Though it had undoubtedly existed in some fashion beforehand, the phrase “fake news” first entered the American political lexicon with full force during the 2016 presidential election. Many blamed the successful campaign of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the widespread circulation of specious and patently false articles from disreputable websites. In turn, Trump used the phrase as a bludgeon against legitimate media outlets that published true stories portraying him or his campaign in a negative light, further endearing him to a populist base that has lost confidence in America’s institutions.
But in abstracting the issue of “fake news” from the hyper-politicized context in which it arose, there emerges an issue that is simultaneously more and less distressing than commentators typically describe. The issue is more severe in that actual fake news is ubiquitous across the political spectrum, rather than merely confined to Trump’s populist base. Moreover, the rise of fake news is symptomatic of a larger, fundamental erosion of trust in America’s press corps. The issue of fake news is less severe in that its chief beneficiaries (i.e., those who traffic in it or otherwise generate viewership by attacking “fake news”) frequently overstate the biases in established media channels (e.g., national periodicals and television broadcast stations). While the path toward restoring public trust in American journalism and minimizing the prevalence of fake news is presently uncertain, undoubtedly the first step is to obtain a firm grasp on the nature of the problem.
A Bipartisan Problem
Trump’s obsession with fake news became a punchline early in the 2016 presidential campaign. Whenever confronted with unfavorable polls, negative coverage, or otherwise unflattering revelations about himself or his campaign, “fake news” was Trump’s favorite refrain. Though some at the time assumed (against the weight of the evidence) that occupying the Oval Office would somehow reveal a more “presidential” Trump who would abandon such attacks, his “fake news” kick has failed to show any signs of abatement. President Trump and his administration have attacked journalists with renewed fervor, calling entire organizations “fake news” during press conferences. Most recently, the White House has directed such attacks toward all accusations of sexual assault against Trump, despite Trump’s videotaped braggadocio about grabbing women without their consent.
Being inherently distrustful of anything that would disturb their faith in the graven image they have constructed of him in their minds, Trump’s “true believers” now seek news from outlets with Trump’s figurative seal of approval—meaning anything positive toward the President and critical of his opponents. For such individuals, whether such sources are reputable has become less important than whether they confirm the audience’s political priors. Indeed, reputability and accuracy have become largely synonymous with the extent to which a source merely regurgitates the audience’s opinions and repackages them as facts. If there are reports that cast aspersions upon the President, the populist right dismisses them out of hand, irrespective of a mountain of corroboration. Oppositely, if there are reports that speak positively of the President, the populist right gleefully accepts and shares them, irrespective of the total want of factual underpinnings. In short, Trump’s false accusations of “fake news” have turned his supporters toward outlets that actually truck in fabricated news reports.
Most outside Trump’s core group of supporters have properly criticized Trump’s postmodern approach toward news, an approach in which Trump seeks to control the truth by controlling the narrative. Everyone from the remaining Republicans of integrity to the far fringes of the socialist left have denied Trump the satisfaction of pretending to live in a reality of his own creation. But such criticism has not been without some level of hypocrisy. After all, pots and kettles alike have a tendency to forget that they are both black.
In the case of the left, the problem of “fake news” is just as prevalent as it is with the populist right, but it is less discussed. Part of this is a function of visibility. The problem of right-wing fake news announces itself with a bullhorn, noisily parading about with Trump as its proclaimer in chief. Oppositely, the problem of left-wing fake news largely confines itself within the echo chambers of leftist social media channels. But a confined problem is a problem nonetheless, lest it ever break free of its present boundaries.
And it has, in a variety of instances. The aftermath of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina provides the quintessential example. Brentley Vinson, an African-American police officer, shot and killed Scott in September of 2016 after Scott refused to comply with orders to drop his weapon. Scott’s wife, who was present at the shooting, insisted Scott was unarmed at the time and that he was carrying a book. Her account spread rapidly through online communities aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. Riots and looting ensued. In November, the district attorney released a report that determined conclusively that Scott had indeed been armed at the time of the shooting. Scott had illegally purchased a stolen Colt .380 semiautomatic handgun online two weeks before the shooting (Scott was a convicted felon and ineligible to own firearms), and DNA testing confirmed that Scott’s DNA was on the gun. The gun was loaded, cocked, and had the safety switched off. Accordingly, the district attorney concluded that Officer Vinson’s actions were justifiable self-defense.
