5 Pinocchios are the latest awards racked up by this tabloid TV reporter
With my wee personal blog, I sometimes go up against the lies told by big evil money. Not that money is always evil, or big media always lie. But with conglomeration in the media industry, there are whole segments concerned not with truth-seeking, but with pandering.
Like Donald J. Trump, New York’s PIX11 apparently loves the poorly educated, perhaps because they’ll believe anything — from Syrian Muslims invading Louisiana, to a mysterious cult discovered in quiet Jamaica Hills. Who can say it didn’t happen? PIX11 likes exploiting the poorly-educated by running hoax news stories, or stories which are actually paid advertising. Read on for examples of both.
Truth-seeking is what journalists are supposed to do; it’s the highest ethic taught in j-school. But an article in The Economist notes that “Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more ‘inventory’ on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming.” So just as we become accustomed to eating junk food with no nutritional value, we also become accustomed to consuming infotainment with no truth value, served up on the cheap.
PIX11 doesn’t only film news stories, but also commercials for sponsors, referred to euphemistically as “native advertising,” or “sponsored content.” PIX11 gives this material the same visual treatment as actual news stories, and uses the same voice-over announcers or on-air personalities, so some viewers wouldn’t know they’re watching a commercial. This just in: Depending on your mood, you can now choose the perfect cocktail made with Larceny Bourbon. Wow! Isn’t that interesting? I bet that would give Craig Allen something to do on a rainy night. His mood often changes with the weather. Not that he’s a manic-depressive or anything, but– [continue disarming banter, then cut to ”story” about cocktails made with Larceny Bourbon].
PIX11 even brags how easy it is to produce “native advertising” consisting of “man-on-the-street” interviews. Their gentrified guide doesn’t mention Mary Murphy’s time-honoured tactic of being rude as hell, cornering the target, and shouting insulting questions. If the target can’t run fast enough, that apparently constitutes “implied consent.” 😉
Anyway, we’ve gotten so used to information meant to entertain us, pander to us, or sell us stuff that we’re unable to locate truth when we really need it. It’s a little like the old saw that even the worst sinner will go to heaven if he or she thinks of God at the moment of death. The problem is that at the moment of death we will have no control over our thoughts. Whatever we spent our whole lives filling our minds with, such will be our thoughts at time of death. So if a man spent all his life lusting after gold, then at the moment of death he will think: “What is going to happen to all my beautiful gold?” He is still consumed by thoughts of gold, and since he has never thought of God, God is like a complete stranger to him.
In the same way, when we come to depend on media which don’t reflect or seek after truth, but merely entertain us, pander to us, or cleverly target our consumer selves, then how will we locate truth when we need it? Truth will be like a complete stranger. Why is truth even important? After all, you can’t eat it, drink it, or smoke it. Does truth have any value in a consumerist society?
The answer is that truth is important — I’ll leave it to the reader to discover why. Try listing some reasons and see what you can come up with. If you’re stumped, think about why truth is important in a jury trial, or in a claim about whether a foreign nation possesses nuclear weapons, or in a relationship based on trust.
Journalists ask us to trust them, but not all are equally trustworthy. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I began discussing the problems which ensue when tabloid media reproduce false first-person accounts intended to discredit a spiritual figure or group. To recap:
A 15-second teaser for the PIX11 News boasts that Mary Murphy will expose a mysterious cult found right here in New York, and closes with a salacious sound bite. The only problem is that the “mysterious cult” is a respected spiritual group with a 45-year history of good citizenship and strong roots in the community. It conducts its benign spiritual, athletic, and cultural activities in full daylight, and anyone wanting accurate information about them can easily acquire it from reliable sources.
According to The New York Times, Jamaica Hills is a tranquil haven for many ethnic groups. A synagogue, a Greek orthodox church, and a meditation garden are each attractions to different people who live side-by-side in peace. Residents say that followers of the late spiritual master Sri Chinmoy are good neighbors because they’re quiet and law-abiding. Community Board 8 has nothing but praise for the group, crediting them with cleaning up an area which the city had abandoned, keeping it safe, clean, and crime-free.
