Fake news has been around since news has been around. What’s different now is the assertion that alternate truths exist

For a few months in the early 1980’s my job was to rewrite the long stories from the 11:00 pm news of the night before into 30-second and one-minute versions for the morning news for the San Francisco affiliate of a national news network. Virtually every morning I discovered inaccuracies in the reporting of one particular night beat reporter—her versions always exaggerated the blood and guts, the violence and the horror. She often introduced fake elements into the news.

Around that time, Ronald Reagan in campaigning for president often invoked the image of the “welfare queen” and was never questioned by the news media. Virtually all mainstream news media allowed Reagan to make his racially tinged claim that welfare fraud was a huge problem without looking at the evidence, which demonstrated that the biggest fraud problem the federal government had in the 1980’s were false claims by physicians. By publishing a smear that could readily be disproven, the news media allowed the fake claim to disseminate across the country and for racism once again to enter a political decision.

Fast forward to the run-up to the Second Iraq War. All evidence suggests that New York Times reporter Judith Miller knew or at least had deep suspicions that the evidence she was reporting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was completely fabricated. It was fake news and it helped to get us into the most disastrous war in American history.

In fact, from the Civil War onward, we can find massive evidence in every generation of the news media routinely publishing the lies of government and large corporations without checking the facts, sometimes knowing they were distributing falsehoods and not caring. Sometimes these lies involved the foundational ideology upon which American society operates, such as American exceptionalism, the idea that everyone has an equal shot at success in life and the central importance of the two-parent nuclear family.

Thus, while I am disturbed and shaken by the damage wrought on the American people by fake news in the latest election cycle, I am not convinced that a Rubicon has been crossed. The quantity of false news has grown and the means by which it can be delivered directly to consumers have multiplied, but the problem of mendacious journalism is as old as town criers and public squares.

Through the years, both mainstream and tabloid media have disseminated several types of false news:

  • The out-and-out lie: In the mainstream media, only rogue journalists like Brian Williams tell an out-and-out lie or make up a story. When discovered, the profession usually punishes them harshly.
  • Letting an obvious lie pass: Journalists have always given politicians, business leaders and civic boosters a free pass on their overt lies, for several reasons: 1) Because they agree with what the liar is saying. For example, a basic agreement with the idea of cutting Social Security benefits to fund more tax cuts for the wealthy led many media to conceal the net effects of the recommendations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility & Reform in 2010. 2) To create or extend a story or a controversy, which explains why the news media didn’t call Trump on his incessant lying until very late in the presidential campaign. It also explains why they continue to publish the views of a handful of pariah scientists, many paid by corporations, who deny human-caused global warming. 3) To support the government and also ensure that they continue to be able to use government sources, as we can see in the run-up to the Iraq War, when the mainstream media published the ridiculously low government projections on the cost of the conflict, while ignoring the more accurate predictions of a variety of foreign policy experts and economists.
  • Selective coverage: Is it false news to publish so much about the fact that Hillary Clinton had a private server, while suppressing the fact that her predecessors also used private servers, that the Bush II administration consciously destroyed three million emails and that the contents of the Clinton emails exonerated her from any suspicious of unethical or illegal actions?
  • Spinning the coverage: Is it false news to focus on the part of a report or study that supports the media’s worldview while ignoring more significant parts that disprove what the media wants us to believe? Some examples: Headlines and reporting on a Pew study this past summer focused on the fact that four-fifths of the nation’s fastest-shrinking religious group, white evangelicals, were backing Trump, while ignoring the fact that the fastest growing religious group and one of the same size as white evangelicals—those who are atheists—favored Clinton by similar margins. Six years ago, the mass media reported that a National Center for Health Statistics study found that people who cohabit are a mere 6% less likely to be together 10 years after marriage than people who don’t live together before getting hitched.  The media either ignored or buried the real significance of the study: that more than 61% of all women now cohabit with someone else sometime in their lives. Is it false news to declare an ignoramus of the right an expert, while ignoring a widely published left winger considered the world’s top scholar in the field? In this regard, I agree with Mark Hertsgaard who in the Nation special issue on the Obama years states the mass media “deserve a special circle in hell for sustaining the lie that climate change is more a matter of political opinion than of scientific fact.”

