Essex: I don’t like rain, but that doesn’t make it fake (column)
March 7, 2017
The new cry today, locally and nationally, if you don't like a story, is to call it "fake news."
It has become part of President Trump's war on the media, which really is a broader war on truth aimed at undercutting the credibility of actual reporting — just as Vladimir Putin's efforts to meddle in U.S. and European elections are aimed at eroding the legitimacy of Western democracy.
The goal is to create confusion and doubt so that PR spin and propaganda from Breitbart.com and its ilk seem to be on equal footing with real reporting. Breitbart, formerly run by White House strategist Steve Bannon, traffics in conspiracy theories and provocation, such as "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy" by Milo Yiannopoulos, who resigned as senior editor last month after defending sex between adults and teen boys.
A study by the Columbia Journalism Review found that Breitbart, founded in 2007, in 2016 became the center of gravity for right-wing "information."
For Bannon's Breitbart, even Fox News is too far to the left: Fox in early 2016 was the target of "sustained attacks against it by Breitbart. The top-20 stories in the right-wing media ecology during January included, for example, 'Trump Campaign Manager Reveals Fox News Debate Chief Has Daughter Working for Rubio.' More generally, the five most-widely shared stories in which Breitbart refers to Fox are stories aimed to delegitimize Fox as the central arbiter of conservative news."
For example, Breitbart used real reporting by The New York Times to attack both Fox and a Trump rival: "NY Times Bombshell Scoop: Fox News Colluded with Rubio to Give Amnesty to Illegal Aliens."
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It's noteworthy that Breitbart held out as fully credible a Times story that served its purpose, which says a lot about current squeals about fake news. It's not fake; it's just that it doesn't serve the administration and Pravdabart's purpose.
So in this environment, Donald Trump tweets that "Any negative polls are fake news" and that "FAKE NEWS media knowingly doesn't tell the truth. A great danger to our country."
I agree; Pravdabart, which is a propaganda site, and fake news sites are a danger to our country.
Trump is part of it, turning the White House bully pulpit into a bullcrap pulpit via Twitter.
Contributing to the mess, some left-wing sites have decided to fight BS with BS — and Buzzfeed last week traced ownership of the websites Liberal Society and Conservative 101 to the same company — so one new information business model is to make stuff up.
This war on truth filters down to the local level.
The Post Independent last week ran a story about a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment review of previous studies and air measurements in two of the state's most active oil and gas areas, including the Piceance Basin.
It found no specific risk of human health effects —"so far," as a department official put it.
One of our Facebook commenters said, "Must be fake news."
Similarly, several readers cried "fake news" on a story about the Associated Press obtaining a memo circulating in the Trump administration outlining a proposal to use the National Guard to round up people in the country illegally.
Our Facebook post noted that White House press secretary Sean Spicer says it's "100 percent not true."
It turned out that, so far anyway, the administration is not taking that approach. But the memo was real and was being circulated and discussed, and that's what the story said.
This is exactly like myriad stories over many decades in which reporters learned about proposals and discussions before they become policy. Just one example: The Hill website in November 2015 did a story saying that "the Obama administration is actively planning to circumvent a federal court injunction that suspended part of last November's deferral-based amnesty initiative."
It never happened, but The Hill's story wasn't fake.
Nor are stories about unfavorable polls or about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under oath in his Senate confirmation hearing, failing to accurately describe his contacts with Russians.
Fake news is pizzagate, a wholly fabricated story about a child sex ring run from a Washington pizza joint with supposed ties to Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman. It led a believer to go there with a gun looking for what didn't exist.
Fake news is the headline that's circulated saying Trump has made English the official U.S. language. He has not.
Real news shows its work. It cites sources and quotes original documents. It includes caveats and reaction from those affected (such as Spicer's rebuttal in the National Guard story). Journalists are human and make mistakes. Real news organizations run corrections; fake ones do not.
Increasingly, as we did in recent stories about Silt's police chief "retiring" after an investigation that's not been made public and about poor environmental practices in Battlement Mesa by a pipeline firm, the PI will attach original documents to our stories online.
The speed with which information — true, false, wrong and satirical — is spread on the Internet is unprecedented. It requires us to be critical thinkers.
Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, reacting over the weekend to Trump's claim of being wiretapped during the campaign, offered good guidance for all of us in this bizarre and troubled time: "A quest of the full truth, rather than knee-jerk partisanship, must be our guide if we are going to rebuild civic trust and health."
Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.