Of course, none of the facts and conclusions from the district attorney mattered to Scott’s supporters. The initial lie that Scott’s wife injected into the discourse surrounding the shooting—that Scott was carrying a book—persisted and still persists. Scott’s supporters still blame “racism” in the shooting, despite that both the decedent and the shooter were black and that Scott was illegally armed. Some of his supporters still rioted (which is inexcusable irrespective of whether Scott was armed). Any fact impugning the version of events that favors their chosen narrative cannot appeal to the reason that they have forgone. And so, they simply choose not to believe it.
Elsewhere, left-wing fake news has been just as damaging intellectually if less so physically. Slate, an online magazine with an avowedly left-wing perspective, has covered the problem on at least a couple occasions. Though the populist right’s problem with fake news has received the lion’s share of news coverage since Trump’s candidacy, Slate notes that fake news has circulated among leftist circles for decades—most notably in the form of conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Moreover, despite the left’s fascination with Russia’s efforts to undermine American politics through propaganda and fake news, Slate reported that many sites guilty of “picking up on and spreading propaganda” originating from Russia are alternative media sites with a leftist bent. Whatever issues the right may have with fake news, the left cannot fairly be called innocent.
An Erosion of Trust
The rise of fake news is partly the fault of a proliferation of alternative media sources. Academics have long speculated that the growth of information technology and internet media would lead to a fracturing of news sources, leaving the public without a common, trustworthy arbiter of fact and fiction. (For those interested, Markus Prior of Princeton University published a book entitled Post-broadcast Democracy that studies some of the effects of increased options in media consumption.)
But an increased opportunity to pick bad sources of media cannot alone be the sole reason for fake news’s ascendance in the twenty-first century. Though there are more specious sources of commentary and news, so too are there more reputable ones. While disreputable sources are almost certainly more numerous than reputable ones (it is cheaper, after all, to create fake news than to hire journalists to discover real news), the mere fact of being more prevalent should not alone make it more desirable to media consumers.
In fact, the roots of the problem are intellectual. The philosophic genealogy of the left’s present fascination with postmodernism is too vast a topic for one essay, so this section instead will focus on the right’s recent hobby horse: anti-intellectualism.
Anti-intellectualism may simply be described as a general contempt for ideas and abstract thought. It can manifest in a variety of ways, most notably in the form of populist movements like Trump’s. But in the case of the Republican Party and the right generally, the rise of anti-intellectualism has long-preceded Trump, who is but a symptom of the overarching problem.
The precise moment at which the problem began is impossible to pinpoint, but anti-intellectualism has poisoned the philosophic substructure of the Republican Party for several decades. Certainly, the rise of the hippie counterculture on college campuses in the 1960s led some conservatives to associate higher learning and intellectualism—i.e., a respect and interest for ideas (flawed or not)—with the left. With college professors offering apologies for the Soviet Union, intellectualism itself became a problem worth confronting to many on the right. After all, if the loudest advocates for Communism were shouting down at the masses from the Ivory Tower, then perhaps the Ivory Tower itself and the separation it caused from “common sense” were to blame.
However, the 1960s were also a heyday for right-wing intellectualism. Ayn Rand published much of her nonfiction in that era. William F. Buckley’s National Review (flawed though it was) had risen to prominence. Milton Friedman (similarly mixed in reputation) was offering vociferous defenses of free markets. Others joined them. So, for the moment at least, the united force of these voices staved off the rise of anti-intellectualism in the Republican Party.
But as the years progressed, the murmurs of anti-intellectualism steadily grew to a roar. Pragmatists took the helm of the GOP’s political leadership, sacrificing long-term principle for short-term expedience. Those demanding integrity from their political leaders were denounced as “unrealistic idealists” unmoored from facts and blinded by their “impractical” ideologies.
Over time, other elements of the GOP’s lexicon became sloppy, meeting the needs of bumper sticker sloganeering but not those of long-term policycraft and cultural leadership. Some platform points, being too intellectually cumbersome to convey or understand without active effort, received modifications. For example, opposition to central planning became opposition to the “experts in Washington” and their supposed arrogance. “Leftist elites” became generalized to just “elites,” making status of any kind a mark of sin. Anyone who espoused even a slightly nuanced position on international relations could be curtly dismissed as a “globalist” without argumentation. Worse, even where legitimate points existed, reducing the discussion to populist slogans void of argumentation robbed the right of its substance at every turn.
In turn, this led to the early development of the sort of the right-wing identity politics that Trump exploits to great effect. The GOP came to identify the left as boogeymen like college professors, politicians, and faceless “experts” attempting to impose their will on “the rest of us.” Confronting the subjectivist-collectivist ideologies driving the left became less important than confronting the groups of people typically associated with those ideologies. The GOP, meanwhile, fashioned itself anew as the party of the democratic everyman, imbued with folksy wisdom and free from the misdirection that only comes from higher learning and a preoccupation with ideas.
