My wife and I like to check out the reviews before we head to the movies.
The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern is my go-to guy; my wife leans toward Rotten Tomatoes. Our final verdicts will go against the grain fairly often, but at least I feel as though I have done some amount of due diligence before investing a couple of hours of my scarce leisure (or napping) time in watching a particular film.
I read a lot of news and have pretty well-defined opinions about the caliber of much of the journalism I consume. For the most part, those opinions have been sinking in recent years as mass media succumbs to coastal groupthink. There was a time when outlets like The New York Times had bureaus around the country, staffed by full-time journalists, but most of those fell by the wayside long ago – well before the internet gobbled up the real estate classified ads. Now, journalists who are expert on everything that happens in Manhattan and Brooklyn descend on the rest of the country like war correspondents when news breaks, and they usually do not even bother with local “fixers” who actually know what’s going on. The reporting reflects this crabbed, hyper-urban perspective, and not just in New York.
Some consumers have tried to help others to sort news outlets by intellectual rigor, political slant or both; attorney Vanessa Otero’s version gained much attention, not all of it positive, in 2016. Regardless of its particular merits, her chart’s reach proved that there is a hunger to evaluate sources of news, especially in an environment where stories often come to readers through third-party channels such as social media sites. Sometimes I have tried to thoughtfully criticize the media myself in this column.
But it’s time the media has its own critics of the caliber devoted to movies, music and books. The first of them may soon arrive in the form of NewsGuard, a site that says it will rate media outlets as green, yellow or red. As L. Gordon Crovitz described in a column for The Wall Street Journal, a team of humans will base outlets’ ratings on “whether they are trying to produce real journalism, fail to disclose their interests, or are intentional purveyors of fake news.” Green will indicate an outlet is generally trustworthy; yellow indicates persistent bias or inaccuracy. Red will be reserved for outlets regularly publishing deliberately deceptive information.
NewsGuard will also create “nutrition labels” that will profile each news brand and will incorporate contributions from both experts and the crowd (much like Rotten Tomatoes). Crovitz’s partner, Steven Brill, told CNN that the labels “are intended to let readers know if they need to take particular brands they see online with a grain of salt -- or with an entire shaker.”
Crovitz and Brill both come from the world of journalism. Their team intends to profile about 7,500 U.S. news brands when the service launches, sometime prior to the midterm elections in November. Eventually, they aim to rate and profile prominent international outlets as well. If Crovitz and Brill can convince Facebook and Google that their ratings are worthwhile, they eventually hope the scores will appear with search results and social links to news items.
It will be interesting to see how NewsGuard views some of the big-name establishment players like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and CNN. How will it view MSNBC, for example, in comparison to Fox News? Will it take a critical look at more specialized outlets like Politico, The Hill and Bloomberg? Will its expectations be as high for online outlets like Vox and Axios as for legacy print publications?
While our current moment suggests that no one site could generate ratings all readers will agree are fair, Crovitz has pledged that NewsGuard’s criteria and processes will not be a mystery to its audience. Much like a good movie critic, a good news critic will not necessarily be one you always agree with, but rather one whose values are consistent and clear, so readers can comfortably anticipate likely points on which they will disagree.
Maybe I’ll agree with much of what the critics write, and maybe I won’t. It hardly matters. Whatever journalism “standards” managed to evolve in the 1970s, amid the revelations of government lying to too-cozy reporters in the lead-up to Vietnam, have since slipped into a swamp in which “interpretation” and “explanation” substitute for fair and factual reporting that credits the intelligence of the audience. With ombudsmen and public editors nearly gone without a trace, it is heartening that someone is willing to attempt to evaluate news outlets’ quality from outside if not from within.
In his column, Crovitz observed that legitimate media outlets are suffering as advertisers avoid news altogether for fear of appearing on disreputable sites. If NewsGuard successfully establishes credibility with advertisers, its proposed white list of trustworthy news organizations could also benefit these outlets in ways beyond increased reader loyalty.
If the traditional media is frustrated at the willingness of the public to accept preposterous “fake news,” it has only itself to blame. It has squandered its credibility and left news consumers searching for whatever grains of truth that can scratch out of the soil of social media. A healthy serving of honest criticism, willingly consumed, could be the sort of nourishment the news business needs to get back to health.