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.