John Stossel: Stupid news, not fake news | TribLIVE.com
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John Stossel: Stupid news, not fake news

John Stossel
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In this Oct. 3, 1995, file photo, O.J. Simpson reacts as he is found not guilty in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in Los Angeles. Defense attorneys F. Lee Bailey, left, and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. stand with him.

“Fake news!” shouts the president. His supporters cheer.

That drives my colleagues into a frenzy of self-absorbed handwringing: “Threats to press freedom … press persecution!”

It’s silly. American reporters are hardly less safe because of President Trump’s hyperbole.

(Trump is reckless when he uses the term in other countries. Authoritarians in Russia, China, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, etc., now cite “fake news” while they jail or kill reporters. He should shut up about “fake news” when he’s overseas.)

But I smiled when I first heard him use the phrase, not because news stories are “fake”— they typically aren’t (reporters who make things up are usually caught and fired) — but because so much of what people call “news” is press releases and breathless exaggerations of isolated problems.

It’s stupid news.

This spring, I attended my 50th college reunion. Alumni officials asked me to join a panel titled “Free Speech and Fake News.”

It made me ask myself, “What were the biggest life-changing events in the 50 years since I graduated?”

My selections:

• Invention of the personal computer and cellphone.

• Google and Facebook.

• The fall of the Soviet Union.

• Pollution-control rules.

• The women’s movement.

• Changing attitudes about sex and gender.

• A drastic reduction in poverty around the world.

Only one of those giant changes (the fall of the Soviet Union) led the news!

Instead, “big” headlines of my previous reunion years (five-year periods when I might show up for the celebration) were topics like:

• Patty Hearst robbing a bank.

• Serial killer Ted Bundy.

• The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.

• The “Band-Aid” concert for famine relief.

• The Exxon Valdez oil spill.

• The O.J. Simpson trial.

• Columbine.

• Michael Jackson’s death.

• Ebola.

• And this year: the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash.

(I chose those stories from “biggest stories of the year!” reports in mainstream media like MSN and ABC News.)

Those events were worth covering, but why do media mostly ignore more important events like the creation of cellphones and Google or how millions have lifted themselves out of poverty?

One reason is because they happen gradually. When Facebook was being invented, few reporters noticed.

Another is because the big stories happen in more than one place. We reporters are good at covering plane crashes and murder. We can easily interview the official in charge.

But the biggest news, like changing attitudes about gender, happens all over the place.

When I graduated, 60% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Now, fewer than 9% do. Globally, that’s probably the most life-changing event over the past 50 years — a great victory, made possible by freer markets.

But most reporters don’t like free markets, and politicians rarely talk about change they don’t control.

During my previous reunion, in 2014, one of the biggest stories was hysteria about an Ebola virus outbreak. But only one American died from Ebola that year.

My fellow Princeton panelists sneered at me when I said that. They said that thousands died in Africa. That was true, but if that’s the measure of a news story, why aren’t millions of deaths from malaria and diarrhea in Africa front-page news? Because “Ebola!” scares reporters and makes for better clickbait headlines.

The news is stupid and shallow.

John Stossel is author of “No They Can’t! Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed.”

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