Sri Chinmoy was originally from India, but moved to New York City in 1964 and soon began teaching a philosophy based on meditation, inner peace, and service to the world. By 1971 he had garnered praise for his meditations at the United Nations for diplomats and staff. (See “Many at U.N. Find Guru’s Message Brings Peace” in The New York Times.)
A 1976 People Magazine article lauded the guru’s genuine achievements, and noted that his followers opened up a row of businesses on Parsons Boulevard, including a health food store, a stationery store, and a café. Forty years later, those businesses are still standing and have been joined by a constellation of others. Over the decades their presence has become a familiar, non-threatening staple of life in a diverse community, a point of interest in articles describing local color.
These are facts, and these facts point to an “established truth” about Sri Chinmoy and his followers. They live a clean lifestyle based on meditation and inner peace. For decades they’ve contributed to the low crime rate and economic revitalization of the Queens neighborhood where they reside. They have zero history of criminal activity.
Why then the teaser from PIX11 News promising to reveal something sleazy and sexual? Why Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street and shoving a camera in her face?
Due to religious bigotry, and low ethics at a tabloid.
In going up against the lies told by big evil money, I recently had occasion to produce a short documentary (or mashup) which helps illustrate the mechanics of media smear campaigns:
Don’t you love it when William Shatner plays a baddie? His character in the Colombo clip reminds me a lot of Mary Murphy preparing a hoaxer in advance, then ambushing an unsuspecting victim and going for the jugular.
When innocent people are maligned through this type of smear, it represents a corruption of the democratic process and an abdication of the media’s responsibility to engage in truth-telling — not lie-telling. Sadly, Mary Murphy is one of those corrupting the process, leading to the dumbing down of America and the rise of vigilantism. If followers of Sri Chinmoy are harassed or their shops vandalized due to the totally false claims in her story, Mary Murphy bears considerable blame.
The anti-cultists she interviewed — who circulate salacious material on the Internet — are what are commonly known as kooks and cranks. No one at WPIX bothered to check whether any of them were on psychiatric medication, or had ever been fired from a job for sending threatening and abusive e-mails, and therefore bore an obsessive grudge. The answers to such questions would have been revealing. These are people who try to harass a spiritual group by spreading disinformation.
In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a spiritual group look unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance. That’s why truth matters.
In her Washington Post series “What was fake on the Internet this week,” Caitlin Dewey observes:
Where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. [False] headlines go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.
There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.
Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, explained: “Institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.”
So is PIX11 News now jumping on the bandwagon with its fake story about a “mysterious” (NOT!) “cult” (NOT!) in the middle of Jamaica Hills? Apparently. The story gets 5 Pinocchios because it’s based on the claims of serial fabricator and well-known net kook Anne Carlton (a.k.a. Joyce Carlton, Betty, Ladyliberty13, Penny1300, Satyahara2002, Monalisa19011, Phulela, et al.). One of her scams involves starting a sexual rumor under one alias, then pretending to “confirm” it under a different alias. Her theatrics remind me of this classic X-Files clip:
Fake as it is, and old as it is (it’s been festering on Internet message boards for 15 years), Anne Carlton’s story was pushed by PIX11 News because it panders to hate and attempts to vindicate and/or inflame the biases of viewers — to troll a convenient minority and exploit gross stereotypes. And while the story may have whizzed by quickly on broadcast TV or cable, leaving only a cloud of funk behind, true to form it brought a Facebook audience of haters out from behind the wainscotting, celebrating the fact that Mary Murphy finally told the truth about a secret conspiracy — a conspiracy so secret that no evidence of it can be located. (And aren’t those just the best kind for tabloid TV?) The same people probably tried to convince Murphy that if you type “Google” into Google, you’ll break the Internet (while laughing into their hands).
