We all reach a point where we just can’t take any more. I am well past that on several fronts, but one more than others.
I come not to hail “fake news,” but to bury it.
Actual fake news (hence, no air quotes) is that created from whole cloth, sometimes with actual events as an inspiration, typically presented and labeled as satire (The Onion, Andy Borowitz, etc.). It can also include stories not labeled as satire, but that are obviously fake, with cherry-picked facts that fit the narrative and/or details too outlandish to be believed … unless it appeals to your confirmation bias (which is why a lot of fake quotes never go away, with so many people putting words in Jefferson’s, Obama’s and Hillary’s mouths, among others). Sometimes that’s because someone reposted something as fact from a satire site.
But “fake news” … well, that’s another animal entirely. And one that hasn’t been paper-trained either.
Bad … uh … whatever the hell you are.
The president, as if he hadn’t already, last week made it clear that he considers any negative coverage about him to be fake. Excuse me, “fake.” As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, he had made 411 references to “fake news,” according to Factba.se (and that grew to 412 shortly after later), including that tweet from last Wednesday:
Leaving aside the nonsensical (as always) capitalization and the threat to the First Amendment, let’s apply Occam’s Razor to this contention: If the coverage is overwhelmingly negative, wouldn’t the first assumption be that what prompted said coverage was negative, especially when multiple outlets are reporting it the same way? That includes coverage on Fox News’ main newscast—not its many chatfests—which was, according to a recent Harvard media study, majority negative, at 52 percent.
(By the way, journalist and Teen Vogue political columnist Lauren Duca had one of the better responses to his tweet … and she has one of the best disclaimers I’ve seen: “Tweets are my own and do not reflect the views of Clay Aiken.”)
As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump has pointed out:
“Bear in mind, negative coverage doesn’t mean incorrect coverage. Martin Shkreli gets a lot of negative coverage, in part because he actively fosters it and in part because he’s mostly in the news for doing things like being arrested or jacking up the prices of critical medications. Lots of negative coverage, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
“Trump’s unorthodox presidency and tumultuous White House have led to a lot of negative news coverage. In Trump’s eyes, it’s almost necessarily unwarranted. Sure, he has seen rampant staff turnover and is the subject of a massive investigation into his 2016 campaign and campaign advisers. Sure, he’s disparaged the media for reports that his legal team was in turmoil right before a series of resignations. But reporting all of that means you’re fake news and you’re the enemy.”
In the president’s case, just as with “PharmaBro” Shkreli, much of that negative coverage is self- inflicted. He could just let the Mueller investigation continue to its natural conclusion and let the chips fall where they may (especially if he’s done nothing wrong). Instead, he spends much of his time ranting about Robert Mueller and his investigators (and, inevitably, Hillary) on Twitter and in uncomfortable phone interviews with Fox & Friends.
He could let his deeds stand on their own, for good or ill, but he consistently proclaims he’s done everything better than other presidents (especially that one … you know who) or would-be presidents, or that he was the first to come up with an idea. Sorry, but fact-checkers gotta fact-check, and we’re already at an average of more than six falsehoods a day according to multiple sources. It wasn’t so long ago that the number was 4.9.
His views have muddied the waters, and there’s a partisan divide on what actual fake news is. A recent Gallup/Knight Foundation study found that while Americans were more likely to consider as fake news someone portraying falsehoods as truth, 42 percent of Republicans polled believed even accurate stories that may cast a negative light on a politician or party are always fake news. Only 10 percent believed they were never fake news. Only 17 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents believed reporting true but negative information on politicians or parties is always fake news.
On the threat of fake news on democracy, Republicans were more likely to consider it a very serious threat. Again, though, you have to remember that the term means different things to different people.
So let’s have an agreement on what fake news is—I would suggest false information portrayed as true, stories that are completely made up, and those that cherry- pick quotes and other information to present a false picture of the truth. Stories that are printed before being thoroughly fact-checked aren’t necessarily fake, but they are sloppy journalism. And opinion, such as what you’re reading now, is not fake news because opinion is not news; if you can’t tell the difference, I can’t help you.
I really couldn’t explain how we should approach “fake news”—which is really nothing more than an effort to deflect attention—better than Apryl Marie Fogel (a former state director for Americans for Prosperity in Florida) of the Alabama Today blog:
“Screaming ‘fake news’—and I’m seeing the left, and the right, do it these days—is an intellectually dishonest and lazy copout. Rather than saying something is ‘fake news,’ be specific about your objections and voice those in a mature way. That goes for any subjects of so-called ‘fake news,’ as well as readers. …
“We need to do [a] better job of this as a society. We need to do better as political and communications professionals and stop trying to vilify those who are putting information in the hands of readers, listeners or watchers, or whatever medium people are getting their news through, and allow them [to] determine what they think on their own.”
Novel idea, that. Maybe we’ll actually do this sometime.