Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Rich Man, Poor Man. Fake News, Real News.

As a young kid, I learned the price you have to pay for reporting the real news. Now I discover that you can get rich by making up fake news.

little-cub-printing-pressMy “journalism” career began early. My dad worked at the Omaha World-Herald in the accounting department. When I visited him on Saturday mornings, I managed to wander off into the exciting world of the newsroom. For me, it was intoxicating.

When I was seven or eight, I launchd my own newspaper. It contained neighborhood news and paid ads from the local grocery store, which was more like a precursor of today’s convenience stores.

My first scoop hit home – literally. It was a story with ample detail about my mother’s surgery. When a neighbor called my recuperating mom to ask how she was doing, my scoop went, so to speak, viral.

Despite my status as publisher, editor-in-chief and lead investigative reporter, I was ordered to collect every edition containing my scoop. Luckily, the neighborhood grocer didn’t make me refund him for his ad. He gave me a free fudgesicle instead.

More than 50 years later, after slogging in the trenches of truth, I read about Jestin Coler, CEO of Disinfomedia. He makes his living generating fake news and raking in ad dollars for his trouble.

fake-newsmanColer isn’t some slime ball working in a dank basement. He is a soft-spoken 40-year-old who lives with his wife and two kids in a California suburb, earning up to $30,000 a month. Coler says the fake news business is good.

A registered Democrat, Coler produces fake news for a far-right audience that wants to believe the sleaziest, juiciest and most salacious stories about those they despise, like Crooked Hillary Clinton. One of Coler’s fake stories, which earned more than 1.6 million views, “reported” the FBI agent who leaked information about Clinton’s emails was murdered.

“The people wanted to hear this,” Coler explained to NPR. “So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then … our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire.”

Coler said he isn’t the only fake news entrepreneur who targets Trump supporters with the news they are dying to read. Like any good journalist, Coler insists he doesn’t make up fake news for the money. He says it’s an exercise to show how easily fake news can spread when it is aimed at the right audience. (He tried to target a liberal audience, but they didn’t bite.)

eating-red-meat“It was just anybody with a blog can get on there and find a big, huge Facebook group of rabid Trump supporters just waiting to eat up this red meat that they’re about to get served,” Coler explained to NPR. “It caused an explosion in the number of sites. I mean, my gosh, the number of fake accounts on Facebook exploded during the Trump election.”

One of Coler’s fake news outlets has been booted off Google, but he says it doesn’t matter. “There are literally hundreds of ad networks. Early last week, my inbox was just filled every day with people because they knew that Google was cracking down – hundreds of people wanting to work with my sites.”

Gullibility attracts flies.

The advantages of fake news over real news are clear. Real news requires attending meetings, talking to sources and trying to piece together the relevant facts into an intelligible story. Fake news only requires a vivid imagination. A real newsroom costs a lot of money, which is why they are shrinking. A fake newsroom is a big moneymaker, which is why they are flourishing.

I think back to all those hours I spent wandering my old neighborhood in search of real-life events to report on my hand-set, hand-cranked printing press. It would have been so much easier to make up stuff about those neighbors down the street who always kept their blinds shut and didn’t have any candy on Halloween.

Too bad I spent time admiring journalists working the phones and pounding their manual typewriter keys, seeing the copy boys carry the “news” to the desk for editing and, later, watching in amazement as the giant writing press churned out the day’s edition. People counted on that paper landing on their front stoop to find what was happening. I saw myself as someone who they would depend on to tell the stories they needed to read. I’ve tried in my career to stay true to that early conviction of finding and reporting the facts.

It never occurred to me then, and it seems foreign to me now, that people could violate that trust by just making up red-meat “news” that people would eat up because it reinforced their beliefs, not informed their opinions.

rich-man-poor-manApparently I could have been a lot richer by making the people around me a lot poorer. And I didn’t even have to wear a mask.

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