On June 16, 2022, USA Today announced that it would remove 23 stories written by their breaking news reporter Gabriela Miranda from its archive. The decision came after an internal audit found that the stories were fake news. Miranda had included quotes attributed to the wrong person and in some cases non-existent individuals. A quick perusal of the stories reveals that Miranda was not an overzealous reporter cutting corners in the name of fearless journalism. Rather, she was an ambitious young reporter producing the very non-newsworthy clickbait that corporate legacy media rewards. Here a few choice examples:
Quality journalism is newsworthy, meaning it is new, unusual, interesting, significant, and is a story of human interest. For decades, scholars have warned that in its pursuit of profits, corporate legacy media had abandoned journalism. Today’s corporate news does not reward quality journalism; like the days of “yellow journalism” a hundred years ago, it promotes trivial content that can now go viral online. Forty years ago, Project Censored founder Carl Jensen referred to a revival of this type of content as “junk food news” because just as fast food falsely appears to be decent food, junk food news is non-newsworthy, sensational garbage that appears to be sound journalism.
The audit of Miranda’s consent reveals that in corporate legacy news media, those interested in career advancement must produce junk food news even if they have to make it up. Plenty of young people in the industry recognize this reality. After leaving college in 2021, Miranda spent just over a year producing false content as a journalist at The Gainesville Times and USA Today. Miranda is not an outlier.
Others such as the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz, whose age is in dispute but is believed to be in her mid to late 30s, has made a lucrative career peddling non-newsworthy content and sloppy reporting. Indeed, in her position as a feature writer at WaPo, Lorenz publicly identified the person who ran the Libs of TikTok account, leading to that user being doxxed. The episode illustrates that WaPo has veered a long way off from when its journalists were known for investigative reporting that took down a sitting president in Richard Nixon. Now, they laud their reporters for identifying insignificant social media users.
Lorenz has not only been accused of reporting junk food news, but just like Miranda, she is accused of reporting falsehoods. In 2020, while at The New York Times, Lorenz was sued for defamation by influencer talent agent and entrepreneur Ariadna Jacob for “numerous false and disparaging statements.” The case is still pending. In June of 2022, it was revealed by the New York Times that Lorenz fabricated two interviews with YouTubers during the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial. As a result, Lorenz was demoted from her position as a feature writer at WaPo.
The junk food news from corporate reporters such as Miranda and Lorenz would be harmless if it did not distract audiences from quality journalism. This was made painfully clear on a June 2022 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. Host Bill Maher, who seems up to date on every trivial matter reported by MSNBC, was flabbergasted when his guest, Krystal Ball, noted that the majority of government relief funds allocated in response to the March 2020 stock market crash during the COVID-19 pandemic went to industry not individuals. Rather than disagree, Maher admitted he had no recollection of the crash or the funds allocated to industry. That helps explain why Maher was parroting the vacuous corporate legacy media talking point that the tiny part of government spending allocated to individuals was responsible for inflation.
Rather than take responsibility for developing a media system that rewards falsehoods and junk food news, corporate news media is largely defensive. For example, CNN developed Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources which argues weekly that the network’s competitors are peddling in falsehoods, but CNN is a bastion of true journalism in the U.S. However, Stelter, at 36 years old, is yet another younger person enamored with peddling junk food news and falsehoods. For example, he buckled under pressure when Stephen Colbert, a late night comedian, inquired about how CNN had allowed host Chris Cuomo to excuse improprieties by his brother then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Stelter said it was a “conundrum” for CNN because nothing like this had ever happened before. He claimed “if we open the journalism ethics book, there’s no page for this.” In fact, journalistic codes of ethics always include language about how reporters need to be independent of conflicts of interest and avoid even their appearance.
Rather than rely on falsehoods as he did on Colbert, Stelter often just avoids questions about CNN’s journalistic failures. In 2022, he shamelessly avoided a college student’s question about that cited specific examples where CNN’s reporting was inaccurate. Similarly, he reacted with confusion when a Yale University Professor, on his own program, made the case that CNN was a partisan network.
Just like the fall of Rome, the decline of American journalism is slow, but obvious to even the most nascent observer. The New York Times, who broke the USA Today story, is an interesting case study of this trajectory. Nearly, two decades earlier they – and the Boston Globe – published stories fabricated by Jayson Blair for years which included fables about the D.C. Sniper and U.S. invasion of Iraq. They seemed to have learned little from Blair because they soon published fake news stories abou non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq from Judith Miller, which helped sell the American public on invading Iraq in 2003. Even after they promised to recommit themselves to journalism following Trump’s election, the New York Times published a podcast called Caliphate, about a Canadian who joined Isis and lived to tell about it, which proved to be false. These stories illustrate the corrosive damage caused by corporate legacy media peddling fake news.
It seems clear that today’s journalists want to be seen as brave truth tellers, but refuse to do the hard work that sound investigative reporting requires. They would rather fabricate stories and virtue signal on social media for more clicks, shares, and likes. Too many ambitious media figures rightly recognize that fabricating sensational content will advance their career in corporate legacy media.
Nolan Higdon is a Project Censored judge and lecturer at Merrill College and University of California, Santa Cruz.