I generally try to be courteous when I blog, but I have to admit I'm really fed up with the ongoing verbal attacks on the media. I've mentioned my dismay about it on Twitter & Facebook, but some folks told me angrily that the media deserve it because "they lie all the time." That's an opinion I find puzzling. I know many honest and honorable reporters who don't lie at all, yet they are receiving not just hate mail but death threats on a regular basis. We all know what happened in Annapolis the other day, and while I am not blaming any one person, we do have a polarized culture, and it has become very worrisome to many of us. But despite the obstacles, my journalist friends continue to tirelessly do their jobs. I say they deserve our thanks, rather than our scorn.
Among the most common accusations thrown at journalists is that they constantly spread "fake news." Studies show that large numbers of Republicans are firmly convinced of this, and I'm aware that nothing I say in this blog will change anyone's mind. But I'd like to put this belief in context, if possible. While today, it has taken on a partisan slant, the idea that you can't trust the press is actually quite old. In fact, we can find critics complaining about "fake news" more than 120 years ago. Consider Frederick Burr Opper, an American cartoonist whose work has long since been forgotten by most of us. But in March 1894, he used a cartoon to comment on the rise of sensationalism and exaggeration in the journalism of his time, and to remark on what he saw as a disturbing trend-- and he referred to this trend as "fake news." Yes, that was a thing even in the 1890s, a decade when certain publishers were using their newspapers to intentionally mislead the public, creating outrage in order to sell newspapers, or trying to affect government policies. (You can read more about that period of time here: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/yellow-journalism-the-fake-news-of-the-19th-century/)
More recently, there was a resurgence of the term "fake news" during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, during both Republican and Democratic presidencies, media critics were using the term "fake news" when discussing misleading reports broadcast on programs that were supposedly fact-based. For example, TV Guide, not known as a political publication, featured a cover story about this in 1992-- author David Lieberman used the term to refer to stories that purported to be "news," but were actually cleverly-produced and corporate-funded publicity features-- created to promote a product or to sway public opinion on a hot-button issue.
In the early 2000s, President Bush became a frequent user of these features, known in the industry as VNRs ("Video News Releases"), when he was promoting the War in Iraq. But he wasn't the only one. Many TV stations and newspapers also made use of VNRs, citing them in their coverage as if these features were neutral and factual, when they were really one-sided advocacy pieces. The failure to identify some spokespeople as paid industry advocates, and to differentiate their advocacy from objective reporting became an ongoing problem, one we still have today.
So, since we live in a time when the term "fake news" gets thrown around a lot, let me be very clear about what it is, and what it isn't. First, here's what "fake news" is: An intentional effort to mislead the public, either by making up quotes, distorting/misrepresenting what someone said, or inventing events that never really happened. Fake news is often inflammatory, because it is intended to stir up partisan outrage. And if it isn't making up quotes entirely, it often rips them from their actual context and then uses them to make a partisan point, relying on the fact that most people do not check the entire quote to see what the person really said, or what they really meant. Fake news also relies on cherry-picking facts-- making a one-off incident seem like it happens all the time, or making a fringe figure into someone who represent all members of that party or that group.
As for what "fake news" is not-- it's not news that President Trump (or any politician from either party) doesn't like. It's not an unintended or accidental mistake that a reporter corrects and apologizes for. It's not news that doesn't agree with your views. And it's not "anything that's on [pick the channel you personally distrust]." A word here also needs to be said about the difference between reporters and commentators: reporters are the ones who are trained to be objective and fair to the facts, and they tend to leave their personal views out of the story. A commentator is hired to be one-sided and to express his or her opinions on that topic or that issue, whether those opinions are based on facts or not. Many people confuse the two groups: Fox News has reporters (generally fact-based) and so do CNN and MSNBC. But they also have commentators (sometimes fact-free, and very passionate about their personal views on the subject).
I've said this before, but it bears repeating: in a democracy, we need good reporters to hold the powerful accountable, and to keep us informed about news we might not otherwise get. I understand why partisan politicians want you to distrust the press: if you can be persuaded to ask no questions and to believe ONLY your favorite politician (or rely ONLY on partisan media sources), it's easier to get your support for certain policies, and it's easier for that political party to remain in power. But while encouraging distrust of journalists is great for politicians, it's really bad for the country as a whole. So, rather than demonizing reporters, respect what they are trying to do; and let them seek out the facts, whether the facts are popular or not. It's not easy to be a journalist, especially in our angry and polarized world. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1787, "...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without
newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a
moment to prefer the latter." I couldn't agree more.
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