Brodie Farquhar: What is fake news?
December 12, 2017
What is this thing called "fake news" – a term popularized by Donald Trump, his administration and his base?
Is it real or fake?
As a retired journalist who started work in late 1974, I catalogued the statement as merely an update on old themes. Nixon had his enemies list of mostly journalists who kept on asking questions about Watergate. Nixon never believed he was getting a fair deal from the national media.
The conservative thesis about a "liberal" press was based on the idea that unpatriotic journalists had lost the war in Vietnam. Apparently, conservatives never considered that poor strategy, public revulsion over American casualties or lies from the White House had anything to do with declining public support for the war.
It was all blamed on the liberal media – a theme picked up and carried forward by Reagan, the Bushes and now Trump. Much was made of surveys finding that many reporters vote Democratic in national elections. Conservatives ignored the reality that most publishers were either right of center or conservative in politics. Conservatives counted noses rather than influence, saying that a newsroom filled with liberal obit or sports writers was more important than a single, conservative publisher or the editors who were trying to make the publisher happy, or at least minimize their unhappiness.
Meanwhile, since the ’80s, we’ve seen the massive and pervasive growth of a conservative media to counter balance the so-called liberal media. The editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal were soon joined by the Washington Times, New Republic, American Spectator, Rush Limbaugh and Rush-wannabes, and then Fox News. All defended Republican officials from scandal or attacked Democratic officials.
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The basic theme of the conservative media was you can’t trust stories from the liberal media, but you can trust us. That message was repeated, implicitly or explicitly, thousands and millions of times, until by sheer repetition, people started believing them – because believing the mainstream media was uncomfortable or disconcerting.
Here’s a short list of issues brought to the public’s attention by a human and all-too-imperfect mainstream media: Tobacco kills. Reagan and Bush 1 knew all about Iran/Contra. The Great Recession was caused by runamuck bankers released from the constraints of Glass-Steagall. Global warming is real.
Conservative media obfuscated or denied all of the above and more, attacking mainstream reporters. Objective, documented, verifiable facts didn’t and don’t matter.
It gets worse: InfoWars and Brietbart. Lauded by Trump for "real news," they specialize in conspiracies, unfounded speculation, rumor and innuendo.
It’ll get worse. The end of net neutrality could mean ever-growing censorship of the Internet. The pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcast Group wants to buy 42 TV stations around the country. Koch brothers’ money is being used to buy Time magazine. The Republican Congress wants to gut public radio and television.
There is such a thing as "fake news." To tell the difference between real and fake demands that you exercise critical thinking skills, check a wide range of sources and be wary of labels like conservative or liberal. Consider track records and motivations. Did someone make a mistake — all humans do — or is someone a liar?
Everyone has an opinion, just like everyone has a bellybutton. Opinions matter. Informed opinion matters more. Facts, verifiable, peer-reviewed facts matter the most.
They’re the only thing that will lead us out of this mess. That, or common sense, which ain’t all that common.