Nathan Bomey won several awards for his work covering Detroit’s Municipal bankruptcy for the Detroit Free Press. And he turned that experience into a 2016 book titled, “Detroit Resurrected.”
Now, he’s got a new book coming out. “After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump” comes out May 8 in hardcover from Prometheus Books, but it’s available now for pre-order. Bomey, who’s an old friend and former coworker of yours truly now lives near Washington D.C. Where he covers business for USA Today.
He joined us by phone to talk about his new book. The original interview on the Daily Detroit News Byte podcast is embedded above (Subscribe free in Apple Podcasts here) and a transcript edited for clarity is below.
SVEN: Tell us how did you get interested in this topic of “After the fact.”
BOMEY: Well actually, back in the Spring of 2016 — so about two years ago, now — I had the idea for this book.
Originally the inspiration was seeing on Facebook so many different people representing their lives as extremely positive when I knew that there were things going on that weren’t as positive and I thought to myself, “You know, we’re all using this — including myself — as a vehicle to publicize our lives and sort of be our own Communications Professionals.” Polish ourselves, put up photo galleries and videos and status updates that paint our lives in a fashion that’s not really reflective of reality.
And then, at the same time, Donald Trump was leading the race for the Republican nomination and I was confused as to why people would be surprised that he could get away with skewing the facts about his own accomplishments and about his political views because we live in a world in which social media allows us all to do this on a daily basis.
And so I set out to do a much deeper dive into why people believe things that aren’t true, and why we should not be surprised that someone could rise to power and the White House while skewing the facts.
SVEN: You argue that Donald Trump, who’s going to be probably synonymous for the term “alternative facts,” that he didn’t really introduce this to the world, but really kind of rode it all the way to the White House. Can you explain that a little?
BOMEY: I really feel strongly that Donald Trump was inevitable in the sense that perhaps not him personally, but someone like him, was inevitable. Meaning we saw the conditions were in place for someone to basically trample the truth and get to the White House by doing it.
There used to be disincentives for misinformation now there are incentives. I mean that for a few reasons. On social media, obviously that has really redefined the way people interact and information and the way that we share stories and the way we consume news. What it has done is put us as individual consumers in charge of our own information discovery and news consumption.
Whereas in the past, I’d say the post-Vietnam War era, in which the news media was fairly responsible and trying to do a good job of showing you the news you needed to know and basically provide this service of “fact authentication” on behalf of consumers in exchange for the subscriptions or for their attention to advertisements.
That whole model has given way now to an algorithmic based model. Silicon Valley in the form of social media engineers, has basically put us in charge of our own news consumption. And they think that what we want to see is news that’s engaging, sensational, that’s controversial, that’s sexy for some reason and they’re right and so that’s what we see now.
We don’t necessarily see the news that is substantive, or nuanced and in-depth. I think that that is what that is done is led to this complete transfer of trust from what used to be somewhat sober-minded news consumption to now this much more sensational age in which it’s easy to get attention by doing things like tweet all day about sensational things like Donald Trump does.
Because that is what’s going to penetrate this extremely noisy news environment that we live in.
SVEN: Yeah, that’s interesting. I recently saw a documentary about Watergate and Richard Nixon and one of my big takeaways — one of the things that really struck me — was that the news media was probably smaller in terms of the breadth of it. It was broadcast TV, radio, and print that it is now, but it obviously commanded so much stronger trust among the general public then it does now. That seems to be a real problem as well, just to kind of the splintering of media.
BOMEY: Yeah it is. Exactly. I think the decline of journalism in general is a significant reason that we can point to as well.
I look at the decline of local news media in particular as a significant concern. Sven, you and I know each other from our early days earlier in local news media and working in Ann Arbor and Oakland County and covering business in Michigan. We have seen personally the decline of local news.
I have several former publications in my past that are gone. I think that it concerns me because when you don’t have the watchdog there then that allows people to get away with lies. And also, it really severs that relationship of trust between the public and journalists.
So I don’t think we should be surprised that people are glomming onto these false accusations of fake news that Donald Trump levels, because people don’t have relationships with reporters anymore. There’s no one in those communities to report the news.
I think about that I was 17 years old when I started at the Saline Reporter, which is crazy — and I’m sitting there at the Lodi Township Board of Trustees meetings and trying to make sense of very arcane topics like septic systems, zoning, you know all this stuff, and I’m like, well, okay, maybe I was young and inexperienced, but I was trying to do my best and ultimately, at least there was someone there to report try to report the news.