As unkind and untrue as was the original Mary Murphy story, its offense is compounded by the Mary Murphy Mystery page on Facebook, which embeds the video and welcomes comments from a clique of anti-cult ideologues. Any negative, tabloid-style story about a spiritual minority is going to have the boo birds descending from their eyries, dropping their guana, and flocking in support of negativity. It’s the nature of the Internet to amplify such negativity. Mary Murphy’s Facebook page became a focal point for expanding what was already a false and unjustified attack on a small, defenseless minority.
Murphy might claim she’s not legally responsible for the libelous comments which appear on her Facebook page, or the links to extreme hate material containing lurid sexual depictions. But no one could deny she’s morally responsible. The same lack of moral compass which led her to become a surrogate stalker also results in her Facebook page being used to escalate the harassment and compound the original libel with additional allegations of a sci-fi nature.
The form taken by this harassment is use of the Internet and tabloids to endlessly recycle false allegations under different aliases, where there is not one shred of evidence of wrongdoing. This robs the targets of due process, since the goal of the harassment is to convict them of crimes in the media when there is not even a complaint in the real world.
The latter fact can hardly be overemphasized. Sri Chinmoy taught meditation for over 40 years in the heart of New York City, where there is no lack of police or lawyers. He has a clean record because he lived a clean life. Ask community leaders and they’ll tell you that Sri Chinmoy was an upstanding citizen. Needless to say, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime, and indeed received much praise for his contributions to American life and the world culture of peace.
If there were crimes being committed, why wouldn’t anyone file a complaint? The answer is simple: Filing false police reports is a crime. Lying under oath is a crime. Feeding nonsense to the tabloids or Internet machine people sometimes get away with, and that is how some anti-cultists spend their time. It’s similar to political dirty tricks like leaving flyers on car windshields falsely claiming that a candidate was embroiled in scandal, as was done to Sen. John McCain during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Unfortunately, Mary Murphy’s standard is Someone said it on the Internet — it must be true! It’s time she learned that a mountain of hearsay or postings on anti-cult message boards doesn’t add up to one true fact. There are danger zones on the Internet where people create their own alternate reality by endlessly repeating and embellishing the same nonsensical claims, e.g. that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. These people are not truth-tellers, but attention-seekers.
Obviously, there are good journalists who risk life and limb to bring back truthful stories which need telling. These journalists are genuine heroes. Others who broadcast garbage are not merely rare, misguided individuals. There are whole segments of the media whose economic model is based on pandering to the lowest common denominator of viewers — a form of institutionalized corruption ratified by awarding Emmys for tabloid TV.
Such Emmys demonstrate that the dogs like the dog food; but wouldn’t it be better to treat people like human beings and insist as a matter of professional pride on giving them news which doesn’t pander to their worst prejudices, but instead raises them up and reflects their noblest ideals? For every Emmy awarded to a slop-peddler like Mary Murphy, somewhere there’s a good journalist whose truthful stories aren’t being heard, no less rewarded.
There’s a difference between journalists who simply aren’t that good at what they do, and those who expertly manipulate the devices of telejournalism in order to get the biased results they’re after. Mary Murphy is of the latter type. In “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discuss the problem of false balance:
According to Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Washington Post, the distorting effect of false balance entails “presenting fiction on par with fact.” In USA Today, Rem Rieder writes: “There isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.” Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor at The New York Times, says that “In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth.”
The established truth about Sri Chinmoy is given by reputable sources such as those I’ve linked to, including articles in bona fide encyclopedias of religion like the Encyclopedia of Hinduism.
False balance may occur when a reporter lacks the resources to locate the established truth, and inadvertently lets fly with a lopsided story. But at its most venal, false balance is the result of intentional manipulation by an unscrupulous reporter. In Mary Murphy’s case, she carefully prepped the anti-cultists she was interviewing ahead of time, to make them look sympathetic and their absurd claims appear credible. Those she interviewed actually have a history of mental illness, substance abuse, cyberstalking, and posting extreme hate material on the Internet. She cleaned them up and gentrified the material they’re peddling, so they would look less like crackpots. She interviewed Anne Carlton in her home with a wood fire burning, as if to say “fireside chat” (though “padded cell” would have been more appropriate).
