Suddenly, since the election, “fake news” has become all the rage. Not that it’s a new phenomenon. All of us have come across it on social media. Most of us think we know it when we see it, and the recent election probably sensitized a great many of us to its cheap seduction. Some of it is satire, some is sincerely-held conspiracy theory, some is cooked-up, milli-penny click bait, and some of it is intended to drive an agenda.
Those forms of “fake news” are only the most obvious. I believe, for example, that the dangers of positively fake news are no greater than those posed by omission or demotion of news. It was rather obvious during the recent election campaign that news networks often ignored important stories that did not favor their own points of view. And since the death of the tyrant Fidel Castro, we’ve heard pronouncements that he was a “great leader” from a variety of sources who should know better; we’ve heard very little from them about his oppressive and murderous regime.
News as reported, and not reported, is often manipulated or mischaracterized to suit particular agendas. Reporters have their sources, and sources usually have agendas and stratagems in mind, which include rewarding reporters to get the coverage they desire. The manipulation even extends to news about science: grant-hungry and media-savvy members of the scientific community, and the pop-science community, know how to leverage it to their advantage.
Given the universal human capacity for bias, Roger Simon asks, only half in jest, whether all news is fake news. You can rely on so-called fact-checkers in an attempt to verify stories you find suspicious, but choose your fact checkers wisely because they are no better than the biases they bring to their duties. Let’s face it: facts are not always as clear-cut as we’d like. Simon makes his advisory on bias in reporting in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s new-found passion to identify “fake news” and purveyors of “fake news”, and potentially to ban them from Facebook. No doubt his concern stems from accusations from angry Hillary Clinton supporters that Facebook failed to control the flow of “fake news” during the presidential campaign. He wants users to “flag” fake stories, but he knows that won’t always yield definitive conclusions. Simon quotes the Wall Street Journal:
“Facebook is turning to outside groups for help in fact-checking… It is also exploring a product that would label stories as false if they have been flagged as such by third-parties or users, and then show warnings to users who read or share the articles.
‘The problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically,’ [Zuckerberg] wrote. ‘We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible.’“
Well, that’s a relief! But what kind of chilling effect might be inflicted when the fact priests assign their marks? And what kind of fact-check/flagging escalation might be engendered among users? In the end, users and third-party “authorities” have biases. You can’t take any proscriptive action that will please them all. Better for hosts to keep their fingers off the scale, avoid censorship, and let users please themselves!
Zuckerberg should know better than to think that “facts” are always easily discerned, that “fake” news is solely the province of crank blogs and flakey “new media” organizations, or that “fake news” has any political affiliation. Consider the following examples offered by A. Barton Hinkle at Reason.com:
“The [New York] Times’ record for disseminating agitprop dates back at least to the early 1930s, when Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer for his reporting that denied the existence of famines in Soviet Russia—during a period when millions were dying of starvation.
More recently, The Times has given the nation the Jayson Blair fabrications—which it followed up with the infamous 2004 story, ‘Memos on Bush Are Fake But Accurate, Typist Says.’ It followed that up four years later with a story implying that GOP presidential candidate John McCain had had an affair with a lobbyist. (The lobbyist sued, and reached a settlement with the paper.)
Over the years other pillars of the media also have fallen on their faces. NBC News had to confess that it rigged GM trucks with incendiary devices for an explosive Dateline segment. The Washington Post gave up a Pulitzer after learning that Janet Cooke’s reporting about an 8-year-old heroin addict was false. In 1998 the Cincinnati Enquirer renounced its own series alleging dark doings by the Chiquita banana company. That same year, CNN retracted its story alleging ‘that the U.S. military used nerve gas in a mission to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War.’ The San Jose Mercury News had to denounce its own series alleging that the CIA was to blame for the crack cocaine epidemic. Rolling Stone just got hit with a big libel judgment for its now-retracted story about a rape at U.Va. And so on.“
Retractions are good, of course, but they aren’t always forthcoming, and they often receive little notice after the big splash of an initial report. The damage cannot be fully undone. Yet no one proposes to censor “the paper of record” or, with the exception of Fox News, the major television networks.
Edward Morrissey, writing at The Week, notes that the Trump election represented such a total breakdown in the accepted political wisdom that the identification of scapegoats was inevitable:
“Over the past week, the consensus Unified Theory from the media is this: Blame fake news. This explanation started with BuzzFeed’s analysis of Facebook over the past three months, which claimed that the top 20 best-performing ‘fake news’ articles got more engagement than the top 20 ‘mainstream news’ stories. …
There are also serious problems with the evidence BuzzFeed presents. As Timothy Carney points out at the Washington Examiner, the “real news” that Silverman uses for comparison are, in many cases, opinion pieces from liberal columnists. The top ‘real’ stories — which BuzzFeed presented in a graphic to compare against the top ‘fake’ stories — consist of four anti-Trump opinion pieces and a racy exposé of Melania Trump’s nude modeling from two decades ago.“
In Reason, Scott Shackford considers a proposed list of “fake news” sources compiled by a communications professor. Shackford says:
“… [Professor] Zimdars’ list is awful. It includes not just fake or parody sites; it includes sites with heavily ideological slants like Breitbart, LewRockwell.com, Liberty Unyielding, and Red State. These are not “fake news” sites. They are blogs that—much like Reason—have a mix of opinion and news content designed to advance a particular point of view. Red State has linked to pieces from Reason on multiple occasions, and years ago I wrote a guest commentary for Breitbart attempting to make a conservative case to support gay marriage recognition.“
Warren Meyer rightfully identifies the “fake news” outrage as an exercise in idealogical speech suppression, much like the left’s cavalier use of the term “hate speech”:
“The reason it is such a dangerous term for free speech is that there is no useful definition of hate speech, meaning that in practice it often comes to mean, ‘confrontational speech that I disagree with.’“
Worries about “fake” news are one thing, but perhaps we should be just as concerned about the “scourge of dumb news“, and the way it often supplants emphasis on more serious developments. Did the fracas over the Hamilton cast’s treatment of Mike Pence distract the media, and the public, from stories about Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest around the globe, which broke at about the same time? Here are some other examples of “dumb” news offered by Noah Rothman, the author of the last link:
“Colin Kaepernick, the Black Lives Matter movement, college-age adults devolving into their childlike selves, or pretentious celebrities politicizing otherwise apolitical events; for the right, these and other similar stories masquerade as and suffice for intellectual stimulation and political engagement. The left is similarly plagued by mock controversies. The faces printed on American currency notes, minority representation in film adaptations of comic books, and astrophysicists insensitive enough to announce feats of human engineering while wearing shirts with cartoon depictions of scantily clad women on them. This isn’t politics but, for many, it’s close enough.“
Okay, so what? We all choose news sources we prefer or discern to be reliable, interesting, or entertaining, and that’s wonderful. No one should presume to question the degree to which news and entertainment ought to intersect. I do not want protection from “fake news”, “dumb news”, or any news source that I prefer, least of all from the government. After all, if there is any entity that might wish to “control the narrative” it’s the government, or anyone who stands to gain from it’s power to coerce.