Real News in the Age of Fake News from David Remnick: #Thoughts from Cannes

There will always be some sort of pollution. But what can we do to ‘breathe’ a bit clearer?

One of the more compelling and lasting talks at Cannes this year was indeed David Remnick’s (The New Yorker) call to our world to remain diligent in the age of fake news that surrounds us. He refers to it as ‘pollution’ and at the moment, it has gotten to a point where we cannot breathe. For all of us, we have a part to play in combatting the ‘bullshit.’ My account of David’s talk below is only scratching the surface of a very real issue; but as content creators and distributors in our industry, what responsibility do we currently take in delivering real content, real news, in an age of fake news?

A lot of the Cannes stage was held by great storytellers. The power of storytelling was clear to all, as we were there to celebrate creativity. However, he says that in the age of mass storytelling, if a story is told and shared enough times, people will believe it. This is a problem; because we have lost our detectors to spot ‘bullshit.’

Remnick started by defining ‘bullshit’ so that we were clear to understand his point. In lesser moments, he says, we may betray some of our truths. It is wrong, for example, to fake a lab test. We know it is wrong, and we would never stand for it. Why then, when we learn of fake news being shared do we feel no sense of wrongdoing? He says it’s because of the bullshit effect.

“Bullshit” is defined as a wilful ignorance of fact.

As the editor of The New Yorker, it was no surprise that his passion stemmed from the explosion of fake news due to Mr. President – Donald Trump. And as such, without meaning to, Remnick’s talk was quite comedic in its delivery. He says there are liars and there are bullshitters. Liars know that something is not true. The bullshitters don’t care to know whether it is or it isn’t. That’s the difference. Trump? Well, he straddles both.

Remnick went on to say, “When Trump quotes stats that are wrong, he is lying, perhaps through ignorance. When he says ‘the best burger in town is in Trump tower’s restaurant,’ he is bullshitting.” Several other examples were well referenced to prove the point, this very clear distinction. And for most in the audience at Cannes, heads were shaking with embarrassment and disbelief…how is it possible that the masses have bought what Trump is saying?! But in referencing a fellow journalist on the matter, he quotes her to say “You’re taking him literally, but not seriously. His supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

This point stuck with me, because it was a call to journalists to ensure they have considered how all potential readers will interpret their message. Will they take it literally? Or seriously? We have to assume both; because modern journalists should make it their mission to ‘call out the bullshit’ and uncover what is really going on. It is not about having issue with an alternative or opposing viewpoint, it is about having absolutely no excuses when it comes to accepting deception and ‘bullshit.’

He reminded us that this is not new. ‘Fake news’ has become a fashionable phrase, a common ‘hashtag’ that has made its way back into our vernacular. However, he says that “the sins of the best media outlets are well known, even those old school ones. The difference is, that in the past, when a news organisation made an error, an imbalance, it has owned up to it.” The reason he felt compelled to speak to the audience in Cannes was because we now have a spirit of fake news, with seemingly little consequence.

David calls on us to realise just how not new ‘fake news’ is. Political lying goes back to Byzantine times he says; and “It has been a bullshit fest ever since!” However, it has evolved. The more printing and distribution of news becomes ubiquitous, the easier it is for fake news to rise.

Why should we care about this? Why would a company like ourselves care about this? Well, he says, “when a mid sized American city folds, who will investigate the corrupt mayor?” And when we login to Facebook and it is full of fake news, who will step in to stop the fake news pollution from spreading? (He actually refers to Mark Zuckerberg as the world’s most influential news editor, a title he certainly didn’t set out to wear).

We must put pressure on power. We must investigate the truth, we must put intelligent pressure on power to tell the truth. This is what WE – all of us who work, support or consume media – MUST DO.

His calls to action for media and news companies?

  • Invest and collaborate to support journalists. If you are media company, you should value your journalism, as much as your P&L.
  • Battle for the values of fact and truth, as much as we battle for our right to free speech.

Our call to arms from a brand and media agency point of view?

We buy advertising from news organisations directly, we buy inventory on global sites on behalf of our clients; and we therefore must remain diligent to protect the quality and the environment we are placing our messages.

  • We must do this to not only protect the brand safety of the client; but also
  • To ensure we are not financially supporting companies that do not effectively battle fake news.

At the end of the day, he says, it is like climate change, we can go on ignoring it and barely notice the difference. But if we go on ignoring it blissfully, we will drown.


DISCLAIMER: Here, I’ve given you a whistle stop tour of those points I felt compelled to share. Feel free to keep your ‘bullshit’ detectors on alert! As to be true to the point of this article, it’s important to note this is simply my direct account of David Remnick’s speech on fake news. He referenced Harry Frankfurt in his detailed description of ‘bullshit’ and referenced many others’ stories and experiences in his points.

Written by Emer Lawn, Director here in Mediaworks, who attended the Cannes Lions, International Festival of Creativity this past June 2017