Determining whether or when providing selective information, purposely misinterpreting the facts or communicating the lies of other people (with proper attribution, of course!) constitutes false news involves questions of ethics and epistemology, which is the study of meaning. In passing, let’s note that the United States government has often used false news reports to control or steer events in other countries. We have dropped leaflets full of lies and spread rumors of deaths or impending revolts. Now it appears that the Russians have victimized us with 21st century versions of our own Cold War weapons.

We should also keep in mind that it’s pretty much legal to lie in paid advertising or in an opinion piece that appears under one’s own byline. The mainstream news media while professing to have a firewall between the advertising and editorial departments, have often tended to blur the distinction between news and advertising, and between news and opinion. The Internet has given advertisers greater opportunity to pass off their shill as real news.

It used to be that the mainstream news media represented a consensus of what its owners—the ruling elite—believed. That consensus shaped the news we received, because there were few alternative ways to communicate to people on either the left or the right, and those alternatives—other print media and radio, were expensive and reached relatively small numbers. We could assume that most of the time the mainstream news media didn’t lie, and when they did, we knew what the lies were and why, because except for a brief instant during the late years of the Vietnam War, the mainstream media always supported the government or the collective ideology of the ruling elite. As G. William Domhoff and others have pointed out, that elite was not unified, as not every wealthy family and corporate overlord agreed to the basic compromise with labor made by the wealthy during the Roosevelt years, nor with the later push to give minorities and women equal access to the law and the economy.

To state the obvious, the growth of the Internet, especially social media, has increased the ways that we can inexpensively get both accurate and false information to others. The right-wing in particular has had a great deal of success spreading lies, false news and misleading interpretations directly to their constituencies. If it’s the right wing that has specialized in false news today, it’s mostly because the right is the side fighting reality, in such areas as global warming and the impact of lowering taxes on the wealthy, or using lies to shore up their argument as with voter suppression laws, government privatization and abortion.  With the facts firmly in the hands of those who once would have been called Eisenhower Republicans, the right has faced the choice of retreating or lying to hold back history and the truth.

But false news has turned elections before, most notably the elections of 1824, 1888 and 2000, all of which happen to have ended with the loser in the popular vote installed in the White House. False news has led us into wars and justified horrible acts such as dropping the atom bomb and constructing a global torture gulag.

It would take a massive research project to measure the percentage of news in any given era that involves lies, so we don’t really know whether there is more false news today than there used to be. We do, however, know that:

  • There are more ways to disseminate both false and true news than there used to be.
  • There is less real news being reported than in any decade since World War II, as the organizations that report shrink and those that merely disseminate—with or without spin—have grown.
  • Many fewer people get their news from the mainstream than used to, to the point that we know longer have a consensus as to what constitutes hard news, the news cycle, news authorities and news ethics.
  • 43% of Internet users have passed along false news; 10% have done so knowing what they were forwarding was full of lies.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents study after study that demonstrate that people will believe an anecdote that supports their beliefs over a factual study that disproves them. The prevalence of false news, like rumors and urban myths, feed into the deep need of people to assert their perceptions as reality. What’s troubling in this context, is the kind of false news that predominates today.  Birtherism, voter fraud, Clinton illegalities, immigrant hordes—the racist, anti-science and misogynist explicitness of most false news is more troubling than the fact that false news exists.

The real question is whether we have reached a tipping point at which the amount of false new overwhelms truth and leads to a breakdown of the system. If that is what we are seeing, it merely reflects the amount of false information that currently determines government and industrial policy. People thinking that the Chinese invented the idea of global warming to hurt the West is not significant until our government and corporate leaders believe it and act on that false information.

The most alarming part of the rise of false news to my mind is not the increase in false ideas floating in the public sphere, but the growth in the idea that there are multiple truths, an idea first floated by the Bush II administration. I think it was Dick Cheney, but it may have been another Bush II henchperson who said that the administration made its own reality and by the time the world caught up, it would remake reality again.

As long as we agree that truth exists, truth will eventually win out, although often after a lot of pain and suffering by innocent people. But once we assert that truth can be constructed and that two or more truths can exist simultaneously when it comes to anything other than emotions, we are sunk as a society.


