by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
“All I know,” said Will Rogers, “is what I read in the papers.” Rogers’ career began in the time of a myriad of popular-but-slanted news reporting and ended during the early years of what in an earlier post I suggested might have been the “Golden Age” of responsible journalism.
The proliferation of cable channels and internet sites devoted to irresponsible journalism has fundamentally changed not just the way we receive news, but also the way we analyze it. It has always been incumbent on the reader/viewer to interpret news as it is presented and to evaluate its significance and import. For quite a while the news media made that easier by showing a clear distinction between legitimate news and off-the-wall invention. Supermarket tabloids were marketed and recognized as what they were. The difference between the Chicago Tribune and the National Enquirer was clear, and anyone who believed what was in Weekly World News to be true was considered either hopelessly stupid or hopelessly gullible.
Image credit: freepress.net
It seems bizarre to be thinking of the time when Weekly World News had cover stories such as “I Was Bigfoot’s Love Slave” to be the Good Old Days. Yet that is the case now. This year’s presidential election showed that, as songwriter Ian Tyson noted decades ago in “House of Cards,” truth is where you find it.
It has gone beyond twisting the truth, massaging statistics, or misusing quotations. Now much of what passes for news is simply invented out of whole cloth. The pope endorsed Donald Trump for president. Hillary Clinton used a body double throughout her campaign. Persistent claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax caused a Florida woman to issue death threats to the parents of murdered children for their perceived participation in the perceived hoax. There is no story too far-fetched to be considered unrepeatable or, indeed, unbelievable by a significant segment of the population.
Anything can be news, and everyone, including candidates for the highest elective offices, can spread lies and not be called out for it. During the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump often repeated made-up stories, statistics, or historical claims. His frequent fallback was to say, “It’s what I’ve heard,” or “It’s what they’re telling me,” or “A lot of people are saying that,” which gave him a little of what Al Gore called “plausible deniability.”
The idea of “news” being just plain false has brought forth a second filial generation of fake news, namely, fake news about fake news. Conventional wisdom has held that those who create and purvey fake news do so for political or social reasons. The great majority of the fake news garnering attention appeals to the prejudices of the very anti-intellectual part of the conservative wing of American thought. Thus it has been assumed by some observers that the object of fake news is to discredit liberals, intellectuals, and the traditional media outlets.
One example is “Pizzagate,” the patently false story that Hillary Clinton was tied up with a child-sex ring run out of a pizza shop in Washington, DC. The story was apparently believable enough for one man that he drove from North Carolina for the sole purpose of shooting up the place. What is truly scary, though, is not just that such a story is out there being believed, but that such supposedly trustworthy sources as Michael Flynn, picked by president-elect Trump as his National Security Advisor, have re-tweeted such a ridiculous falsehood. However, the motivation for inventing such stories is actually not that complex. Political sabotage is not the basic intent of the most well-organized and successful fake news outlets. The motivation is the oldest in civilization – money. There is great profit to be made by making up fictional stories and passing them off as truth on websites that pretend to be legitimate news outlets.
One of the most successful panderers of fake news is Jestin Coler, who has a well-disguised internet presence on such sites as washingtonpost.com.co (not to be confused, of course, with the actual Washington Post website), or denverguardian.com, which looks like a legitimate news outlet but isn’t. Coler employs a workforce of professional liars who sit around writing total falsehoods which Coler then disseminates through his bogus news sites under the umbrella company Disinfomedia..
Coler told National Public Radio (you can listen to the fascinating story in NPR’s archives or read it here) that he makes a five-figure income every month by selling advertising space on his fake news websites. The whole point of creating phony stories of everything from the purported deaths of celebrities who are in fact still alive to the accusations of cannibalism by political office-holders is to bring viewers to a web page where they can be subjected to sales pitches by third parties.
Fortune magazine reported that an interview with Samantha Bee on her program Full Frontal, Coler was unabashed about being a purveyor of lies – lies that in fact run counter to his own political beliefs. Coler, a Democrat who voted for Clinton in 2016, says that the reason his fake news stories are almost invariably aimed at those of the conspiracy-believing right wing is because such stories work on that group. He has tried fake news that would appeal to liberals, but that audience didn’t fall for it enough to make it profitable. He told NPR’s Laura Sydell, “”You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.”
Coler counters criticism by saying that discerning readers should be able to determine for themselves what is true and what is not. A disingenuous explanation to be sure, since not only is it clear that they don’t (Bee’s producer, Mike Rubens, likens it to “teaching people about the dangers of drugs by giving them drugs”), but also, if they did, Coler’s business would collapse.
What can anyone do about this? NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed a legal scholar to find out what, if any, recourse may be found in the courts by those defamed by fake news (such as the aforementioned pizzeria), and discovered that the answer is, “Not very much, and it’s difficult and expensive to try.” Commentator and comedian Jon Stewart, among others, has suggested that we all “just fact-check” before we pass along any stories. Not much chance of that, I’d say, especially after one of Coler’s stories claiming that recipients of food stamps in Colorado were using them to buy marijuana prompted a State legislator there to introduce a bill to stop them.
An article in Smithsonian magazine has suggested it is the job of history teachers should include instructing students in the art of discernment between truth and untruth. My previous post about the teaching of history illustrates how difficult that would be, even without the certain involvement of hysterical parents and outsiders politicizing the task.
Thomas Jefferson, echoing a sentiment he expressed in his first inaugural address, wrote in 1820, “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Like most of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was secure in the belief that the free marketplace of ideas, a concept handed down from Milton through John Stuart Mill, would be sufficient to allow truth to vanquish falsehood.
Alas, that was then; this is now. For a frightening look at how this might work out in today’s era of crowd-sourced information, take a look at this website, which claims to put forward the evidence for readers to make up their own minds. Or consider that social media are now replete with commentators who apparently seriously believe that the Earth is flat.
For nearly 70 years, concerned folks have worried that the world was heading toward the dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984, where truth was rigidly controlled and hard to come by. In fact, it seems that now we are on a path to something much more like another such novel, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which the problem is not too little information, but rather far too much information. So much, in fact, that it causes not a cleansing spray, but an obliterating flood.