If there is one term I’d like to put out of its misery and into banishment, it’s “fake news.”
As I understand it, it’s designed to highlight the undoubted fact that some published news stories are untrue on their face, often the product of conscious intent to deceive the public, often with partisan motivation.
I suppose the term “fake news” is technically correct, since it combines in a striking way the notion of “news” (i.e. information that has been edited and scrutinized to determine that it is what it claims to be and that it is reported accurately) and “fake” (i.e. that there is no objective factual basis for such a story).
But adding adjectives to the noun “news” is both dangerous and redundant.
Either reports in the media are accurately based on facts or events, in which case they are “news.” Or they are not. If they are not news, they are not worthy of publication. And they are nothing more than propaganda at best and outright lies at worst.
Propaganda is nothing new. Read the “Illiad”, think about the ancient Greeks and Trojans, and you’ll see an instance of propaganda running back millennia. Hitler’s goons specialized in propaganda, often generated at enormous flag-waving rallies that remind me of episodes during the last campaign. Propaganda has a distinguished past (and present) of being used to smear reputations; just consider what BuzzFeed tried to do last week when it published the unverified and almost certainly inaccurate “intelligence” report about President-Elect Trump.
What’s troubling about today’s juxtaposition of “fake” and “news” is that it’s yet another step in the campaign to delegitimize journalism. If we now have to add unnecessary adjectives to the word “news”, we’re going to wind up with a public mindset that jams the notion of “news” into a gradient of factual accuracy, beginning with simple lies, running through propaganda and winding up with professional and responsible journalism – all terms referencing news.
When I got into the news business back in the mid-1960’s, the process of vetting a reporter’s story was what editors did, usually quietly and behind the scenes. An excited scribbler would hand in a story to a gimlet-eyed editor, who would then subject the piece to examination for accuracy, balance, attribution and a host of other matters bearing on the trustworthiness of the article. Only after it had been adjudged accurate or re-written did it merit the noun, “news” and thereby become worthy of being published.
As time has gone on, however, with the rise of the Internet, anybody with a laptop is now a publisher, with the technical capability to disseminate “news,” whether accurate or not. And because there are numberless such publishers in the world of social media but few editors, the process of verification of claims to “newsiness” takes place often in the excited public hurly-burly of claim and counterclaim.
This process may be OK for reasons of transparency. But it certainly pushes forward the current campaign to discredit responsible journalism and denigrate professional reporters and editors. Sarah Palin complained about the “lamestream news media” with a clear motive of demonizing the “gatekeepers,” who were somehow keeping the real facts away from red-blooded, truth-seeking Americans. Ideologues, whether of the right or the left, have always been hostile to aggressive truth telling, especially when it whisks the cobwebs of deceit out of the dark corners of political discourse.
It’s very hard for me to understand, let alone accept, a system in which the process of careful and conscientious editing in order to vet the accuracy of a story is confused with elitist gatekeeping. But I fear that’s what kind of world we will be facing for some time: A post-fact world in which there is no independent standard by which to judge the accuracy of any assertion. Another way to describe it is as a world of gossip.
Even authoritarian countries – think China and Russia – have figured out that the people who run things need to have available a set of verifiable facts by which to understand the nature of the reality of the country they are running. In both countries, this is achieved by means of a professionally vetted and therefore accruable publication describing reality that is limited in distribution to the very top leadership. In order to run something effectively, you’ve got to know and understand the reality of what you’re running.
The politicians who are running the assault on the news media might want to pause to consider how long they would survive if no citizen believes any news coverage of what they say and do. Lambasting “fake news” is certainly admirable, but let’s not now make the mistake of opening the door to a wholesale effort to of denigrate journalistic truth-telling.