Leavitt: Nice news is fake news

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt

Whenever someone tells me I’ve written a nice story, I’m insulted.

But if I’m told I’ve written a good story, that’s entirely different.

“Good” infers you did the right things to find out the important stuff, and the resulting story might make a difference.

“Nice” usually means you wrote a fluffy story that will go on somebody’s refrigerator. You probably lazily avoided research and just wrote about some jerk exactly the way he wanted to be written about.

Maybe he wasn’t a jerk. But the audience can’t tell, because you didn’t try to find out, one way or another. Nice news is fake news.

Somehow, most people with no connection to journalism, God bless them, understand the difference between a nice story and a good one without needing any explanation at all. Actual journalists may not be as fortunate. I know a couple of them who will read the first four or five paragraphs of this column twice and still not get it.

I assure you that I get it, from hard experience outside the world of written words, like most people. I learned it from teachers like my old friend John.

John and I were both in the radio-dispatched cab business at the same time, though John was about 40 years older than me. He was a nice guy.

John and I were both part-time dispatchers. I will relate John’s work ethic as it was once described to me by a driver.

“John will patiently take every driver’s bid, making sure he hears all of the drivers’ transmissions. He will nicely and properly repeat back all of their bid positions.

“Then he will give the order to whoever the hell he wants to.”

Nice. Not good.

At one point, John somehow acquired a small fleet of taxicabs. They were old when he got them. In fact, two or three were Checker Marathons, which had become rare by that time. When the producers of “Ordinary People” came to town, they wanted to use Checkers in the movie, because they thought they looked like cabs were supposed to look. They leased them from John, because his little fleet was one of the few in two counties that hadn’t junked them yet.

It was not long after that when I saw one of his Checkers moseying down the highway with one end of a bumper roped to the frame to keep it from dragging on the ground.

His aging fleet was not responding well to the minimal maintenance it received. It was not unusual to see his cabs leave greasy little car chunks behind them.

It came to the point that the cars became nearly fatally decrepit. This occurred at the same time he got in serious money trouble, which may have been related to municipal demands that the cabs be upgraded, or maybe to weak card-playing, or both. His son gathered the drivers, and gave a stirring speech about supporting the fleet, and paying in advance in return for discounts.

They thought the speech was very nice. But the cabs were still no good.

That was the beginning of the end of John’s fleet.

Years later, John, now elderly, drove somebody else’s taxi. He drove very slowly.

Oddly, John avoided giving rides to other cabdrivers, who typically tip well. One day he did, and we found out the reason for his reticence, and the lack of speed, too.

His vision was about as bad as it could be and still help him find the door handle on the second or third try.

He had been nice enough to passengers that for years, they thought he was just a sweet old man who drove carefully because of his age. But actually, he was legally blind in one eye and could barely see out of the other, and at any second he could throw their entire existence into horrifying, metal-rending jeopardy.

Not good.

The way John was nice was worse than the way most reporters who write nice stories are nice. John endangered the lives of other humans.

But occasionally, journalists’ fake niceness has also been dangerous. Remember reading about how, in 1898, people working for publisher William Randolph Hearst were committed to being nice to the boss, who wanted to start a war with Spain? And it worked?

They did it by not telling all sides of the story. They purposely made something complex into something simple.

Some of the same tactics are afoot now as in 1898, and it’s relatively easy to tell who’s being nicely fake and Hearst-like: the ones who don’t include both sides. It’s easy to tell the stories that are good: they’re the ones with a lot of quotation marks and graphs and charts and facts and stuff.

We have seen for a long time that one of our cable news networks is overly nice to Republicans, and usually avoids facts that might disturb that niceness. Conservatives say there are liberal versions of Fox News, and they’re right, but they’re not MSNBC or CNN. They’re less prominent.

The outlets that are being most nice to one side or another, either through laziness or intent, are as dangerous as Hearst as we approach the most critical election of our lifetimes. And the tips of their spears are dipped in social media, which is better at not being good than the Hearst guys could dream of being.

The fake-news social media atmosphere that was energized by Donald Trump, other right-wingers and bots eventually spawned one-sided attacks from lefty bad guys. And now it’s spread.

Well-followed Twitter accounts that back Mike Bloomberg are busily attacking Bernie Sanders, and some similar Sanders folk are all over Bloomberg. A lot of half-truths are being posted.

Most of the other Democratic campaigns have fans who are behaving similarly. The battle is being waged not with facts, but in 20-word bursts. They’re not even close to good stories. They’re no more than headlines.

But you can do a lot with headlines.

Remember the Maine!