Together again: News vets weigh in on fake news

Doug Cabral and Nelson Sigelman will speak at the Oak Bluffs library.

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Two former editors of The MV Times, Doug Cabral, left, and Nelson Sigelman will discuss 'fake news' at the Oak Bluffs library on April 27. —Stacey Rupolo

Two no-nonsense Island newsmen will combine more than 50 years of experience to put “fake news” in its societal place in a conversation on the much-ballyhooed subject to be held Thursday, April 27, at the Oak Bluffs library.

The topic of fake news is front and center in our national consciousness after an extraordinary presidential campaign raised questions about the use and misuse of news in our society. Last week, educator and journalist John Kennedy offered his take on judging news content and ways to promote media literacy at a presentation at the West Tisbury library.

The Oak Bluffs event, featuring Doug Cabral and Nelson Sigelman, is scheduled for 6 to 8 pm, and is free and open to the public. It will include a presentation by Nina Ferry, the library’s new reference librarian, about how to locate reliable information, and a “make your own headline” activity, as well as a conversation between Mr. Sigelman, former editor of The MV Times, and Mr. Cabral, former publisher and editor of The MV Times.

Mr. Cabral spent 36 years as a newsman on the Vineyard, working at both the Vineyard Gazette and at The Times. He has kept his hand in the business since retiring in 2014, recently publishing a book called “Newshounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard” about his newspapering experience.

Mr. Sigelman spent 30 years at this newspaper, beginning as an ad rep, then a fishing and hunting columnist, working his way to its editorship before leaving in October 2016. He has since spent much time outdoors, in the woods or on the water, the reasons he came here in the first place.

Both men have earned reputations as straightforward speakers. The Times sat down with them this week to preview their thoughts on the state of newsworthiness in the digital age and how to handle it.

On the subject of “fake news,” Mr. Cabral said, “I’m old-fashioned in that regard. News occurs when something happens, someone finds out about it, a reporter looks into it and if it passes muster, it becomes a published story. That’s news, by my definition. There is a proliferation of outlets now with a lot of reporting that includes words like ‘may’ or ‘possibly.’ That may be analysis or something else, but it’s not news.

“Next, most important, is the way in which it is curated or edited. I see no reason to have that control put in the hands of people who have no business managing what I see or read. I’m a free speech absolutist,” he said.

Mr. Sigelman said, “Fake news is a fake story. The term is imprecise. We all have different definitions. Slamming and libeling political opponents has been going on since the Revolutionary War.”

Both men see the changed media landscape and the emergence of social media digital platforms as primary news sources as problematic. Mr. Sigelman took platforms such as Facebook and Google to task for not watchdogging their content. Ironically, his comments came just hours before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that his company still has “a lot of work to do” in that regard.

Facebook has been criticized for allowing a live post of a murder taking place in Ohio to remain on its website for hours after the event. Mr. Sigelman proposed that Google and Facebook hire editors to monitor their content, noting that downsizing in traditional newsrooms has provided a pool of editors who could do the job.

“Creating a new algorithm is not the answer,” he said.

“The traditional media — the New York Times and the Washington Post — provide their content free to these platforms, who monetize it to their benefit. These digital platforms are parasites, sucking the life out of reputable news outlets who ought to charge the platforms for use of their content,” he said.

Both men said that consumers are ultimately responsible for judging the truth and value of what they see and read.

“There is a partisan nature in the proliferation of outlets. Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are what people regard as news. They tend to cluster on the left or right. Your job and mine is to read critically, to think of its usefulness,” Mr. Cabral said. “I need to determine what the value of something I read in the Washington Post or Breitbart is to me as I consider the issues boiling around us. I need to think carefully, to understand better. What I find, wherever I find it, is never all there is to know before deciding.”

“What it boils down to is that, if you believe in our First Amendment right to say and write what we like, you and I have to read carefully. We have to think our way through this, avoid labels. It’s our responsibility to do it,” Mr. Cabral said.