Of course, the Republicans reaping the benefits of these changes were themselves quite educated, no less “elite” in cultural or economic senses than the left-wing “boogeymen” they campaigned against. But with increasing frequency, they would mask that background for political gain. Ronald Reagan became known as the man who “paid for his own microphone” against the Yale-educated George H.W. Bush in the 1980 primary—not as a highly experienced politician and former governor of California (even today, Trump supporters incorrectly cite Reagan as a president without prior political experience). Businessman Ross Perot later garnered enough third-party support to remove George H.W. Bush from the White House after a single-term, partly because of Bush’s early negotiations for NAFTA (again, a policy point not conducive to sound bites). George W. Bush’s administration constantly marketed him as an everyman, and not as the Yale and Harvard alum that he was. After a single interaction with then candidate Barack Obama, “Joe the Plumber” received multiple speaking invitations from the McCain campaign as a contrast to Obama’s “Ivy League elitism.” And Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate, did not bill herself principally as the governor of Alaska. Instead, she was a “hockey mom,” privy to the down-to-earth wisdom of which Obama’s Harvard law degree had supposedly robbed him.
By the point that Palin’s severe lack of experience or political acumen became apparent, her response should have been predictable: blame the know-it-alls. Blame the boogeymen out to get her. Blame journalist Katie Couric for asking the tough (though not terribly complicated or surprising) questions that prompted Palin to ramble incoherently. Blame Couric for having the gall to ask Palin which magazines and newspapers she read. Blame the elitist experts. Blame the left-wing college professors. Blame the “lamestream media.”
With the help of Palin and her supporters, tensions that had long simmered between certain elements of the right and established media outlets boiled over. Cable news outlets like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News had started the process years ago, spawning a genre of news media that was meant to entertain just much (if not more) than it was meant to inform. The public flocked to such outlets, abandoning more informative periodicals and programs deemed “too boring.” Meanwhile, the few instances of legitimate media bias (outlined below) hastened the exodus. Worse still, entertainment outlets began reporting on how other outlets reported the same stories, aiming to police “bias” but also to discredit competitors and maintain viewership. And thus the journalism of journalism had begun. By the time Palin had coined the term “lamestream media,” the phrase “mainstream media” had already become a damning insult among devotees of right-wing media sources like Fox.
During Obama’s presidency, there were glimmers of hope that the GOP had yet again begun to seriously engage ideas. The early TEA Party’s insistence on promoting “principle over party” led to the election of some true Republicans of merit.
Beneath the surface, however, the anti-intellectual degeneration of the Republican Party continued, and the journalism of journalism only accelerated. The TEA Party’s initial attempts at restoring some level of intellectualism in the GOP were insufficient to wholly reverse decades of philosophic decay. Individuals’ appetite for entertainment over substance remained unchanged. The populist identity politics within the GOP went unconfronted. The media personalities that had benefited from that decay were interested in the viewership the TEA Party generated, but remained otherwise unchanged in their habits—casting aspersions on what was perceived as positive coverage of the Obama Administration by other outlets, and calling out perceived omissions of the Obama Administration’s failures. And the GOP’s pragmatist establishment vigorously opposed the TEA Party’s ideologically-driven mission. They fought it, mocking discussion of principles and ideals. Such attacks all but broke the back of an otherwise admirable movement, leaving the remains to be devoured by whomever sought to benefit from the TEA Party’s energy without being burdened by its insistence on principle—chiefly, social conservatives and Trumpian populists.
By the time of the 2016 presidential election, the situation was worse than even before the TEA Party. It was too late for Fox to try posturing itself as a reputable news outlet during the Republican Primary debates. The anchors’ no-holds-barred format toward the candidates, while a remarkable display of journalistic integrity, only earned the network immeasurable backlash from the audience whose entertainment habits it had upset. To bring to light Trump’s past support for the Clintons, his decades of support for the Democratic Party, his inexperience, his ineptitude, and his past statements toward women was tantamount to the same “media bias” Fox had called out for years. And so Trump’s base, which Fox and the GOP leadership had unwittingly bred for decades, simply ignored those allegations as lies, slander, and “fake news.”
Media Bias, Fact & Fiction
Despite what the anti-intellectual talking heads may have their audience believe, actual examples of true media bias among major outlets are relatively minor. And whatever that bias may be, it very rarely amounts to passing off a politically-motivated fantasy as reality. Most media “bias,” if it can even be called that, is simply an inseparable part of the journalistic business—of gathering, summarizing, and redistributing information to the public.