By contrast, Murphy then ambushed followers of Sri Chinmoy as they were walking down the street, or barged into their shops demanding immediate answers. This was intended to give a false appearance of balance. When someone from Sri Chinmoy Centre knowledgeable about the issues approached her, Murphy flatly refused to interview them. She didn’t want to speak to someone who could provide a detailed rebuttal to the false claims she was promoting. She pretended instead that Sri Chinmoy Centre was unavailable for comment.
For this type of fraud upon the general public, Murphy deserves unemployment not Emmys. She intentionally rigged her piece to mislead and misinform. The real “mystery” is why fellow journalists don’t drum her out of the profession. The real “secret” is that as long as she keeps viewers glued to their seats until the next commercial, few people care that she’s selling a pack of lies.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t enough Pinocchios in Gepetto’s workshop to award Mary Murphy the requisite number here. You don’t do a story this biased and this hateful by accident. You do it because you want to, because you think you can get away with it, because you think you can lie. You do it because you think your bosses won’t notice or won’t care because they’re preoccupied with other matters…
What’s keeping WPIX execs so busy?
Richard Graziano, President and General Manager of WPIX-TV, certainly can’t be bothered checking up on reporter Mary Murphy, making sure a hoaxer’s story isn’t aired. That ought to be News Director Amy Waldman’s job. Waldman, considered “clueless” by some, is reportedly more concerned with ordering lunch. But her actual brief may be to continue the trend at PIX11 of using “native advertising” as a new (if ethically questionable) revenue stream. Not to be confused with Maasai carrying signage, native advertising is advertising disguised to look like news:
The partnership between a news station and an ad agency brings together different types of media companies that historically have maintained a wall of separation but are increasingly intertwined, as news outlets seek alternative revenue streams and marketers try to embed their messages in the programs and pages people want to consume — a strategy known as native advertising or sponsored content.
The growing use of native advertising threatens to leave viewers confused about whether they are watching unbiased reporting or promotional material, according to some media specialists.
“What they’re doing is blurring the lines between news, entertainment, and advertising,” said John Carroll, a former advertising and television news executive who is now a professor of mass communication at Boston University. “The whole idea is to keep it up in the air: What exactly is this?” The format is just newsy enough to disarm people who have built up a subconscious defense against marketing.
— Callum Borchers, “Advertising? Journalism? You be the judge,” in The Boston Globe
According to The New York Times, a too-cosy relationship with advertisers — one that interfered with news-gathering — was already a problem at the Hartford Courant — Rich Graziano’s old stomping ground and another Tribune Media/Tribune Publishing property. Now, at PIX11 News things have gotten so bad you almost expect Kaity Tong to open the broadcast by singing the Rice-A-Roni theme song.
PIX11 produces sponsored content for brands like Four Roses Bourbon. September just happens to be National Bourbon Month, and PIX11 News feels that any kids up at 6:56 in the a.m. need to know how to mix cocktails using Four Roses and nothing but Four Roses — bottles and bottles of the stuff! Comments heard in the following PIX11 News segment include:
Kori Chambers: Be patriotic here and have some bourbon.
Franky Marshall: It’s never too early for a little bourbon!
View the video on PIX11.com for now. (I’ll embed it in the post when I have time.)
PIX11 News: It’s 7 a.m. Do you know where your bourbon is?
I understand that for the cable version, PIX11’s Kori Chambers is wearing nothing but a slingshot thong emblazoned with the Four Roses logo. “Although I’m not allowed to drink on air,” he reportedly says, “I’m going to inject this delightful concoction intravenously. Mmm mmm good!” (Just kidding.)
PIX11 does brag that 400,000 Facebook users have seen this ad they produced for Larceny Bourbon, which features icons that look like cartoon characters. It was posted on YouTube by PIX11 News, which claims that “These three amazing cocktails made with Larceny Bourbon are so good, it’s a crime.” (I can think of others!)
The ad equates “feeling playful” with afternoon drinking and getting “a rush you’ll remember.” If the voice-over guy commanding you to “Get some Larceny wheated bourbon” sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same guy who does the teasers for PIX11 News. Does this strike anyone as a tad incestuous?
