Journalism in the Age of “Fake News”
A Discussion with Henry Blodget
By Jane Buckley
In a recent Tonight Show episode, host Jimmy Fallon entertained the audience with a version of the popular game “two truths and a lie,” aptly called: “Two Truths and an Alternative Fact.” On actor Ryan Gosling, for example: he has appeared on “La La Land” (fact); he has cameoed on “The Mickey Mouse Club” (fact); when he gets older, the actor will be known as “Ryan Goose” (alternative fact). As lighthearted as his game was, Fallon was just scratching the surface of a new phenomenon that is dividing the United States today: Fake News. With endless information available to hungry readers at the click of a mouse, American citizens have started to decide for themselves which articles they choose to believe and which they don’t, to the extent that they will disregard certain news outlets completely, while engaging solely in one or two. This creates the obvious problem of large percentages of the population willingly agreeing to facts that could be false. Welcome to the life under the Trump administration.
In an attempt to facilitate discussion of this phenomenon, Timothy Dwight College hosted Business Insider Cofounder and CEO Henry Blodget (Yale ‘88) to speak at a college tea about this phenomenon. As advertised by the description for the college tea, “A former top-ranked Wall Street analyst, Blodget is often a guest on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and other networks. He has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, The New York Times, Fortune, New York, the Financial Times, and other publications.” Evidently, Blodget is a man of many credentials, and his talk was accordingly engaging and entertaining. In a question-answer style discussion, Blodget spoke to a group of about 40 students and alumni about his personal experience working in the journalism world, and then about his perspective on this era of fake news, especially under President Trump. Blodget was well-spoken and charismatic, immediately drawing his audience in with a mix of thoughtful advice and funny anecdotes.
The discussion launched with a simple question, in which Blodget was asked about his transition from Yale to his prestigious role as the founder of one of the most successful news outlets in the U.S. Blodget graduated from Yale in 1988, and after spending a year teaching in Japan and writing a book about his experience, he spent 10 years on Wall Street covering the dot com boom where he, in his own words, “rode the boom up and then came crashing back down with it.” Further research explains this complicated relationship with the stock market, detailing his “crash”—in 2002 he was charged with fraud for encouraging the public to buy certain stocks which he privately condemned in his position as an “all-star” Merrill Lynch analyst. However, a multi-million dollar fine and a lifelong ban from the financial services industry didn’t stop Blodget’s career. If anything, it seemed to refocus it, and he now runs an incredibly successful and highly acclaimed news site, with a “bank balance…far larger than it would have been if he’d been able to stick at it on Wall Street.” An odd and intricate narrative of a rise to a good reputation, Blodget’s story isn’t has heroic and attractive as one would like, but perhaps more realistic than those we hear more often. Instead of a public servant dedicating his life to exposing the wrongs of the business world, we have a brilliant criminal-turned-highly-reputable journalist.
However, I digress. Shady past or not, Blodget was there to speak to us of the fake news phenomenon, and that he did, eloquently. After the introduction, the discussion turned to alternative facts and President Trump.
Calling the fake news phenomenon a “bewildering situation,” Blodget explained how difficult it is to convince people who are set on their beliefs to change their minds. We’re all guilty of it–scrolling through headlines we don’t like and clicking on the ones we do, the internet has provided us with an unprecedentedly easy way to become complacent. With the nearly unlimited access to a plethora of news sources that most people have today, it has become easier than ever to pick and choose sources based on what one wants to hear. Blodget didn’t present a solution to the problem besides emphasizing his own company’s commitment to the truth.
Questions like “how do you keep Business Insider reliable?” and “who do you hire to make this possible?” came up, allowing Blodget to explain his company’s 100% commitment to publishing what is actually true, despite any pushback readers might give. When asked whether he felt attacked by the Trump administration, Blodget answered that he didn’t feel personally targeted, but was worried about the state of free press, and democracy in general, under the current administration. I didn’t find any of his answers revolutionary, and I wonder if it takes a certain level of establishment and credibility for a news organization to be able to be completely impartial politically in order to tell stories that people might not want to hear, without being worried about losing too many readers. But it seems more important than ever to have CEOs like Blodget able and willing to do that.
Blodget had an interesting and well-qualified perspective on the issue of fake versus real news, but ultimately there is no satisfying solution to the phenomenon. He foresees no easy fix, and it seems that people will keep trusting sources that tell them what they want to hear. While he does what he can, that only reaches a certain demographic, and he seems, unfortunately, to be unique in his philosophy. A heartening note that he ended on, however, was his specific advice to students who wanted to go into journalism, by encouraging initiative and emphasizing the importance of good journalists in today’s political climate. Perhaps it’s not wise to follow his whole career path, but it doesn’t take a shameful expulsion from the finance world in order to do good in the journalism world. Blodget ended the discussion with a simple piece of advice: “if you’re passionate about journalism, start doing it.” So here I am.
Jane is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at email@example.com.