While this claim may seem ambitious, it comes with an important caveat: it is only applicable to journalists, and only when acting in their journalistic capacities. An editorial writer, for example, is not engaging in journalism. Ideally, the editorial contains certain journalistic elements, such as factual evidence on a particular topic. But the editorial writer then engages in additional steps that the journalist does not. The editorial writer first infers certain conclusions from the gathered evidence and then argues to convince the audience of the same conclusion. The distinction is not always clear one, especially with the growth of journalism-editorializing hybrids in recent decades. In truth, the distinction is more akin to a spectrum than a bright-line division.
On one end, there are the avowed editorialists, those who are primarily peddling their arguments and not the underlying story. Some do so honestly. Newspapers routinely set aside entire sections devoted to editorials, so as to not mislead readers about the purpose and content of what they are reading. Many publications devote themselves exclusively to publishing editorials from a particular perspective, and they market themselves accordingly. But others are less careful about drawing a clear line for their audience, and cable news outlets are among the worst offenders. Afternoon talk shows and primetime shows are treated as “news” despite being nothing but hour-long editorials by the anchors.
Toward the middle of the spectrum, there are “hybrid” outlets that merge journalism and commentary into a single format. This hybridized format is most conducive to covering topics more esoteric or academic in nature. Articles on such topics would largely be unpublishable in a “general audience” outlet if written from a “wholly journalistic” or “wholly editorial” perspective. If wholly journalistic, those not already familiar with the topic would likely deem the article irrelevant to their lives, despite the existence of a nonobvious yet meaningful value in the presented information. If wholly editorial, the article would amount to nothing but jargon to all but those already equipped with a background in the subject. The Atlantic and Time commonly publish such hybrids, as do online publications like Aeon. However, the hybridized format is less-than-useful in other contexts, like the general coverage of political events in papers or on television news stations. In such contexts, the audience does not typically need to be informed as to how the event affects their lives, nor do they typically benefit from being instructed on the author or anchor’s opinion on the matter. Hybridization in such contexts unnecessarily blurs the distinction between the undisputed facts and the next-level inferences that the author or anchor draws from those facts, often without the depth needed to fairly evaluate those inferences and to assess their strength against counter-arguments.
The final group are the journalists, those whose function is to gather facts and report them to a general audience. Drawing anything but the most rudimentary conclusions should typically be left to the audience, so as to separate the story’s facts from the reporter’s inferences.
Of course, editorialists and journalists alike must adhere to standards of objectivity. Donning the mantle of an editorialist gives a writer no more license to stray from reality than he would have as a journalist. But in the context of the “fake news” crisis, the distinction between these two roles matters greatly in assessing the journalistic quality of mainstream media outlets.
Simply put: that an outlet puts forth shoddy editorials, worthy of unequivocal condemnation, is not in itself proof of that outlet’s poor quality in the journalistic domain. Due to the poor state of American culture generally, editorials vary widely in quality. Every editorial of merit in large publications is invariably buried among dozens of others by hacks and intellectual miscreants of all stripes. One need only briefly peruse the opinion pages of almost any national publication to discover that editors have long ceased to demand objectivity from their contributors.
This lack of quality contributes directly to the disintegration of readers’ trust toward national media outlets, as discussed above. When flagrantly vile editorials get published, they invariably get picked up by the “journalism of journalism” cycle that has contributed so heavily toward driving individuals’ away from traditional media. Because of the near-uniform leftist bent of national editorial boards, the effect is particularly acute on the right. The alternative media hucksters and fake news peddlers on the right undoubtedly take great pleasure in the publication of any editorial attempting to rehabilitate Communism’s legacy in the New York Times—which happened as recently as a couple months ago. The poor decisions by the New York Times’s editorial board only provide fodder for anti-intellectuals to further discredit mainstream outlets as radically left, irredeemably biased, and hopelessly unhinged from reality.
Unfortunately, the occasional poor decisions by opinions editors do considerably more harm than the publication of quality editorials does good. After all, hybrid pieces in the Atlantic occasionally display an uncommon intellectual rigor, and the editors have displayed no obvious qualms in publishing or promoting pieces that offer a right-wing perspective. The Washington Post recently published an editorial criticizing the New York Times’s whitewashing of Communism’s past. But good decisions such as these do not generate the same headlines as bad decisions. The journalism of journalism principally serves to highlight major outlets’ flaws, not their merits. And because the anti-intellectual right has already abandoned publications like the Atlantic and Washington Post, they have no other means—except by accident—of discovering the value that such publications still have to offer.
