Thursday, March 2, 2017

All The News That's Fake To Print

"That's fake news!" has become an increasingly standard response to anything from a news source someone doesn't like, or to any story that challenges that narrative one wants to be true. What was once a label for a very particular kind of underhanded representation of "news" has become the label for even mainstream media outlets that make mistakes or have bias, as well as any story that suggests we might be wrong in our perspective.

It's an effective way to dodge, but it's a terrible way to engage with reality. I, for one, don't want to give up on the pursuit of truth, even if it is surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.*

So let's chat.


Who exactly is in the Mainstream Media (MSM)? Good luck finding a widely accepted definition. Here are two things that I would say generally characterize mainstream media. First, they are part of a conglomerate or corporation. Check out who owns the media. There's your MSM - and all the ways it is interconnected. Reporters in MSM are trained in journalism in some fashion and are supposed to adhere to a journalistic code of ethics. Even if you don't listen to or like NPR, I think you will agree that the standard for which they aim is admirable. Second, the MSM is (ideally) characterized by the pursuit of facts. 

This does not mean the MSM is not biased at times (which is a constant concern) or irrelevant or misleading. This dilemma is as old as journalism itself. If we were to jettison every news outlet that is biased or misleading, we would have to abandon them all. Just google "misleading/biased news" with any combination of media outlet names. Or google "lies" preceded by "Fox, CNN, MSNBC, Brietbart, New York Times, Vox, World Net Daily." For a really good time, google "Trump lies" followed by "Obama lies" and watch the sparks fly. No, your candidate, party, and favorite news outlet is not safe from this. It is no small irony that mere days after Spicer barred "fake news" CNN from a briefing, Fox News interviewed an imposter posing as an authority on Sweden.

Social media has not helped this dilemma. There is a lot of pressure to be the first to let the world know the next salacious moment, and many times the rush to break in live or be the first to go viral leads to a distortion or misrepresentation that has to be corrected three days later. TV news shows seem to be increasingly heavy on opinion and speculation and light on the facts. Why? Because a careful discussion of the facts usually bores the audience. "Are you not entertained with the latest news clip or angry panelists?!?" Perhaps broadcast news could offer something far more meaty than the current format allows if the audience desired it. Thanks, infotainment culture. 

It's important to remember that legitimate news sources - organizations where trained reporters and editors take the business of journalism seriously -  are trying hard to pursue facts and tell the truthIt certainly doesn't always happen -  and then that makes the headline in news outlets everywhere else because it's a competitive industry. The New York Times' loss is the Washington Times' gain. If you get fed up with CNN, you may well end up at Fox. People get fired; retractions get printed; careers derail. In a nation with a healthy free press, there is a self-policing that takes place - not perfectly, but with general effectiveness.

The failures do not discount the successes. Perfection is a standard no news agency can reach. 


If the MSM are the "watchers," independent media are often the self-appointed "watchers of the watchers." The best independent media is generally run by journalists who, for whatever reason, want to operate outside of the MSM conglomeration. They offer alternative perspectives, pursue stories that don't interest the MSM, or hold the MSM's feet to the fire when it comes to the facts of stories. Check out Alex Chrum's suggested list of good sites, or one of the many links offered by Simon Fraser University. There's a bunch more at then end of this article. 

Some independent media is partisan and makes no effort to hide it. They don't merely want to pursue the facts; they want to position them. They want to place them in particular worldview and tell a particular story. I don't have a problem with this as long as it's clear going in what to expect. On the Right, there are sites like the Drudge Report, Michelle Malkin, National Review, TownHall, The Weekly Standard, The Blaze, and the Federalist. On the Left,  it's sites like Daily Kos, Daily Dot, Huffington Post, Liberal Oasis,, The Nation, and Vox.

Once again, they are reporting facts, but they are positioning those facts for the reader in a particular worldview framework in a way that MSM doesn't (or shouldn't).

Somewhere on the independent media spectrum we reach a subcategory of independent media that is characterized by is a hyper-partisan presence which in its most extreme form is referred to as the alt Right or the alt Left. Posts on these sites do more than pursue and position facts; they manipulate them. When this happens, they move beyond being simply partisan and become terribly distorted or outrageously provocative. The Right has some really popular sites; on the Left, there's a pretty long list as well. 

I recently read an article about another kind of internet news I will call "news mills" (for lack of a better term). One company (or person) will publish two stories that are based on the same facts but manipulate the language to cater to both ends of the political spectrum. Here's one example:
After CNN reported White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was “sidelined from television appearances,” both sites whipped up a post — and outrage — for their respective audiences. The resulting stories read like bizarro-world versions of each other — two articles with nearly identical words and tweets optimized for opposing filter bubbles... These for-the-cause sites that appeal to hardcore partisans are in fact owned by the same Florida company.


There is not an official definition for this, but there is a general understanding of what it is. 
"Fake news, or hoax news, refers to false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news. Fake news websites and channels push their fake news content in an attempt to mislead consumers of the content and spread misinformation via social networks and word-of-mouth. One of the more colorful definitions of fake news comes from PolitiFact: 'Fake news is made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.'"
Shepard Smith of Fox News put it this way:
 "Fake news’ refers to stories that are created, often by entities pretending to be news organizations, solely to draw clicks and views and are based on nothing of substance."
Fake news certainly manipulates facts, but more often than not it just makes stuff up. Fake news is produced by people like Macedonian youth and bored dads in California to make a quick buck off a gullible reading population. Make what you will of the fact that this is a large and lucrative market historically dominated by the Right but increasingly catering to the Left.

