‘Fake news’ and the delegitimization of traditional journalism

computer next to newspapers

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Le Roy Barnett
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 9:50am

If you go to Snopes or TruthOrFiction.com, you will find that most of the stories deemed "false" by these websites are of a conservative bent. How do right-wingers explain this? Not by cleaning up their act or adjusting their views but, rather, by saying these vetting institutions are "liberal" (i.e. biased). Increasingly in America (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) "truth" is what most jibs with an individual's political persuasion or philosophical outlook. The "truth" is just another word for what each person believes regardless of the facts.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:04am

Considering much of the "fake" news in recent years has come from mainstream, legit publications (NBC, Washington Post) you should spend less time demonizing one political side and try to gauge fake news is everywhere and its an issue, but censoring it is an even bigger issue. Worse than "fake" news is no news -- how many stories did you read that discussed how "protesters" were paid to show up and cause trouble at Trump events?Creating lists, banning certain publications or people (and its happening already) is just the start of the push towards an official news agency from the state, or news under state control (Obama tried this a few years ago, remember? How does that sound to you? Or could you spend more time demonizing the right.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:23am

The mainstream/legit news sources DO NOT produce fake news; that's Phil's point -- and, when their editing/vetting process produces a RARE inaccuracy, they provide corrective clarification. Your retort/challenge in asking "how many stories did you read about paid protesters at Trump rallies?" (for the purpose of implying that their absence of such articles proves mainstream news is biased) actually validates the TRUST we MUST place with their crucial and professional status for maintaining a well-informed citizenry. Case in point: there WAS coverage of the "paid protesters" issue! It was difficult to wade through the muck of all the baseless "news" sources (i.e. "abcnews.com.co (AP)" -- which, along with soooo many others that got Google's top billing with click-bait techniques). Fortunately, for those of us who did try to understand what was going on, reputable fact-checking by those like Pulitizer-prize Politico appropriately exposed the lack of "newsworthiness" (which Phil is rightfully railing against in our current state of affairs).

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:27am

Your comment about what "Obama tried" is a perfect example of fake news.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:44am

Grady:I have read your comment several times. Might you please restate your thoughts in terms this 84 year old can understand? Thank you.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 1:05pm

Sure - fake news is not a "right" or "left" issue - as the commenter implied. Its everywhere.From Jake Tapper of CNN --- It baffles me how anyone on the left combatting "fake news" can turn a blind eye to the click baiting within its own ranks. HEAL THYSELFI would respectfully disagree that legit media does not create fake newsAs far as large media organizations "correcting" themselves after they publish fake news, the practice has been inconsistent, to say the least ... see Washington Post make a mess of this issue - http://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2017/01/01/fake-news-and-how-th...

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 7:51pm

I'll be presumptuous and offer an explanation although I am not a right winger. First, one has to ask if you really have sampled the sites and know that most of their "false" labels are for conservatives. Second, we would have to know if conservatives are less likely to submit to or trust these sites to judge liberal claims. (Let's not forget that conservatives were not only shy about displaying their preferences during the campaign, but in general they are not given to high profile protests. Third, it is not preposterous to assume that the journalists running the fact checking site have their own biases and bend the definition of true and false. None of us are angels. Most of us give way to our biases.

El Johnson
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 9:56am

Your post, Mr. Powers, uncomfortably reminds me of George Orwell's "1984" invention called 'doublethink,' whereby the party line on Tuesday follows a course of thinking attributed to the Blue party. Everyone is ON it, and holds it as forever true, until Wednesday, then the Red party is in power, and the opposite tenet is the party line. A denied metamorphosis transpires, all people take on the Wednesday thinking as if no other line ever existed and the changeover never occurred. Electronic sound, image, or print byte of every sort today has manifested into full-blown fear, devoid of critical thinking, manipulating a public to an immeasurable degree. Education - not of facts and figures - but of logical thinking and inquiry has been absent from our elementary, middle and secondary schools for a very long time. We are bearing the fruit of such negligence today, and the wolves on both sides of the aisle are feeding on our intellectual carcasses.It is a shame, indeed.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 9:55pm

Thank you for your comment on logic. As a retired teacher, I have been distraught about the excessive testing that has been imposed on educators, especially in Michigan. Our students know how to fill in bubbles on a test sheet, but don't have time to learn how to have an intelligent discussion. The lack of time for exploring ideas is showing itself in our public discourse. People take things at face value, and don't take the time to look at the source or look for a deeper meaning (e.g. Is it propaganda?)

