Recently David Greising, the President and CEO of the Better Government Association, posted an editorial, Even in an Age of ‘Fake News,’ the Truth Wins Out, that denounced fake news and the spread of “alternative facts” and innuendo in public life while, reasonably enough, touting the good work that the Better Government Association does in promoting truth. Among other things, Greising wrote:
When President Trump first called reporters “enemies of the people” in early 2017, it was a shock. The term came from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, via the Third Reich’s Josef Goebbels via the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
“Fake News” has its own ignoble lineage. Like George Orwell’s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” in the novel 1984, “Fake News” is pure double think.
If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake.
It is a clarion call for the light of truth against the cynical, power-obsessed forces of self-serving lies: Forces so inured to deception that its practitioners are unable to distinguish actual journalism from their own bloviating. As Roy Edroso at the Village Voice put it:
Yeah, that’s how journalists operate. They claim they’re “reporting news,” but they’re really passing on orders to kill. It’s easy to understand why conservatives think this way. They themselves admit that right-wing media outlets don’t do a lot of reporting, and most are simply content to chest-pound on behalf of Donald Trump. So would they even recognize what journalism is? Under such circumstances it would make sense if they came to consider journalism in the same way they consider creative endeavors: as vaguely disreputable dark arts practised only by their enemies, to be beaten back with slander and propaganda.
But: “If it’s news, it can’t be fake”? Really?
Whatever else is going on, there’s a fundamental miscommunication here. For partisan ideologues, fake news can also be news with an agenda or news with a particular spin, including controversies based on a biased or false premise. (When did you stop beating your wife?) Partisans have a particular reason to be sensitive to this as so much of what partisans do is directed at putting their particular issues of concern on the political agenda, in other words, manipulating the news media coverage (or lack thereof) of issues.
This can be really quite blatant. Consider for a moment the practice of setting up “spin rooms” for journalists after a political event such as a debate or a political convention. The point is to reiterate and explain talking points, making sure of the most favorable interpretation of events. “Spin rooms” as a formal practice was first begun by the Reagan for President campaign back in 1984, but similar efforts before and since can be found in the old Sunday morning talk shows on TV or even today on social media such as Twitter. Is this “fake news” only when it includes lies?
Broadcast media, radio and television, dominated journalism for most of the 20th Century, and these entities had been encouraged to be neutral, at least in the sense of allowing time for multiple viewpoints. They use a publicly “owned” medium, after all, with the consent of the government by license: the electro-magnetic spectrum. This has had a decisive influence on the ethics of the profession, but before broadcast news, there was not even a pretense at neutrality. In the 19th Century, for example, U.S. newspaper editors were typically major players in the internal politics of U.S. political parties (including minor parties).
But journalists are not just journalists / reporters / scribes. They are story-tellers. If you’re a journalist, your bosses want an audience to sell to advertisers, yes? And you, the journalist, want an audience to read or watch or listen to what is said, right? So: “if it bleeds, it leads” or “personalize your story”, but there is more as well. As any story-teller will confide, a story stands on the shoulders of previous stories. Your audience will bring their own baggage to whatever they are consuming so it helps if they can tell part of the story themselves. As an experiment, find a news story covering the politics or an event in some part of the world about which you know next to nothing. Don’t be surprised if it makes no sense or, at a minimum, if it leaves you puzzled. The puzzling missing pieces are the parts of the story the intended audience brings to the report. If you are telling the audience something entirely new, the audience will require an education. This imposes an “opportunity cost” on any new perspective while the familiar will go down easy.
Likewise, story-telling evokes expectations of drama, irony, gossip and closure. My impression is that maybe closure is a bigger part of broadcast journalism than the web or print, but it is nearly universal. Listen to almost any radio or TV news report and pay attention to the last few sentences: it will be a conclusion, typically some clichéd conventional wisdom apropos the topic of the report. It’s the safe thing to do, after all, and often enough the reporter is dealing with a subject about which the reporter knows very little. How could one go wrong by parroting what is broadly accepted, however inane? Except that often this wisdom is also a judgement: Trump has no chance of winning or Bernie Sanders’ campaign will go nowhere, as examples.
As an aside, it’s not only the need for drama that turns political coverage into a horse race story. The late Tom Wicker learned the hard way as a journalist: If you do not want to be scooped, you have to cover the possibilities as well as what has happened:
“…Whitman had had the foresight to get a pledge from Kurfees that if he did run, he’d break the story in the Sentinel. I kicked myself for weeks because if I’d thought there was even a possibility that Kurfees would run again, I could have offered him more circulation for an exclusive in the morning Journal. Moral: in writing about politics, the possibilities matter as much as the supposedly known facts, which often are not facts at all.”
— Tom Wicker, On Press, page 37
Fake news, definition 2, anyone? “Which often are not facts at all,” fake news, definition 1, anyone? And this isn’t even allowing for interviews with players who speculate on possibilities with the aim of creating a particular outcome.
Tom Wicker is right. Sometimes what we think we know is simply untrue. Consider the routine press reports about studies recommending how a particular diet will lead to particular healthful benefits. Often enough these are studies using small populations of dubious statistical value, sometimes even financed by entities with an interest in the results. Is this “fake news”? Public radio’s On the Media has devoted episodes to debunking false statistics (see, for example, “Prime Number” or “The Stat Police“), yet they continue to be routinely incorporated in reporting. But repeated and debunked often enough, it leaves room for people to doubt even spectacularly dangerous phenomenon like human-induced global warming.
When you add all this to an epidemic of pathological cynicism and mistrust, you have an atmosphere deadly to even republican democracy. But contra David Greising, the profession of journalism is not a simple victim here.
With the rise of the web and cable as major media, we’re seeing a shift back to advocacy as a legitimate part of journalism. This influences expectations regarding all of journalism. And being human, when we look for bias, inevitably we’ll find it, even when it’s not exactly there. See, for example, On the Media’s exercise in navel-gazing back in 2012 on whether National Public Radio has a liberal bias (~ 20 minutes):
What journalism should consider is a professional standard that admits to bias and advocacy but requires the inclusion of information sufficient for the news consumer to decide for themselves.
Fake news as manufactured lies is indeed a problem, has been a problem for longer than we usually remember (doctored photos for example), and promises to become a more of a problem as it becomes possible to create audio and video that is very nearly convincing. For a deep dive into the possibilities, check out Radiolab’s episode Breaking News (2017). For an update on the progress of video algorithms, see A New Computer Program Generates Eerily Realistic Fake Videos at Science News.
I don’t mind David Greising tooting the BGA horn; they do good work, mostly. And I’m certainly no friend of Donald Trump. But it is worrisome that when we discuss “fake news”, we seem to be talking past one another, assuming that there is a mutual understanding of what is under discussion when in fact there is not.
It’s also difficult to defend journalism from our Liar-in-Chief when journalists have been so willing to give past occupants of the White House a free pass. And consider just how uncritically beat-the-drum, rah-rah coverage has been over our various military adventures. This hasn’t always been true, it’s true. LBJ had his credibility gap, for just one example. But this very inconsistency leaves journalism’s credibility open to question at a time when it should be galvanizing the public to action instead.