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#FakeNews: In search of a definition

The headline of this post initially was “In search of a better definition…” Then I realized I hadn’t yet seen any kind of definition, let alone a better one. Which is slightly weird, as journalism is often constructed with words, and words invariably beg for definitions. Perhaps when words are piled together, as with an article in The New York Times or an episode of The Rachel Maddow Show, definitions are harder to come by. The same may not be said of Alex Jones’ InfoWars. Which I posit is fake news, despite the fact that I haven’t defined fake news yet. Some things are self-evident.


And here: I’m Rachel Maddow, dammit.

I realize that journalism is a frequent topic of this blog—for instance, here, here, hereherehere, here, and here. But in recent weeks, journalism itself has been front and center in the national consciousness. For me, journalism that becomes part of the story is the screeching fingernails on the blackboard of the Information Age (a metaphor, I also realize, that probably should be retired in a world of erasable white boards and clean, easily altered PowerPoint presentations). Rock songs whose lyrics describe the raunchy lives of rock star songwriters have a similar effect on me: Please spare me having to listen to your problems with groupies and substance abuse.

The subtitle of this blog, however, is “words | sentences | paragraphs.” So pardon me for the inside baseball slant that occasionally possesses me. And in this case, I think you might agree, journalism has become the story.

If we’re to believe what we see and read (and isn’t that what we’re trying to figure out here?), “fake news” may have cost someone the presidency. Unfortunately, no one seems to know what “real news” looks like. And mainstream media is all too vulnerable to a “fake news” label.

An apology of sorts: Journalism is not as deluded as I sometimes make it out to be. I get a kick out of the “alternative” media who are often forced to base their independent, “progressive” reporting on articles from The New York Times or Politico or The Huntington Post or The Washington Post, or many other sources that have been known to accidently perform high-quality journalism now and then. It’s not unusual to see one of these alt-media types make a heated point—for example, that mainstream media totally ignored WikiLeaks—as they show a screen grab or quotation from a report in the mainstream media. You shouldn’t make a point about how something isn’t done as you present evidence that it’s doing it.

Over the past few days, as I’ve been writing this post in my head, I’ve been slapping material into an electronic folder, as I’m wont to do. Trump’s peccadilloes with the press are a common theme, as Cenk Uygur, of the Young Turks, demonstrates here:

And the Young Turks also commonly indict the mainstream media. Jordan Cheriton and Emma Vigeland, of TYT Politics, announced their winners of this year’s “Shamestream Media Awards” presented to CNN (for announcing the winner of the Democratic primary prematurely) and the debate moderators (for sucking in general), respectively.

Citing public statements from the CIA, the Sane Progressive noted a critical distinction between “hacks” and “leaks.”

The problem when differentiating “fake news” from “real news” is that some group/agency/service/wealthy corporate donor, like Facebook, may be asked to make the decision: that is, This is fake news, this isn’t. Christ (merry Christmas, by the way, I’m not scared to say). So we need to get our definitions in order. Feel free to cite this blog post, as I’m a trained editor and journalist, who never lost a libel lawsuit against the Trump organization.

Here’s the deal: “Fake news,” as I define it, is composed mainly of made-up shit. The kids from Macedonia, who wrote a ton of click-bait stuff ravenously consumed by Trump supporters, are a good example. I supply no source for the claim that Trump supporters may be more likely to click the bait. As mentioned above, some things are self-evident.

If a report is not made up, in whole or in substantial part, it becomes another kind of animal. It could be accurate but not complete. A lot of people see mainstream media’s coverage of Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction as fake news. I disagree. If a journalist passes along someone else’s lie (for example, Colin Powell’s testimony to the United Nations), especially if that someone is an identified person with authority, the lie becomes news. Verifying that lie might require more resources than a news organization could possibly possess, or even an entire government. Even the person in authority may have been duped (right, Colin?). Nonetheless, the lie remains news.

“Pizzagate” is a story that mainstream media has designated fake news. That’s what it is, they say, and it can’t be anything else. Yet I’ve seen no mainstream news organization report the results of an investigation into the matter. Meanwhile, those espousing Pizzagate present information that supports their contention. What’s wrong with this report, from Reality Calls?:

It seems like news to me. It supports a tiny piece of the puzzle. Alternative suggestions for what’s going on here are welcomed. One small confession: I like the song—but Lynyrd Skynrd’s “What’s Your Name” may not be the most appropriate pick at the moment.

The fact is, I think most people are entirely capable of identifying fake news as compared with real news. And real news comes in all flavors that are equally immediately identifiable, by the huge majority of people, as comprehensive or not comprehensive. Social media services such as Facebook should provide a “buyer-beware” disclosure, but should stay out of the editing business. And our country as a whole should continue to understand, invoke, and respect the First Amendment to our constitution.

KJC dingbat-thumbnail

Postscript 23 Dec 2016: Jimmy Dore interviews Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept.

Postscript 1 Jan 2017: The owner of the Reality Calls YouTube channel was banned; she posted a notice here. It appears that the channel is racist; I thus am unsubscribing and will provide no further coverage.



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