Just What Is Fake News?

May 19, 2017

Fake news


Back in the late 60’s I was an undergraduate student at Syracuse University.  During the summers of those years I was employed at the Syracuse Herald Journal in the art department as a retouch artist.  My job was to provide visual clarity to otherwise fuzzy or tonally deficient photographs by retouching enhancements that better defined shapes and form so the image could be better understood.  One of my fellow artists in the department took this responsibility so seriously that he crossed a line, extending his role in an unauthorized way and was fired for it. When Senator James Buckley visited the paper one summer, he met with the publisher for a photo-op.  My friend painted a Mickey Mouse watch on the publisher and ban-the-bomb (peace symbol) cufflinks and a tie tack on Senator Buckley. This was not just retouching but editorializing.  As to the other departments of the newspaper, well, editorializing was a well established and pervasive approach to the news.


By its very nature, not all news can be reported.  There is not enough space nor time.  All news must be edited according to its worthiness, a criteria determined by the editor.  At the time, there were several common editing practices at the paper.  Chief among them was to only report those press releases provided by advertisers in the paper.  Ink would not be given to their competitors, no matter how newsworthy.  Editing in this manner produces a false sense of awareness that channels the unsuspecting reader along invisible paths to consensus around the singular views of the editor and the clients of the paper.  In that regard, it is fake news.  It is at best, half of the story. Today, this practice is best seen in use by legislators, beholding to lobbyists, wealthy donors and Super-Pacs who are widely regarded by them as their constituents.


Now the most outrageous form of fake news is fabrication, whether just an embellished mix of truth and falsehood or a complete and total creation. Back at the Herald Journal I was introduced to my first experience with this type of fake news by the editor at the city desk.  At the time, it was his practice to pen his own letters to the editor under fictitious names, allowing himself to pontificate in response on subjects of his choice and controlling both sides of the argument.  Clearly this was editorializing and while editorializing is not exactly news, it highlights an established practice that is in short supply today in the high stakes business environment of media coverage, called ratings.


Several business models have been developed to exploit ratings through different versions of fake news.  The FOX model is one of fabrication.  FOX repeatedly reports events incorrectly or with exaggerated embellishments that defy factual evidence.  This is not simply editorializing, which they are in no short supply of, but is actually false reporting and by the most exacting definition, fake news.


I don’t know with certainty that Donald Trump can be credited with inventing the phrase “Fake News,” but he is surely the Dr. Frankenstein who energized it to life.  It is understood in this context to mean a lie, but in all actuality he uses it to be any news that takes issue with his views or that reports negatively on his performance as President.


Today, anyone can generate fake news through social media, creating fabricated stories on Facebook and Twitter, for the purpose of manipulating public opinion. No single person does this better than Trump.  His daily tweets inflate the gullible and receptive minds of his core followers with propaganda so outrageous that it cannot withstand rational analysis, yet is perpetuated because it works.


But the all-time winner in the fake news category is Russia.  Through the use of bots and trolls they have managed to introduce thousands of fake news stories daily on vulnerable social media platforms, flooding social intercourse with diversions from important issues to unsubstantiated tales, dirty tricks and gossip, none of which can be proven to the contrary since they are devoid of factual content in the first place.  By creating a perception, they have formed a tangible reality and in this case, visibly changed the outcome of an election to favor the candidate that they secretly endorsed.


The other model for fake news is much different at CNN.  It is not fake news as Trump defines it, but something equally sinister because they are unaware of their involvement in creating it. The CNN model is called “objectivity.”  Every anchor, every reporter at CNN goes far out of their way to avoid the perception of editorializing.  “Fair and balanced news” is their mantra, but there is nothing fair about reporting on unbalanced events in such a way as to make them appear to be balanced.  There’s a couple problems here.  First, by reporting an event in that way, it betrays their concern to keep the maximum viewership and ratings.  If you cut off any portion of your audience, you have limited your growth potential.  It’s the same problem that candidates face in moving from a primary to a general election.  They need to expand their base to win.


Unlike  FOX, CNN is very careful not to report fake news or to editorialize, but in the process have become timid and non-confrontational in their reportage, allowing the various persons interviewed to control the narrative.  No one answers questions directly anymore and spin reigns supreme.  To counteract this perception they have created endless panels of oppositional surrogates who often, while shouting over one another, create complete chaos, fomenting such confusion that it reflects badly on the media pundits who are tasked with representing the very positions that CNN shies away from in their reportage. It’s the same tactic Trump uses to claim plausible deniability.  “It’s not me.  I didn’t say that.  They said that.  I’m not accountable.”  This type of fake news undermines CNN’s credibility.  Rather they should take a braver approach and stand for something.  FOX’s position may be based on many falsehoods, but no one can misinterpret their position.  If the media is to make a difference in this democracy, they must represent a point of view that is based on the truth, not just report the facts.  In the days of the Vietnam war, CBS had a regular editorial segment with Eric Severied.  Editorials have always been a chief component of the news.  Credible print publications all still have an editorial section where they make their opinion known.  The absence of real editorializing on CNN, the absence of a clear point of view, does an enormous disservice to a nation struggling to find it’s identity in the new global environment.


The conservative right has Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilley, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and others to trumpet their cause with layers of falsehoods and opinion, fake news to be sure.  But the progressive movement has an equally powerful version of fake news all it’s own, known as Comedy and it is no overstatement to say that there is no Right Wing equivalent of this strain of fake news.  More truth can be recognized in the comedy of SNL, Steven Colbert, John Stewart and Trevor Noah of the Daily Show, John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”, Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal,” or Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” Jimmy Fallon, Conan or Seth Meyers than in the surrogate approach used by CNN.  The trouble is that to have an effective reach their audience must stay up late, and to the many hard working middle class adults and retired senior citizens it’s way past their bedtime.  No, all the farmers riding in the comfort of their air-conditioned combines and tractors and the many retired seniors enclaved in their gated condos all tune their lunchtime radios to Rush.


Finally, there is a vast legal contribution to the perpetuation of fake news.  Everything is “alleged.”  It’s an alleged murder, or an alleged robbery. It’s alleged to possibly have happened but in this “cover-your-ass” legal mentality of broadcast news, being alleged means that it may not be true.  Meanwhile, in social media, nothing is alleged.  It’s all stated as fact.  How can mainstream media argue with social media using allegations as an argument or tippy-toe-ing around controversy without taking a position.  Even their visuals have to be carefully screened, now with a seemingly ever present de-focused ellipse over any face that may pose an issue for the legal team.




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