Donna Hornberger
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 9:59am

When I was employed as a librarian I came across the word "factoid" which means something is deemed "true" just because someone says it. I have always been fascinated by that term. More and more these days I am running into factoids. We must always be vigilant and check more than one source when something sounds incorrect. Even when it sounds true we must check for ourselves.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:07am

Equally as bad as "fake news" is the deliberate omission of the other side of the story. Mr. Powers stated that in the 60's, a gimlet-eyed editor would look at a submitted story for, among other things, balance. Fake news may have arisen because of the lack of balance in news today.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:43am

Rich,I disagree with you. One of the primary reasons that we are where we are is due to 'balance'. 'Gimlet-eyed editors' feel that balance is needed in all matters and will often balance verifiable facts with nonsense, e.g., the 'debate' about global warming and the 'debate' about evolution. By introducing 'balance', they call into doubt the facts and legitimize the alternative, nonsensical, view. What is needed is not balance, but rather a willingness to call facts facts.

Michael J
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:11am

Propaganda (i.e. fake news) has been a frustration of mine for quite some time. As a millennial I hear about the years before the 24 hour news cycle when the news reported who, what, when, where, why, how, but I've never gotten to live in that reality. Other then being able to visit The Bridge a few other news publications that remain committed to separating fact from opinion.Thank you for this commentary and thank you for The Bridge and thank you for being a true journalist.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 10:56am

There are so few relaible news sources anymore! It is possible and common to post the facts that support a particular opinion or bias. I have ceased to respect all but a few news outlets. Please continue to strive for honest unbiased journalism at Bridge. You are the last of what I believe to be "real" in other words, the good guys. Thanks Phil, John and the team!

Jim H
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:13am

Despite your snide reference to Palin: "Sarah Palin complained about the \'93lamestream news media\'94 with a clear motive of demonizing the \'93gatekeepers,\'94 who were somehow keeping the real facts away from red-blooded, truth-seeking Americans", she hit on a real problem with the mainstream press. We no longer trust the media because we've seen over and over how the stories are spun. We know that by and large the majority of the press (perhaps upwards of 90%) leans left, vote left, see the world through left values, and thus all stories start from a standpoint that THEY have the correct clear vision of what they are reporting on, and other views are either discarded or looked upon with condescension. Worse, when one their favorites is elected (think Obama), it is kid gloves all the way - gushing coverage, no digging behind the facade. And then there are the polls - carefully constructed to generate the answers they want, which can then be the basis for next week's headlines and stories. The press is in trouble because they have lost the trust much of America It is their own fault and we will all be the worse for it.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 2:44pm

This is exactly the problem with the media. It's not so often "fake" news that contaminates the established media sources but blind bias. The vast majority of "news" is not news, it's opinion. We start off with a statement by a public figure, then "journalists" jump on the statement, spinning it to prove their view of truth. Does anyone every ask themselves if there is any truth in what my opponent says? When the volume of noise about the situation reaches sufficient volume, a poll is taken in which seek opinions from largely uninformed people on subjects of which they have little knowledge and even less understanding. Those opinions are then assumed to be guides fo future actions. Our recent presidential election attests to the results. A media personality, largely unrespected, announces his candidacy and an incredulous media reports on his chances, just because he is a media personality. His name repeated with every newscast and catches on with dissatisfied voters. A poll then reports surprising support which generates more "news" which again boosts his ratings. The opposition then obliges his election by nominating an unpopular candidate (a fact the press and Democrats have yet to realize or admit) and we have a president who seems ill prepared to lead the country toward unity and solutions.When reviewing the need for a new law or program, a reporter is sent to the field to record the sad account of someone who feels victimized by the lack of a program of assistance. We are spared the opinions of those who tell us how we must pay for it. When the economics of the program fail, it is far easier to interview those hurt by loss of the program than to find someone with ideas of how to pay for it.Public approval surveys are given a strong role in "news.". A a survey is taken before a politician takes office, let alone does anything, is judged, again by a poorly informed public. They are judged as a success for failure before doing anything. It is not surprising when we see prestigious groups such as the Nobel Prize award a peace prize to a politician whose contribution to peace is to get elected to office. The urge to jump on the band wagon is too irresistible. As to the vetting of editors, etc., what is the value of an editor who shares the bias of the reporter? After Trump's election, NPR in discussing statements that the press misjudged the presidental race because of Democrat and left leaning bias, appealed to a judge....the editor of the New York Times, generally acknowledged as favoring Democratic positions and candidates. If you repeat a myth often enough, it becomes public fact.How about introducing "conflict of interest" principles to the media? We expect it of our elected officials, our judges, etc. How about having the political preference of the author of a statement being presented up front? Everyone knows where Rush Lindbaugh is coming from, but what about Steve Croft, etc. Several "newsmen" of TV have been uncloaked for bias. Let's put those biases out in the open. That doesn't mean an opinion is incorrect, but if the bias is known, that opinion becomes more helpful in forming an opinion.As long as TV satires and tweets serve as the main source of news for so many (including highly educated and intelligent young people), we are prey to "false news." We needn't rely on the Russians.

