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By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
Fake news is bad news
It has long been said, “no news is good news,” meaning, of course, that when there is nothing to report (as if that would ever happen) all’s right with the world, everything is okay.
Well, right now everything is not okay.
In addition to the 24-hour cycle of disturbing developments that are being reported to a fare-thee-well, we now are experiencing the emergence of something that the nameless faceless arbiters of cant, the coiners of jargon and buzz have termed “fake news”.
Fake news doesn’t really get it though – disinformation comes to mind as a better term or simply propaganda. Any way you slice it, however, it is an ominous development in a free society like ours.
It isn’t really new, though. Think of the so-called supermarket tabloids, sometimes referred to as “rags.” They have been with us for years and years, trumpeting their ridiculous headlines and photos, bruiting stories of aliens in high office, the discovery of Amelia Earhart’s plane on the moon, and the revelation that Hitler escaped Berlin to live out his days in South America.
The most absurd stuff has always been its own antidote, so obviously unbelievable it was immediately scoffed at and usually viewed as burlesque entertainment by all but the most gullible.
As the perpetrators of this nonsense grew more sophisticated the tabloid content sometimes suggested disturbing, if rare, elements of truth, occasionally crossing over into the realm of real news. When, like the proverbial blind squirrel, they hit on an unlikely but valid nut of actual news it only gained them more attention, but not much more credibility.
In the era before social media the vibrant well-established mainstream news outlets were the most powerful countervailing force, their high standards for accuracy and fact-checking serving to expose the sensationalist purveyors of everything ludicrous for the outrageous sideshow performers that they were.
Enter the era of ubiquitous smart phones, and with it the arrival of disruption and change on a grand scale. Powerful arguments can be made that the iconic legacy journalism institutions, the newspaper and TV corporations with names like Times, Post, Tribune, Globe, NBC, CBS, ABC and so on, should have seen the revolution coming. Apparently, they didn’t.
In a battle that for the most part has long since been lost these news industry giants created websites and internet outlets but didn’t monetize them well. At first they gave away their content for nothing, a work product that advertisers and subscribers previously paid for. They did so without realizing that they were competing with themselves. No one seemed to believe that reading news on a small screen rather than on paper would become the prevailing mode.
Belatedly, some of the most well established corporations have found ways to partially recoup their primacy with website pay walls and aggressive social media initiatives, but the worst damage was already done. The hegemony of print journalism was outstripped by electronic media options, which had no institutional inhibitions or tradition of objectivity.
An entire generation grew up checking what passed for news on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the like on their cell phones, often bypassing the professionally edited, vetted, fact-checked, scrupulously sourced reporting that major news organizations built their reputations and their fortunes on. There was a new game in town. In fact there were many, and they weren’t particularly concerned with accuracy or fact.
That the news business, no matter how objective and responsibly it is practiced, is still a business has always posed a conundrum. Called the “fourth estate” of government for centuries because of its Constitutional freedom to ask questions without fear of repression, to seek out hidden conflicts of interest, to expose corruption, and to pose challenges to those wielding the power of government, the news media nevertheless always depended on the ability to turn a profit to remain in existence.
The First Amendment protects free speech and guarantees wide latitude to those exercising that freedom. Unlike other professions, such as medicine, plumbing, nursing, dentistry, and law, journalism requires no license to practice. Unlike teaching at all levels, it requires no specific educational attainment other than that which might be established by those who employ journalists, editors, photographers, graphic designers and the others who gather, format, and disseminate the news.
Freedom of the press is just that, the freedom to set up shop and publish your own version of the information that you consider newsworthy. There are no legal impediments or standards other than those that govern corporate entities. Content, as long as it doesn’t amount to libel or defamation of character (exceedingly difficult concepts to prove when public figures are the subject), is held to few external restrictions except those imposed by the expectation of truth and the consciences of the producers.
Therein lies the paradox that creates the Achilles heel for a free society that depends on a free press. The very principles of free speech that provide for the open and unintimidated exchange of ideas with few shackles or restraints, also allow for the proliferation of unmediated, and unconfirmed information propagated by irresponsible media practitioners, like the perpetrators of fake news.
In the past when the distribution of news followed a daily cycle and stories were discrete entities – the era of first day, second day, and so on coverage – the playing field was somewhat level. Print media was preeminent, and the big guns in the industry were afforded greater trust and viewed with more respect; they were largely seen as offering reliable if sometimes slanted platforms. They provided a dramatic contrast to the exploitive gaudy tabloids which were viewed as disreputable scandalmongering enterprises motivated mostly by avarice. Fake news was laughable, a diversion to amuse the literate majority.
However, past transgressions seem pale in comparison with the kind of fake news that arose in the presidential election campaign of 2016. Genuine-seeming news organs on social media bearing logos and graphics which suggested they were legitimate organizations sprang up and proliferated. As many as 100 such sites were traced to one smallish city in Macedonia alone, according to news reports.
The large, diverse and often uncritical audience on social media, which has burgeoned with the universal acquisition of mobile devices, has demonstrated a shocking willingness to consume a wide variety of undocumented and often patently unbelievable news reports coming from such sites in a steady undiminishing stream.
Bewildering to professional journalists, it didn’t seem to matter that the stories had no basis in fact nor was there any proof offered. If they confirmed pre-existing beliefs and prejudices countless viewers accepted them as true.
Possibly the most outlandish and fantastic example is the case of the rumored presence of a child pornography ring being operated by Hillary Clinton and her campaign Chairman John Podesta out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. Preposterously false on its face, you say? One man didn’t think so and decided to take the law into his own hands by showing up at the pizza shop with a rifle and firing it inside the restaurant.
This is where we are today, caught in a dangerous, bewildering information environment which might begin to resemble Babel if reason doesn’t reemerge from the bunkers where it has taken refuge. The rise of fake news isn’t a simple case of mind games or having a huge joke on the stuffed shirts in society. Much more than playing hardball in the market place of ideas, it goes far beyond a bare-knuckled debate.
It is the intentional subversion of the truth, an assault on commonly embraced agreement on the facts even when opinions differ. It could be called a nightmarish Alice in Wonderland attempt to undermine confidence and trust in the media. It erodes the sense of a commonly agreed upon objective body of information from which discourse and negotiations can proceed as part of the process of self-government.
In this kind of fearful climate fake news can take hold as fewer and fewer people know what to believe and who to trust. Chaos can feed upon itself, mistrust can grow like a cancer, uncertainty can spread, suspicion mushrooms, and the culture becomes vulnerable to malicious mischief from its foes, foreign and domestic.
Fake news is terrible news. A healthy skepticism and a hunger for verification and validation are the medicine. Truth and integrity are the cure, and it is crucial that a cure must take place.