Bart said, chewing on a piece of pizza crust. "Two seeming rivals who are really just two sides of the same coin."

"Exactly, and with a lively exchange of reader comments."

"My crowd is easy enough to rile up with a whiff of conspiracy theory." He began to laugh which led to an inadvertent snort.

Henrietta winced. "And mine," she said, stopping for a swig of beer, "has become so PC my readers' sense of moral outrage now has a hair trigger."

"And if moral outrage is outlawed," Bart began to joke.

"...only outlaws will have moral outrage," Henrietta said, chuckling, completing the statement.

A central holding company was soon set up with two branch holding companies to give the illusion that AnderNews and Henrietta's Journal were separate entities. Both were immediately popular with their target audiences. Both Publishers were suddenly featured experts on various news shows: Henrietta often with liberal, gay, African American hosts, and Bart with angry, conservative, Irish American hosts.

Both Bart and Henrietta, already wealthy, became even wealthier from the endeavor. But soon, both tired of the daily monotony of being an editor. By this time, they had enough employees to turn over the top jobs. Bart Anderson chose Erik Christensen, a noisy, fearless rabble-rouser who enjoyed making people angry with painfully uncomfortable articles denouncing the emotionally satisfying but logically vapid beliefs of the opposition.

Henrietta chose Robin Hamilton, recent Harvard graduate with a MA in journalism and past President of the Harvard Social Sensitivity Institute. She instituted a strict policy on reader comments, banning opinions that contradicted the writer's, regardless of how well thought out the opposing comment was.

Under the new leadership, both sites lost the founders' intent. AnderNews became more authoritarian and brutish while Henrietta's Journal became self-righteous and humorless. Both lost sponsors and started having to cater to even more brutish, and more humorless websites for advertising revenue. The founders decided they would have to move back into the Editor's chair.

"We have to do something," Bart said, as they met at a coffee shop one evening. "Your wimpy, radical feminist editor is making your site a joke."

"To say nothing of your Attila the Chief Editor," Henrietta replied. "Are tin foil hats really a part of your current dress code?"

"As opposed to your stands on equality when the vast majority of your staff is white women who need a safe space to sprout all sorts of nonsense without fear of opposing viewpoints. I love how your new editors did away with comments. Afraid of having their itty-bitty feelings hurt?"

"And you just shout down and mock other opinions." She was quiet for a moment. "Bart, look at what's happening to us."

"We've become our editors." Bart said, shaking his head.

"Seems inevitable," Henrietta said. "Maybe I should just quit. I'm rich. I don't need this. I'd rather be catching up on decades of missed sleep."

"I just walk around my office feeling half-dead."

"That is," Henrietta said, "why we both stepped down. Boredom."

Both became quiet, perhaps considering the end of the dream.

"Wait a minute," Bart said, cheering up. "Maybe we can have some fun. The election is next year. Let's shake things up."

"How so?" Henrietta asked, looking for the barista. "Another, please," she asked.

"What if the two least qualified candidates would run, with our sites' backing?"

Henrietta pondered the likely candidates. "Two people who both think they're entitled..."

"Two people who, while capable in their field, would be completely out of their league to serve. We'd just need to eliminate each party's better qualified candidate."

"Easy enough from my side," Henrietta said, taking her newly-made cappuccino. "Most on my side don't know Karl's from Groucho's. Just say 'Marx' and the one qualified candidate will lose the primary vote. Be tougher for you, with so many wannabees."

"But my candidate has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. That will endear him to a growing constituency of working class men who feel stabbed in the back by the liberal elite."

"A man who knows what buttons to push -- however clumsily."

"Especially if he has 'Attila" as advisory," Bart said with a cartoon villain laugh. "More buttons to push without needing those annoying facts to back up his statements."

Henrietta sat for a while, sipping her cappuccino. "I wonder," she said, whatever happened to journalism?"

"It was born," Bart said, with a scholarly air of expertise, "in Hawaii on December 7th 1941 and died in Dallas on November 22nd 1963. Other than that time, it has always been entertainment. Oh they may gussy it up with big words -- calling good politicians 'solons,' and the like. But it all comes down to readership."

"Born in Hawaii," Henrietta said, a smirking slightly.

Bart nodded, his eyebrows arched.

"Readership," Henrietta asked, "or just showmanship. Giving the people what they want?"

"P.T. Barnum would have loved the Internet." Bart looked down at his still-filled cup, picked it up, and guzzled down the entire eight ounces. He then left out a sigh of satisfaction.

"What about after one of these political train wrecks is elected? I know the winning side will feel very self-satisfied. But what about the losers?"

"Your side will whine and mope around -- as they always do. My side will be angry and say it's all rigged -- as they usually do."

"And we will carry on fueling those emotions with our versions of the truth -- whatever that is, anymore."

"Things usually correct themselves with the mid-terms," Bart said, "keeping the balance of mediocrity." He looked at his empty cup, tilted it to see the bottom, pondering whether to order another cup of coffee.

"But if we help create the mess?"

"Just doing our civic duty," Bart Andrews said and broke out laughing.

Henrietta Papadopolus, trying unsuccessfully to remain silent, started giggling like a schoolgirl less than a quarter of her sixty-eight years. They both realized it was all nonsense, and glad they both had the sense to realize that.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-03-27
Image(s) are public domain.
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