Dot Potter Barnett
Wed, 01/18/2017 - 7:15pm

Interesting. That is exactly the same observation I made when Ronald Reagan was President.

William Bailey
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:16am

Fine piece. What do we do when"publishing" cost so little and newspaper can't afford to keep reporters. China and Russia report propaganda as per instructions and we would want that. May we should charge very high internet use fees for other than registered newspapers that deciminate "edited" news?

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:21am

I was so pleased to read that Bridge was going to take on the issue of "fake news". Other than Bridge, Model D and the online NY Times headlines, I am not a big consumer of online news. However, my understanding from recent stories is that "fake news" is not news that you happen to disagree with or poorly vetted stories that include conjecture or unsubstantiated reporting. My understanding is that "fake news" is actual, knowing fabrication of information that supports or criticizes a certain person or point of view and putting it online in a format that makes it appear to be news reporting - fake news.President-elect Trump and other people seem to be using the term to refer to news they don't like (saying to the CNN reporter at the press conference "you're fake news" for example). However, news content that you disagree with or that is poorly edited or biased is not the same as "fake news" as I understand it. Rather than calling for dropping the term, can Bridge please address this phenomenon and some guidance on how to recognize it and avoid it. I don't want to fall victim to "fake news" that reflects any part of the political spectrum. Whatever my opinions are, I want them to be based on my consideration of real information - not fabrication. Thank you.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:46am

\'91Fake news\'92 is certainly a most visible indicator of the decline in public trust of \'91journalists\'92 and journalism. The question is whether Mr. Power and others are willing or unwilling to attack the system that created \'91fake news\'92 and the \'91journalism\'92 that propagates it. The \'91journalists\'92 have a choice, they can simply wring their hands and wish people would trust them and have confidence in the \'91news\'92 and reporting organizations, or they develop the means to restore that public trust. If Mr. Power wants to rid us of \'91fake news\'92 he and his peers need to establish standards of reporting for \'91journalists\'92, develop a means to enforce those standards, create a structure that the \'91journalists\'92 use to ensure conformance, and make the whole process transparent [something \'91journalists\'92 abhor when it comes to them, \'91elitism\'92] to all [\'91journalists\'92, readers, politicians, the public]. It isn\'92t simply the case of Buzzfeed type \'91news\'92 sites [is NBC a financial backer?], doesn\'92t it extend to \'91legitimate\'92 news sites and organizations and hasn\'92t it been going on for generation. I wonder where Mr. Power classifies the Dan Rather and CBS \'91reporting\'92 using fabricated records when trying to discredit President Bush.\'91Fake news\'92 isn\'92t a new phenomenon; it just seems to have become more public/obvious, more blatant, and more frequent. Mr. Power even facilitates it by how he can\'92t/won\'92t say that his example of \'91fake news\'92 is fake, he has to quality it as \'91almost certainly inaccurate\'92, by doing that he has suggests it is news it has legitimacy when not even the intelligence community can verify any of it. How often have we seen \'91journalists\'92 make a story our of an interviewee\'92s equivocation? Mr. Power just doesn\'92t seem able to see the readers perspective on reporting/journalism, he seems to only see from the \'91journalists\'92 perspective so only knows how to defend the \'91journalists\'92, news and those promoting the news [whether \'91fake\'92, \'91biased\'92, or equivocation]. This seems to be the first time Mr. Power or his peers have experienced an \'91assault\'92 on their honor, their credibility. Having been witness to such \'91assaults\'92 by the media [the late 1960s, 70s, 80s], my advice is look to at it from the other perspectives and see what you can do to be more accessible, more engaging, accountable, more transparent. Think of how Bridge interacts with readers; what do they formally or informally do to ensure reader accessibility, engage readers, provide accountability, make what/how they do it transparent? I am one that has possibly had more contact in writing, commenting, in offline interchanges than most readers, and yet I can\'92t answer those questions because my experience has been incident driven not process or Bridge protocol driven. I agree with Mr. Power on the value, the need for active and factual journalism. What I am disappointed in the \'91elitist\'92 attitude that they [the true journalists] are above this and the people/readers need to accept what they tell us. The world has change from the Randolph Hearst era, the 40s, 50s, 60s reporting, the \'91fake news\'92 became public in the 70s and had only gotten worse in this century that it has overwhelmed the public\'92s desire/trust for a truthful.This seems to be an inflection point for journalism, I wonder which direction they will go and what they are willing to do.For our country's sake and for freedom, I hope they are willing to face it and work to re-establish a journalism we can trust and rely on.

David Richards
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 12:02pm

Many readers don't understand the difference between bias and fraud. Everyone has a bias, but that is different than manufacturing your "facts" to fit your agenda. Everything should be read with awareness of the bias of the source. Some media have no basis whatsoever for their "facts", and others create their facts by seeking out the isolated and aberrant sources that establish the "facts" they want to establish. Equating the mainstream media who have standards, even if you disagree with their selections of which facts to present, with those that manufacture their "facts" to suit their agenda, is the problem. If you are confident of the facts, you can compare media with different biases to come to your own conclusion. If the "facts" are made up, you have the same problem with public policy that you have with computers: GIGO, garbage in, garbage out.

