Notwithstanding President Trump’s ongoing denunciations of the news media and his penchant for lying, one must ask: Does fake news really exist? If so, where does it come from? More importantly, who’s responsible for producing and promoting it?
The answer to the first question is yes, it definitely exists, but it didn’t start yesterday, or even during the latest techno-communications revolution. As Joe Piasecki, editor of our sister paper, The Argonaut, points out in a recent roundtable email with Southland Publishing Vice President of Operations David Comden, “People have been lying since before the invention of language, but social media is a unique opportunity to amplify the lies.”
Only more than simply selling soap or automobiles, today on one social media platform “You have Russians retweeting fake news with accounts like AlabamaMan2016, and the people it is targeting can’t see through the clearly non-native speaker elements of these pre-programmed tweets,” Joe writes.
Michael Sullivan, editor of the VC Reporter, another PW sister publication, also says fake news is out there, but she believes print is more trustworthy than online news, especially in the world of weekly newspapers.
“The more accessible the news people are the more legit and accountable they are. In our realm of the local weekly, we are so close to the sources that the only thing fake about what we do is trusting someone to tell us the truth,” Sullivan writes.
Both editors make excellent points. But I believe there’s more to it. Much as lying has grown up with the spoken word, profit margins have always controlled all of our basic institutions, including journalism. If not fake, most news agencies are certainly extremely discriminating about what they will and will not cover; not out of fear of getting it wrong, per se, but losing customers.
No better example of this exists than in television, all of its content driven by a profit-oriented agenda established by the white, male corporate powers that be (cars, real estate, restaurants, liquor, leisure, gambling, etc.).
Fake or simply absent news might also be the result of self-censored reporting, with some reactionary stories (fires, crashes, etc.) given extreme coverage at the expense of covering things like racism, sexism, public corruption and police brutality.
Of course, fake news could be publishing without question anything that any governmental agency says is true. A good example of this might be the case of Christopher Ballew. Pasadena police said Ballew was initially pulled over for “multiple infractions” before he was nearly beaten to death by two officers. Turns out multiple infractions were really just tinted windows and a missing front license plate.
Fake news might also be thought of as the product of something tainted by favoritism extended toward one person or perspective over another for political, corporate, financial or personal gain for either or both parties — the creator and the conduit.
It goes without saying that fake news is also gossip which today passes as news. With that said, Fake news could be information that has not been validated by official documentation (lawsuits, police reports, etc.).
Fake news could also be considered propaganda passing as “verified” information used by the government to paint “our” side in the most favorable light, i.e. “Of course the CIA and FBI had no hand in the murders of JFK, MLK and RFK, nor was the government involved in 9/11,” said the government prior to launching seemingly endless wars in the Middle East.
Finally, fake news might be thought of as any attempt to assuage the fears of average people by distracting them from real perils through the use of sports, entertainment or “pretty women, babies and puppy dogs” (to paraphrase W.R. Hearst, Otis Chandler, Rupert Murdoch, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, HLN, et al.).
For a culture that loves to label things, it seems we missed the mark in naming the times in which we live. This is really the “Misinformation Age,” in which just about anything that appears on social media or TV passes for fact, when, in fact, it is really propaganda or fake news not to be believed.
So what is to be done? Piasecki has an answer.
“Media literacy is part one of the answer. Calling out and embarrassing those who not only create but also those who promote fake news is maybe part two,” Joe writes. “People have either lost the ability to see through BS or choose to accept BS because it reinforces their pre-existing opinions, so education and social rejection/consequences together.”
As journalism icon H.L. Mencken wrote in 1926 about sensational and popular tabloid journalism of his day, “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
Or, for all those who like things fast, loose and fake, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” so goes the generally accepted paraphrase, which ironically, or fittingly, is now the right length for tweeting.
For a column by Michael Sullivan on much the same subject, visit vcreporter.com/2016/11/facts-matters/.