 So what were some of the most commonly shared 'fake news' stories recently? Here's one list of top fake news stories in 2016:
  • "Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president."
  • "Donald Trump sent his own plane to transport 200 stranded marines."
  • #Pizzagate
  • "Ireland is now officially accepting Trump refugees from America."
  • "WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS … Then drops another bombshell."
  • "FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment murder-suicide."
  • "FBI director received millions from Clinton Foundation, his brother’s law firm does Clinton’s taxes."
  • "ISIS leader calls for American Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton."
  • "Hillary Clinton in 2013: ‘I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office; they’re honest and can’t be bought.’"
  • "RuPaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 90s."
  • The Republican National Committee called Trump a king and compared him to Jesus Christ. 
  • Russia hacked the election. 
  • Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) father was involved in killing John F. Kennedy. 
  • Hate crimes perpetuated by Trump supporters that have turned out to be hoaxes. 
  • YouTube prankster Adam Saleh claiming that he was kicked off a Delta Airlines for flight for speaking Arabic. 
  • A Jewish family had to leave a town due to "fake news" from conservative outlets. 
  • Pizzagate.
  •  “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide.” 
  • “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.”
  • “Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America.”
  • “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leak Found Dead in Apparent Murder Suicide.”
  • “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE to Reunite and Release Anti Donald Trump Album.”'s 120 fake news stories are a depressing list of gullibility. The Top 50 most viral fluctuate between unsettling and hilarious. Check out Melissa Zimdars' now famous list of fake websites; just keep in mind that it covers fake, satirical, and highly biased sites - a reality that is often ignored when her list is posted. 

Fake news is not news you don't like. It's not news from a mainstream or independent source that is biased or sometimes wrong. Fake news is a particular kind of scam. If you shout "Fake News!" instead of  actually engaging with the facts of a story from a legitimate source, you are contributing to the death of civil, rational and respectful discourse in our country.

* * * * *

I once heard a wise man say, "You will either master language or be mastered by those who do." What we see now is a purposeful manipulation and distortion of language that creates a world in which people are revealing the validity of at least one postmodern critique: words are - or at least can be - power plays. Whether or not something is actually true is increasingly irrelevant. All that matters is if what you read or hear supports what you believe to be true already. If you repeat a lie enough times - or if it gets shared 10,000 times - it become truth. Or at least an alternative fact.

So what are we to do? I have a few suggestions. 
  • Know the genuinely fake news sites. If you don't know anything about the site, google it. You can usually find out who's behind it and what it's attempting to do.
  • Watch the ads that show up on the site. That will tell you a lot about what they are trying to accomplish as well as what they think of their target audience. If you keep seeing ads for how the photographer kept the camera rolling when the cheerleader had a wardrobe malfunction, you might want to find a new source of news. 
  • If your only source is a video circulating in social media, walk away. Anybody can make a good looking multimedia presentation, say impressive sounding things, and edit it however they want. That makes it entertaining, which is very different from true.
  • If the title contains something IN ALL CAPS to get your attention, you are better off reading the story somewhere else. If they are already shouting at you in the title, that's not a good sign.
  • Google is your friend. Find out who all is talking about the story. It takes two minutes. If the MSM or legitimate independent sites are not taking it seriously, you shouldn't either. There's plenty of qualified media on both the Right and the Left now; someone is going to run with a story that has legs. 
  • Click on links to get to primary sources. If there are no links for provocative quotes or astonishing recently unearthed breaking news, you need to google the info. 
  • Wait a day or two to run with salacious stories. Recently, Democrats in Congress were accused of not standing to applaud a veteran's widow. That hit the meme circuit pretty fast and generated a lot of outrage. It wasn't true. One still picture or ten seconds of a two minute video do not tell the whole story. Remember the false Nazi salute accusations against Laura Ingraham during the campaign?  
  • If it has a clickbait title, it's probably clickbait.  Once again, google it before you post anything. Odds are pretty good something is wrong in it, or that there is serious disconnect between the title and the content.
  • Read widely and deeply to avoid confirmation bias. If your Facebook feed or google search hits don't show a mix of sources left, right and center, you are living in an informational bubble. You should read the Washington Post and the Washington Times. Watch Fox and CNN. Listen to NPR and whatever is the equivalent on the Right (is there something?). Read the Wall Street Journal next to the BBC. This approach would have shown conservatives that President Trump has nothing to do with the recent drop in the debt, and liberals would figure out why the Affordable Care Act is a mess that needs fixing. 
  • Read and listen to coverage from outside of the United States. We aren't the only people who do news. Sweden, for example, might have some important things to say about Sweden. Keep in mind that any one snapshot of a country does not do it justice. Eventually, enough snapshots begin to bring clarity, but that requires some work. Think of how different one's perspective would be of America if someone oversees formed iron-clad opinions with a couple news stories from one town (or even one state), or several interviews from a country of millions. 
  • Be brave enough to acknowledge when you are wrong. Nobody is perfect. Sometimes, your challengers are right. Sometimes, you are. Learn and grow.

*That's a quote from Churchill about the importance of using deception in war. It feel apropos here. 

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