Donald Trump: Our accidental president is a national embarrassment & a national tragedy

In imagining presidential candidates at the beginning of 2016, if someone had said to me that an erratic and narcissistic sociopath would garner even a million votes, I would have considered it a national embarrassment, regardless of that candidate’s political stances.

Same feeling if even one million people had voted for a candidate without government experience who failed miserably at his profession of real estate development and casino management, be that candidate of the left or of the right. A national embarrassment that a million people would think such a failure to have presidential timber.

Same feeling of embarrassment if one million people had voted for someone involved in thousands of lawsuits, most involving other people suing him for nonpayment. Or if one million people had voted for a candidate who routinely slurred women, Hispanics and Muslims. Or if one million people had voted for someone who told bald-faced lies about his past and the state of the country in every speech. Or if one million people had voted for someone who used a charitable foundation to make private purchases and bribe government officials.

Or if one million people had voted for someone who admitted to sexual assault on camera and in doing so committed a serious violation of law by creating a hostile work environment for women.

Mainstream news media and Democratic politicians can wring their hands all they want about Russian hacking, FBI manipulation, voter suppression laws, the double standard applied to Hillary, fake news, the Stein effect (which turned Michigan and Wisconsin red), Hillary’s mistakes, the news media’s failure to call Trump on his lies and the unfair skewering of the electoral college in favor of rural states—they can harp about all the many unfortunate happenstances that had to align in some kind of disharmonic convergence for Trump to win the electoral college while losing the popular vote by an unprecedented (not “unpresidented”) 2.8 million votes—moan about it all as much as they like, but it does not change the fact that not one million, not ten million, but almost 63 million people voted for Donald Trump.

That’s a little more than a quarter of all Americans eligible to vote and 46% of actual voters who cast their ballots for someone documented to be an unethical, law-breaking, sociopathic, racist, erratic, misogynistic liar with no government experience. Law-breaking. Erratic. No Experience. Sociopath. Racist. Misogynistic. Lying. Unethical. Any of these eight traits should have disqualified him in the minds of voters.

No one knows the real reason we elected Donald Trump. Was it a “perfect storm” of coincidences, which besides the ones listed above also included the lack of any mainstream Republican candidate and the absence of Republican super delegates? Was it a moment of mass hysteria or mass anger at the establishment? Was it a brilliantly executed strategy that bypassed the news media by relying on revivalist meeting events and social media? Was it because the Democratic Party based too much of its program on identity politics, a popular explanation among self-loathing progressives and their mainstream media enablers? These self-flagellators seem to forget that walking away from asserting the rights of ethnic, racial and sexual minorities involves selling out the American dream and that the very term “identity politics” undercuts the legitimacy of the injustices that women and minorities still endure.

In my view, what elected Donald Trump was the merging of two evils which have poisoned the American body politics since the white rich merchants and slave owners whom we call our founders formed the country more than two centuries ago: racism and greed. Many people voted for Trump out of fear and resentment of blacks, Hispanics and Muslims. Many other people voted for him because they wanted to lower taxes, no matter what. The greedy ones have cynically financed a war against multicultural values and science to pander to the racist (and ultra-religious) ones. Rich folk supporting the beliefs of racist (and culturally conservative) folk in return for support of economic policies that hurt 99% of all Americans has pretty much described the Republican play book since the rise of Ronald Reagan. If the sleep of reason produces monsters, then the reasoning of the Republican Party has produced the monstrous Donald Trump. Or perhaps it’s the reasoning of consumer capitalism.

Let’s not forget, though, that both racism and greed run deep and long in Americwan history. In fact the white rich merchants and slave owners who created the Electoral College did so to keep real control of governance in as small a set of hands as possible. Other aspects of the Constitution in its original form show favoritism to both the propertied and slave owners. From its very inception, we can view most American history through the lens of either racism or the battle to divide the economic pie between the wealthy and everyone else.

No matter the explanation for the election of Donald Trump, we should all feel ashamed and embarrassed. That the ballots of one quarter of the voting population should elect such a dangerously unqualified president reflects poorly on our education system, our political parties, our news media, our system of checks and balances, the motives of the ultra-wealthy and our cultural norms. It is our national shame. And once Trump’s cabinet of crony capitalists, retired generals and ideologues springs into action, it will also be our national tragedy.

The American dream has proved to be weaker than the American original sins of racism and greed.