Lewis M. Ford
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 1:18pm

We should also note well that fewer and fewer Americans are actually paying for legitimate, "real" news. What this means, and will likely get worse, is that genuine news-gathering organizations with real journalists are dwindling faster you can say "Fox News." This means fewer trained reporters, especially on local and national beats, who actually do the time-consuming legwork to make calls, conduct interviews, and/or "follow the money." If American's are getting their news from "free" social media, who do you think is actually doing this work? Thousands of journalists (myself included) have been laid off over the past decade, either not replaced at all or "replaced" by fuzzy-faced kids who don't have the time or desire to do the hard work of real reporting. The Internet is a gigantic echo chamber where lies and fabrications are given equal weight as the verified and authentic. And when a sleazy, cynical demagogue comes along like Donald Trump who knows how to manipulate the naive and gullible, democracy is truly in peril, because it depends on an Informed Public, which we longer have. If Trump (or any politician) states that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attacks--an outright, bald-faced, bigoted lie among his hundreds of others--and people still vote for him, the war against "fake news" and fake politicians is lost.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 2:37pm

<I>Either reports in the media are accurately based on facts or events, in which case they are \'93news.\'94 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."</I>And therein lies the $64k question; exactly <b>whom</b> is it that determines what is and is not accurate.What is the criteria that <b>they</b> will be using and to whom would they be ultimately held accountable for their decisions.My education and experience may not be in the journalism field, but I do know that one of the hallmarks of a good journalist is to communicate to their audience the 5 w's: who, what, when, where, why (and sometimes how).The Bridge's recent decision to use an image from a Donald Trump rally in a recent post illustrates that point.Everyone was aghast that someone would wear that on a T-shirt, but no one bothered to ask <b>why</b> that individual decided to do that.I realize that that rally was outside of Michigan and that it was my understanding that it taken by a pool photographer not working for The Bridge. However, the original question still remains.Coming from a perspective someone in the audience, the "gatekeepers" are not as infallible as you believe, Mr. Power.Until there is a widely and generally accepted criteria that everyone can agree to on what "fake news" is exactly, along with a mechanism for enforcing that criteria, anyone attempting to argue against "fake news" is going to have a very difficult time getting any traction in the foreseeable future.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 2:43pm

Fair and balanced news is long gone. NYT, LA TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, NBC, ABC,CBS,CNN,MSNBC,UNIVISION AGAINST WSJ and Murdoch and you write about "FAKE NEWS. Yup just as our educators are fair and balanced ...

Mark G
Tue, 01/17/2017 - 2:48pm

Journalists de-legitimzed themselves when they abandoned the "Two-verifiable independent sources" rule. Now unnamed sources that 'reportedly' got their information from other unnamed sources that 'reportedly' saw or heard the information are considered 'good enough'.Back in the day that was what separated the 'tabloids' from 'actual news outlets'.Now everything is anonymous unnamed sources that 'allegedly' should know. Often speaking on condition of anonymity because they aren't actually enough 'in the know' to be able to speak to the subject with any authority.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 4:55pm

Media continue to expose the lies and half truths. AskTrump when he gets all of his agenda through will he start to bring HIS companies back from overseas. For the masses health care will never become affordable again. Just Drug prices and deductables will kill us. R.L.

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 5:55pm

The need to fill the 24 hr. news cycle provided a void that has been largely filled by "opinion shows" that have proliferated to the point where it's hard to separate fact from political propaganda.I agree that stories originating from anonymous sources should never see the light of day unless coroberated independently. Unfortunately that is not the case.

Wed, 01/18/2017 - 12:31pm

Well said Tom. Try not to confuse people with too many facts. Great slogan . Fair and Balanced. Ya right. R.L.

Peter Parker
Wed, 01/18/2017 - 3:39pm

Education. Education. Education !An Educated person (most times, if they are Honest with themselves) can see right through the"fake news" or propaganda. If not We have most of Human Knowledge at our fingertips to dig down to make an informed decision onif it is fake or not.

Linda Weeks
Wed, 01/18/2017 - 7:37pm

To me, the key statement in this article is using the word "news" lightly with the word fake. It does give the legitimacy of news to lies. Very key point. Thank you!

Thu, 01/19/2017 - 1:52am

If Buzzfeed is repeatedly found to report \'91fake news\'92 about Trump and his associates, are those news organizations that justify reporting those stories based on Buzzfeed as the source part of the \'91fake news\'92 or are they simply a gullible legitimate news organization? Is CNN \'91fake news\'92 or are they a gullible legitimate news organization?