Holding the Government Accountable

A User’s Guide to the News

`Fake news’ is only a scourge if we’re lazy
It’s only a short hop from scare-mongering to war-mongering.

“Fake news,” a label popularized by President Trump, can range from the silly to the serious. Nowhere is its impact more dire than in peace and war. That’s because lives, not to mention billions of dollars, are at stake.

Pretty much ever since Bill Gutenberg invented the printing press 500 years ago, the power of the press rested in the relatively few hands of those rich enough to own one. But over the past couple of decades, the cost of the 21st Century’s version of the printing press—some form of computer linked to the Internet—has fallen to almost zilch.

At the same time, that resulting tidal wave of content (much of it free) has crippled old-school media outlets.

“Whenever I visit a city hall or a statehouse media room, I want to cry,” veteran AP reporter Ron Fournier said last week. “These rooms that were once overcrowded with skeptical, dogged, competitive journalists are now less than half-empty. That is good for corruption and bad for America.”

We used to rely on editors; now we are the editor.

As a consequence, the public prints are now something like Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which was so polluted in 1969 that it caught fire. The ratio of real news to pollutants, flammable or otherwise, is shifting steadily toward garbage.

Pay attention. Here comes the important part: It’s up to us, as readers and viewers, to know the difference. We used to rely on editors; now we are the editor.

Think of news as dining. Pre-internet, it was akin to a friendly local restaurant, where you knew the menu by heart. These days, it’s much more like a cafeteria cornucopia, where there are literally thousands of offerings to choose from. But all the news coming down that conveyor belt isn’t equal (and even the “lame-stream media” isn’t immune, as their infamous fumbles before the 2003 Iraq war and 2016 presidential election make clear).

There are basically two types of polluted “reporting”: fake news and hyped news. The first—that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore was an illegal president, for example—is red meat to those who already are primed to believe it. A generation ago, such a fable wouldn’t have gotten traction in the press. That’s because reporters who checked it out would find it to be false and move on to their next story.

But that vetting function no longer exists in a media world where stories, no matter how fabulisticious, orbit the globe, zipping along among true believers via editorless pipelines like Facebook and Twitter at the speed of light. Having the press act as gatekeepers may be elitist, but as we are learning, separating the wheat from the chaff isn’t always easy. Too often these days, it’s the chaff that’s deemed “true.”

Following the U.S. missile strike against Syria last week, for example, some websites claimed that the chemical-weapons attack wasn’t launch by the Syria government but by so-called “deep state” war-mongering instigators with the press as its accomplice. “The Syrian gas attack was done by deep state agents,” alt-righter Mike Cernovich wrote. “The fake news media (which works for them) wants you to ignore basic logic” that such an attack would not be in the best interests of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Hyped news is a cousin of fake news, and often more insidious because it can be delivered by one of those official gatekeepers. Last week, for example, NBC Nightly News (“the most-watched evening newscast in America”) broadcast from the U.S. air base at Osan, South Korea. The anchor detailed what he called a “nightmare scenario,” featuring North Korean ICBMs raining nuclear warheads on the western United States. A helpful map featured range rings reaching Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. To be sure, the network covered itself with a buried tactical-nuclear “if,” but research has long shown that pictures speak louder than words.

Any rudimentary understanding of how challenging it is to shrink a nuclear warhead, put it atop a missile that can span the Pacific (irony alert!) Ocean and hit a specific target 6,000 miles away would be a lot more enlightening, but far less scary. Beyond that, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un knows any such launch would signal the end of his nation, his family’s dynasty—and, most likely, himself. He may be crazy, but he’s not suicidal. These kinds of stories can fuel arms races, and lead to well-meaning over-reactions, including dubious invasions. The press needs to bring balance and perspective to these issues, not fuel them.

Then there are the niche publications, which focus their reporting on whatever appeals to their subscribers’ political or economic interests (which often overlap). “China and Russia are Catching Up to the U.S. Military,” read a headline in The National Interest, a realpolitik journal and website, last week. While those nations are gaining ground on the U.S. in certain categories, the U.S. edge—not to mention the sheer size of its fighting forces—vastly eclipses Beijing’s and Moscow’s military might. (But don’t worry: The National Interest has already thought about that: “Could America Win a War Against Russia and China at the Same Time?” it wondered in February.)

But it’s a lot of work keeping track of these kinds of things. Most news consumers can’t be bothered. That puts pressure on others.

Last week, billionaire Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, pledged to invest $100 million to support serious reporting and counter fake news’ rise. “Increasingly, facts are being devalued, misinformation spread, accountability ignored, and channels that give citizens a voice withdrawn,” warned Omidyar Network Managing Partner Matt Bannick. "These trends cannot become the norm, and we must protect the principles of openness, participation, and accountability.”

Facebook and other groups also launched the News Integrity Initiative last week to smarten news consumers and help rebuild trust that journalism once had.

“False news is a problem across the board and it comes from all kinds of sources,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, defensively told the PBS NewsHour last week. “So much has changed about the way people share with their families, and the way people share articles, and the kind of articles people are writing has changed.”

Not sure that these initiatives, as admirable as they may be, are going to undo the changes wrought by the Internet. They suggest a certain shake-and-bake wisdom, designed to counter existing habits and behavior, that rarely pans out. You know, kind of like how the nutrition labels required on U.S. foods since 1994 have eliminated obesity.