There’s no one going to those meetings anymore. And so I don’t think those people are corrupt, but honestly, who knows? Because there’s no one there to tell us. And I think that that on the large scale leads us to where we are today.
SVEN: You and I have talked about this a little bit. That this whole idea of the untruth and fake news and everything seems to be such a moving target. When you’ve got Donald Trump on any given day has already sent out five or six incendiary tweets by the time most people wake up. Was it hard for you to write this book given that… That things are constantly changing and there are constantly these huge stories coming out that relate to the squishiness of fact?
BOMEY: Yeah, it was difficult. What I wanted to do was make sure that this book was not basically a list of Donald Trump’s myths, truths or lies or falsehoods. Obviously many of those have been well reported and that is sort of the reason for writing the book. I didn’t want to necessarily get caught up in the day to day, the basically the ins and outs of what’s happening in the West Wing and that sort of thing.
That’s all good for other people. But this is a book that attempts to explain why we have Fallen prey to this skewing effect. And honestly Sven, this goes both ways. This is not just a Republican thing. This is really across the spectrum and in some ways, it affects both sides of the political aisle and in some ways it’s not political at all.
One of my favorite interviews for this book was with the editor of the Weekly World News, which is a Supermarket tabloid famous for writing about aliens coming to Earth and that kind of thing. Silly stuff.
But I asked him, “Why do you think fake news? What’s the appeal of fake news,” it’s a bad term, but let’s just use it. He said, “I think the reason why fake news and fabricated content appeals to people is because reality is inconvenient. Because people don’t want to know the facts necessarily — and that goes across political boundaries — people don’t necessarily want to confront reality because reality is difficult.”
So that’s why it’s so hard to stop fake news and fabricated stuff, because it just has this natural appeal.
SVEN: I know your book offers some suggestions for ways to kind of regain the mantle of truth. I don’t want to ask you to give away the plot or anything here, but I’m just curious. Do you see anything encouraging out there that suggests maybe we could be turning a corner or there? That there’s reason to hope that we could come back to an age of fact? Specifically, I’m wondering about the the recent Facebook scandal with Cambridge Analytica and 87 million people’s personal information being obtained by a private company?
BOMEY: I think it’s a good thing that there is this heightened awareness of the effect that Facebook has had on the way that we perceive the world. That there is awareness. Now that Cambridge Analytical scandal is obviously primarily focused on data privacy and that sort of thing — all which is very important…
SVEN: But they used it to generate lots of fake news.
BOMEY: Right. Obviously the use of the data is extremely concerning. But yeah, I think the reality is that Facebook and the effect it’s had on the way that we view the world, it’s important to have this discussion. So I think that that’s one positive. But in terms of solutions, one of the things I would suggest is that in in the journalism world I think we need to take a strong look at nonprofit journalism as a model we need to get much more serious consideration to.
But the good news is we do see some serious investments going on there. With the Knight Foundation for example, and many others that are putting some serious money now into nonprofit journalism that I think people are realizing good strong journalism is critical to a democracy.
And it’s possible we are witnessing the extinction of for-profit journalism on a local scale. And if we are, then we have to do something to sustain it, otherwise, we will face this issue on a grander scale.
So I think that’s encouraging, and it’s a solution. The other thing I look at. Education needs to change dramatically if we’re going to actually address this because ultimately, we need really sophisticated news consumers. People who can discern for themselves what’s true and what’s not because if the news media isn’t there to do it, someone has to do it on their own.
So I think educators need to rethink the way they teach kids and I think it needs to be about critical thinking and not so focused on specific skills, but on really teaching kids how to learn. And if you can learn how to learn, then you can learn how to authenticate the facts on your own and so those are positives. But honestly, Sven, I’m also pretty pessimistic.
If you if you read one chapter of this book, I suggest reading chapter seven, “Fabrication Nation,” which is about the future of fabricated content. It’s about what is likely to come, which is an explosion of false audio clips and video clips, and when I was starting to report some of this and realized what’s out there, I was pretty startled and scared to be honest.
Because I think that within a few years it’ll be very easy to fabricate audio. Make it sound like someone said something they never said, and then video will be after that where you’ll be able to show someone doing something they never did. And that that is going to basically require us to be very, very smart about questioning things that we see — not just things that we read.
SVEN: Sounds terrifying. “After that after the fact: The erosion of truth and the inevitable rise of Donald Trump” comes out May 8th. It’s available for pre-order by clicking here. Nathan Bomey, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Editor’s Note: This interview originally appeared in the Daily Detroit News Byte podcast. The show posts Mondays through Thursdays and is available in all popular podcasting apps.