The Facts of Life: Malcolm Forbes and the game of Telephone

Professor George Young taught me how to determine the reliability of a news story in a time before news and news fakery exploded into millions of internet shards which pierce our consciousness every millisecond of every day.

Most news organizations don’t have the time or integrity to analyze the validity of a story. If it’s all over the place, even a relatively scrupulous newspaper must cover it in some fashion.

So what can you do to get the facts out of a “scandalous” story running amok? First, per Professor Young, see if your most responsible newspaper follows up on the story. Second, track the infection back to its source by reversing the process.

My niece, Becca, pointed out the analogy between viral stories and the party game called Telephone.

Remember Telephone? Here’s how it works: a bunch of people sit around in a circle. One whispers something into the ear of her neighbor, who then whispers what she’s heard onto her neighbor and so on until the final person says out loud what she’s heard.

Laughter and “Huhs?” Because the tidbit emerging at the end of Telephone is nothing–I mean, nuthin’!–like the tidbit that started it.

How does this apply to the news?

In the 1980s I worked for Malcolm Forbes. Every morning at 8:30 am, I’d enter his office to take down his editorials, which would appear in the front pages of each issue.

Malcolm wholly owned Forbes Magazine. That is, there were no shareholders or editorial board members whom he had to please, politically or otherwise. He could express his opinions without restriction.

Yet, before dictating his thoughts, Malcolm would pick up and read through one of a pile of clipped news articles he kept in a leather folder (originally belonging to the late Czar Nicholas II, make of that what you will, Trump).

The clips, for the most part editorials and political opinions, came from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and very few other publications.

Fairly quickly I observed that Malcolm did not assert an opinion without assuring it conformed to an opinion published by major news organizations leaning toward conservative points of view.

To me, Malcolm Forbes was an intellectual coward. To right-wing writers he was a gift. They’d cite Malcolm’s opinions, themselves derived from, say, the Wall Street Journal’s infamously right wing editorial page, as “facts” to support their own opinions. “Malcolm Forbes printed it, so it’s true.”

At each step of this publishing chain of custody the original set of facts got twisted, cut into false bits or disappeared entirely.

The May 25, 2016 New York Times brought me up to date on how this disinformation game is played now:

Ever since talk radio, cable news and the Internet emerged in the 1990s as potent political forces on the right, Republicans have used those media to attack their opponents through a now-familiar two-step.

Political operatives would secretly place damaging information with friendly outlets like The Drudge Report and Fox News and with radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh — and then they would work to get the same information absorbed into the mainstream media.

How quaint that May 2016 warning seems, now that we know about fake news, Russian disinformation and Breitbart. Now we know the “damaging information” placed with “friendly outlets” can be fake news made up by sociopaths paid by other sociopaths, or spewed by demented people on video and audio pods. Or blogs.

But the method, as I observed it in Malcolm Forbes’ office, is the same.

The difference? When you play Telephone, nobody believes the nonsense that comes out of the last person in the Telephone line.

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