With a wink and nod, PIX11 notes that of course those 400,000 Facebook viewers of the bourbon ad are all over 21. But according to ABC News, Consumer Reports says that 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13. So I guess you’re never too young for a little bourbon, either! (See also this iMediaEthics story: “WPIX-TV airs ‘Best Sex Ever’ Sunday at 10 AM when kids seek cartoons.”
Am I annoying department: PIX11’s Larceny Bourbon ad (modified version)
For other examples of PIX11 News using “native advertising” to promote hard liquor in the a.m., see this segment for Bombay Sapphire Gin, or this segment specifically targeting kids with Halloween cocktails, or this Earth Day segment hawking Casa Noble Tequila (and matching accessories). Starts to look like the Home Shopping Network, doesn’t it?
Here’s a page where PIX11 News mixes a heady cocktail for kids that includes Facebook, baseball, and a fun meetup with sportscaster Andy Adler:
PIX11 sportscaster Andy Adler
Sponsored by Larceny Bourbon, the meetup takes place at American Whiskey, which claims that it caters to curious amateur drinkers by offering over 375 different varieties of booze.
Now, I like baseball and used to watch the Yanks on WPIX-TV back in the day. I’ve even been known to hoist a glass or two. There’s always been a strong connection between the liquor industry and sports, but I wonder if things have gotten out of hand.
These days, it seems like even news stories are trying to sell me something — if not a product, then a point of view. Drinking is good, baseball is good, minority religions are bad. Start drinking Four Roses at 7 a.m. and by the time 5 p.m. rolls around, you’ll be so stoned you’ll believe Mary Murphy when she says she’s uncovered a mysterious cult in quiet Jamaica Hills. The poor viewer or consumer (is there a difference these days?) is placed in the unfortunate position recounted in this immortal anthem from the 90s:
Smelly cat, smelly cat,
What are they feeding you?
Smelly cat, smelly cat,
It’s not your fault.
Why is it that PIX11 News has a seemingly infinite budget to promote drinking and sports, but can’t be bothered fact-checking a libelous story about a minority spiritual group? Mr. Graziano? Ms. Waldman? Anyone?
From left to right: President and General Manager of WPIX-TV Richard Graziano; News Director Amy Waldman; and reporter Mary Murphy (here shown giving her cell phone the stink eye)
Still, I suppose once you’re in bed with Larceny, libel seems like sauce for the goose. Having made its bed of Four Roses, I hope PIX11 is prepared to stew in it. Perhaps its executives need to “rejigger” their priorities.
As a lone citizen, I try to make sense of the media behemoth that’s out there — the nature of the beast. With vertical integration between news, entertainment and assorted industries, the world view we get from mainstream media tends to occupy a narrow frequency band that centers around production and consumption, and is hostile to spiritual groups. Our founding fathers believed in an America where the secular sphere and the religious sphere could complement each other, but today it seems like the secular sphere often wages war against the religious sphere, viewing spiritual groups as a threat to the primacy of secular materialism. Maybe they don’t drink enough bourbon. 😉
Anyway, a handful of people meditating, singing spiritual songs, and leading a pure lifestyle in Jamaica Hills are no threat to PIX11 News and its pixilated sponsors, so there’s really no reason to harass them with hoax stories or send witchy woman Mary Murphy to chase them down the street. Such social control measures are unnecessary and uncalled for.
As for where PIX11 News should hold its meetups, instead of seedy bars how about a really classy location like the Tomb of the Low Information Viewer? That’s the entity upon which PIX11’s ratings ultimately depend.
* * *
After a break, I hope to be back with Part 4, where I’ll give some examples of deceptive framing and faulty reasoning used by Mary Murphy to “cook” a false story. Some might say, “Why bother? She’s a bigoted jerk, leave it at that.” Still, when big evil money lies, all we can do as individuals is to stick up for truth, and tell the truth in detail so that other people of intelligence and conscience would see the truth for themselves.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.