‘False news’ is worse than ‘fake news,’ but we can handle the truth

Daniel Cole,  Principal of Cole Communications. 

Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette. December 11, 2016     Readers can follow Cole on Twitter @DanielJWCole.

Sometimes, political news needs a disclaimer: “Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.” Now the purveyors of false news in establishment media are warning America against what they call “fake news” on the internet.

“Fake news” refers to false articles published in service of some nefarious agenda – usually, in order to discredit conservatives who believe and share them online. A year ago, long before I ever heard the expression “fake news,” I saw a headline on Facebook: the Supreme Court had issued a warrant for President Barack Obama’s arrest. It’s hard to imagine anyone believing that story, but one of my Facebook friends did.

Now, suddenly, establishment media have found a public enemy in “fake news.” Their timing betrays their motive. By focusing America’s outrage elsewhere, establishment media have directed attention away from their own shoddy work. It’s no coincidence media’s outcry against “fake news” came immediately after the people’s outcry against mainstream coverage of the presidential campaign.

There is a difference between false news, which is negligent, and fake news, which is malicious, but their result is the same: untruths that mislead the voters.

Take a recent example of false news that’s egregious and par for the course.

After his victory, President-elect Donald Trump replaced Gov. Chris Christie with Vice President-elect Mike Pence as head of his transition team. Major outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, ran with a scandalous take: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, had ousted Christie in retaliation for Christie’s having prosecuted Kushner’s father years ago.

It was a story made for cable news: revenge, a fall from grace, a Republican president-elect losing control of his transition. It was also a story made up.

Reporters never named a credible source to substantiate their account. Many didn’t bother with sources at all. When witnesses did come forward, they gave a different version of events. They agreed Trump would never have allowed a son-in-law’s vendetta to disrupt his transition. They said Trump’s real concerns with Christie were Bridgegate and a transition team behind schedule.

Establishment media had smeared a member of Trump’s family as vindictive and self-serving. Instead of acknowledging their mistake, they began airing stories about the plague of “fake news.”

These establishment media are comically blind to the mote in their own eye. In a Nov. 29 article, Rolling Stone looked down its nose at “Trump supporters” who are “not stopping to think that (fake) stories might be fake.” This is the same Rolling Stone that, a month ago, was found liable for defamation over a false story about gang rape.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post published a story under the headline, “Pope Francis compares media that spread fake news to people who are excited by feces.” But that headline itself is false. The pope’s reference to feces came in a part of his interview that had nothing to do with fake news, when he was criticizing media that are “constantly looking to communicate ugly things, even if they are true.” Nevertheless, the Post wanted “fake news” and “excited by feces” next to each other in the headline, so it invented a fact to suit its purposes.

Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to care about false news promulgated by CNN and The New York Times and Rolling Stone and The Washington Post, but he did recently announce a plan to eradicate fake news from Facebook. It could very well succeed, but, because it would exacerbate the problem of false news, the cure would be worse than the disease.

According to the old Latin legal maxim “Expressio unius est exclusio alterius,” to express one thing is to exclude others. If Facebook censors what it deems “fake news,” it sends the message that what remains is accurate and trustworthy.

False news is already more dangerous because it’s less recognizable than fake news: My friend couldn’t have taken long to realize the Supreme Court did not, in fact, issue a warrant for Obama’s arrest, but, given America’s lax libel laws, it’s extremely rare to see publications like Rolling Stone held responsible for lies. Most false reporting, like that about Kushner, is broadcast and absorbed without retraction or consequence.

Poor journalism will always be with us. Facebook should avoid policies that, by lulling our critical faculties to sleep, prevent us from recognizing it. The antidote to false speech is not less speech but the truth.

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