But set aside concerns about the variable quality of editorials from national outlets and return to the central point: that whatever the quality of such editorials, it does not justify dismissing legitimate journalism from the same outlets. Certainly, the publication of poor editorials impugns on the integrity of the editors and producers managing major outlets. To insist upon rigorous objectivity in one aspect of one’s life or business but not in another is an unjustifiable contradiction, worthy of proper criticism.
Upon carefully scrutinizing the journalistic practices of major outlets, there is little in which to find fault. Despite the anti-intellectual hype about the biases of the “mainstream media,” most news coverage from major outlets is unimpeachable. The fact-gathering is thorough. The presentation is objective, varying principally in the style and depth required by the publication. And any major story of national significance receives the coverage it deserves, irrespective of whether the coverage helps or hinders any given political party, movement, or ideology.
To the extent there are “biases,” they are typically either minor or else unavoidable aspects of journalism. On the minor side, unintentional editorializing occasionally results from institutional parochialism. Such editorializing is typically easy to spot—a throwaway line about the dangers of global warming where not particularly related to an article’s thesis, for example. When reviewing the article for publication, neither the author nor the editor likely thinks much of such lines. To them, the factual nature of the line is so readily obvious that no one could possibly think differently. But in fact, the line represents several layers of inference, often faulty ones that have become institutionally entrenched in both academia and journalism. Such throwaway lines, while frustrating, do not seriously diminish the value of the article as a whole. In any event, they certainly do not justify disregarding the facts presented therein.
On the unavoidable side, all journalism involves editorial decisions about which issues deserve attention and which do not. As stated, issues that have clear national importance invariably receive coverage. Stories that clearly do not have any importance at any level do not receive coverage. Somewhere in between is the threshold level of importance that an issue must meet before editors or producers are willing to devote resources to covering it. And “importance” is only meaningful in relation to the values one keeps. In such marginal cases, the personal ideology of the editors or producers will influence what they choose to cover. But in general, such marginal cases do not seriously affect the overall quality of the outlet. Besides, that such choices must be made does not necessarily mean that they cannot or are not being made objectively.
And yet, the advocates of alternative media would have their audiences believe that the major outlets routinely misrepresent or outright ignore major stories, particularly stories that conflict with some inchoate political agenda. Just yesterday an individual complained that national outlets were not covering the sexual abuse scandal of Minnesota Senator Al Franken despite providing extensive coverage of the child molestation allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. A quick search revealed the complaint to be perniciously false, as Franken’s scandal had received coverage in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Time to name but a few outlets. Left-wing outlets like the Huffington Post and Slate also covered the issue. Was such coverage conducive to the journalism of journalism cycle in alternative media? No, and so alternative media sources ignored it. Since that individual does not read any of those publications, would he have ever encountered such coverage otherwise? No, and so he remained ignorant of it.
In sum, the actual practices of major journalistic outlets stands in sharp contrast to the villainous image often assigned to them by alternative media sources and the anti-intellectual right. Aside from some poor practices regarding editorials, that image simply does not reflect reality. Journalists, predominantly Democrat though they may be, still largely adhere to venerable standards of objectivity in their work. They still vigorously seek the truth. They still honestly report it, even when the news is inconvenient for their own political ends.
Sadly, none of that matters to many of those now turning to alternative media outlets. We live in an era in which whether something qualifies as a fact is often determined by whether they leave individuals undisturbed in their preconceived notions. And though we may confront individuals with example upon example of national media outlets providing objective news coverage, no amount of evidence will convince those who consciously refused to be convinced. But still, we try nonetheless.
But first, we must attain a firm grasp on the problem. We must recognize that the issue of “fake news” is not unique to the right. And we be sure to treat the cause and not merely symptoms. Meaning, we must confront the philosophic errors driving people away from legitimate news, not just the fact that they have been driven away. The merits of our nation’s journalists must be given due praise, keeping in mind the problems that nevertheless persist regarding poor editorials.
In doing so, we may yet turn the tide and reestablish a culture with a healthy respect of facts and those who seek them. Until then, the anti-intellectual forces now driving a wedge between portions of the American public and American journalists will only further entrench themselves, becoming that much more suspicious of fact and immune to reason. But in that, there may still be some small comfort. In continuing their cause even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the “mainstream media” is not as biased as they portend, the anti-intellectuals have revealed the ultimate irony at the root of their cause: they have made themselves guilty of the very accusations that they levy against real journalists, ultimately succumbing to the very fake news they claim to detest.