We’ve entered a brave, new world in the information age. Where it can be tough to know what’s real. Now there are movements to help us sort through it all— to teach our kids media literacy, to “curate” our information and cull out “fake news.” Sounds like a good idea. After all, who doesn’t want their news straight up? But what if some of those efforts are actually attempts to control the narrative? Today’s cover story examines The Curators.
Sharyl Attkisson: In January, the website BuzzFeed had a bombshell: anonymous sources claimed President Trump instructed his attorney to lie to Congress. And that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had the goods. It wasn’t long before Mueller took an unusual step— publicly denying it. President Trump: I think that the BuzzFeed piece was a disgrace to our country.
Jeffrey Toobin: The press screwed up and they should apologize and you know the media isn’t as great as it thinks it is. This is a bad day for the news media. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves.
Sharyl: BuzzFeed stands by its report. Whatever the case, it underscores how it’s getting harder to separate fact from fiction in the news. Now, there are unprecedented efforts by third parties— to curate information for you.Some even want to give lessons to first graders on how to sort through fake news— between math and reading.
Person on street: I think children or young adults need to be informed about how to decipher what is real news and not.
Person on street: I think everyone, not just high school students, everyone should get educated about what to believe and not believe with the media.
Person on street: We really have to understand who you're hearing it from, why they may be telling you what they're telling you and generate your own viewpoints from there.
Sharyl: Do you think there is a way for the government or third parties to get involved in curating our information for us so that we can really read factual information? Or is that just a no win proposition?
Katy Grimes: I think the answer is absolutely no. It's a no win proposition.
Sharyl: Katy Grimes is an investigative journalist in California — one of the states where lawmakers have been pushing for new laws to root out “fake news” and teach media literacy in public schools. The question is — who decides what’s real when it’s a matter in dispute.Grimes: I think we, we've seen a lot of history in the past when you've got governments that try to control media. We've got governments around the world still trying to control media and it's limiting what the populations who live there get.
Sharyl: Is it sort of a new trend in your experience to see government stepping in and saying that it has a role to play in helping sort through or curate information for us?
Grimes: Yes. This seems to be a very new role and it's extremely disturbing. They're trying to pass a bill that would require schools to teach children some idea of what fake news is. And I think that's just a giant red flag.
Sharyl: President Obama first drew national attention to the notion that somebody needed to start curating information. It was less than a month before the 2016 election. Liberal interests had already introduced the phrase “fake news” to criticize campaign-driven conspiracy stories.
President Obama: We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to.
Sharyl: With the President’s announcement, an organized effort grew. According to the advocacy group Media Literacy now, which is pushing for new laws, 10 states considered media literacy legislation last year alone. Sponsors of 3 California bills Senators Richard Pan, Hannah-Beth Jackson and Bill Dodd, wouldn’t sit down for interviews to discuss their proposals with us. Ultimately, only one of the bills was signed into law: one requiring the state to provide media literacy resources for public school teachers. We did get the chance to talk to California Senator John Moorlach, who told us the legislative efforts are politically-driven.
Sharyl: There are proposals to teach media literacy in public schools. What is your feeling about that?
Moorlach: Well, two things. One is: the state legislature has not reacted well to the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. So, there are a lot of barbs that keep being thrown that way. But two, our educational system isn't something to brag about necessarily. I'd be happy if we could teach our kids to read, you know, do math and, and understand, you know, basic science concepts, than to worry about fake news.
Mickey Huff: I like to give at least some benefit of the doubt that there are some people involved in these efforts that have integrity and are well intentioned.
Sharyl: California-based “Project Censored,” a media watchdog group, has been teaching college-focused media literacy since 1976. Director Mickey Huff is wary of some of the newer efforts.
Huff: I can't, however, help but be suspicious because the way in which that, that these things have been rolled out and “media literacy” is now a buzz phrase, right? The whole fighting of fake news has become a Trojan horse to propel other agendas. And in the name of telling us what is fake news, we're also seeing more censorship, whether, again, it's algorithmically through bots, through filter bubbles, whether it's outsourcing fact checkers, right? Like Snopes or Politifact.
Sharyl: But do you suspect there are special interest behind some of these efforts that are actually trying to shape opinion and do the opposite of what they say they're trying to do?
Huff: Absolutely. And the name of fighting fake news is purposely suppressing certain views, certain narratives, certain sources. And so at Project Censored, we believe that that is a very problematic effort. It unfortunately does get to masquerade in sort of a “do good” capacity. In other words, who's going to be against media literacy if we're trying to fight fake news?
Sharyl: It Sounds good. Huff: Sounds fantastic. Until you realize how certain groups are doing it.
Sharyl: On the front lines are college students like Edward Jacobs. He took an independent pilot course in media literacy last year while he was in high school. What did he learn? To be skeptical of the curators.
Jacobs: The very idea that there should be some middlemen curating what ideas we're exposed to is very dangerous. Even if it were someone who agreed with what our personal opinions were, that would in effect restrict us from being exposed to many different viewpoints and that’s really something that our country doesn't need, especially among the youth demographic today.
Sharyl: It’s Phil Dunn who taught the high school course that Eddie took. As a student of media manipulation and author of “Media Collusion,” Dunn says the key is critical thinking, not pushing curated views.Dunn: When you talk about media literacy that the people that want to teach that are oftentimes invested in certain kind of legacy media outfits, the New York Times, The Washington Post, the big three networks, CNN, Fox, all of them would love to tell you what to listen to and, and how to listen to it. And I think you can throw in Google and Facebook as well because It's on the right side and it's chosen and maybe censored and maybe curated, you know, we put quotes around curated.
Sharyl: To be clear, in your class, you don't teach the kids, “rely on this source, go to the New York Times, trust the Washington Post or Fox News?”
Sharyl: What do you teach them instead? Dunn: How to look, where to look. What to discover about who's telling you what's fake and what's not. I mean, there's a chapter on Snopes in there and Snopes has its own people that have their own bias.
Sharyl: Perhaps best put we may need media literacy instruction to determine which media literacy efforts are genuine. And which may be just attempts to shape and manipulate.
Sharyl: What would your advice be to people who hear what sound like well-meaning efforts to curate their information, to sort out fake news, to make kids understand media literacy by teaching them in elementary school or middle school or high school?
Huff: I would say, well, one of the basic things is who benefits from that education? Who's forming the curriculum, who's funding it? If it's coming through government, who's funding the particular sponsors of the bills? Who has a seat at the table? And I think the only thing that we really have at the end of the day is our own capacity to think critically and independently.
One new media literacy effort is called MediaWise, which aims to educate teens with social media and a teacher curriculum developed by Stanford. Theyve started a teen fact-checking network and are working with YouTube to produce videos. MediaWise is funded by Google.