‘Fake news’ isn’t the problem — mainstream news with an agenda is


“Fake news” has been a big news story for the past week. Hoaxes and fabrications hatched by clickbait-hungry websites — or, some reports say, by the Kremlin propaganda machine—have been blamed for Donald Trump’s election victory.

{mosads}Leading journalists such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour have decried the profession’s “existential crisis” caused by the onslaught of fake stories. Google and Facebook have both moved to curb the problem by denying advertising to “fake news” sites.   


Meanwhile, critics on both the left and the right argue that the outcry about “fake news” is a manufactured crisis intended to smear and ostracize dissident, non-mainstream media — especially since some of the critiques lump together publications that contain real if slanted reporting, such as Breitbart News or, with sites that publish actual hoaxes (such as a story about Pope Francis endorsing Trump) or satire.

Critics also charge that the “fake news” trope obscures the fact that the mainstream media have their own problem with false or misleading stories. 

All this is taking place amidst a great deal of anger at the “establishment” media — from Trump’s hardcore fan base, often with his encouragement, but also from Bernie Sanders followers on the left who believe the press was in the tank for Hillary Clinton.

Talk to people on the anti-“MSM” side of the culture war, Trump supporters or not, and they will tell you that The New York Times or The Washington Post are no more reliable than Breitbart or the conspiracy-theory site Infowars.

The anti-media backlash is often ugly (think of the Trump rally attendee wearing a T-shirt that called for lynching reporters) and dramatically exaggerated. But the media’s self-inflicted credibility problems are very real, and they contribute to a political culture that is too cynical and too credulous at the same time.

No, mainstream publications don’t knowingly publish falsehoods.

When they have run “fake news,” whether it’s Stephen Glass’s fictions at The New Republic in the 1990s or Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s sensational Rolling Stone story of gang rape at the University of Virginia in 2014, it has been the result of either intentional malfeasance or extreme sloppiness by a writer and failures of editorial oversight at the publication — and the exposure of falsehood has been followed by retraction and apology. 

It is also worth noting that despite their overt antipathy toward Trump and sympathy toward Clinton in the 2016 race, the mainstream media showed due skepticism toward two stories that had the potential to be severely damaging to the Trump campaign.

A “Jane Doe” lawsuit claiming that Trump raped the plaintiff two decades ago when she was a 13-year-old aspiring model got virtually no exposure, other than a June Huffington Post column by attorney and NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom; the left-wing and solidly anti-Trump British paper,

The Guardian, ran a piece in July that cast serious doubt on the merits of the complaint. (The suit was dropped in early November.)

And, days before the election, a Slate story alleging a direct link between Trump’s businesses and a Kremlin-connected Russian bank was largely debunked by mainstream publications.

However, most junk journalism does not take the form of outright “fake news” but of tendentious reporting that focuses on some facts while downplaying or omitting others. And here, the mainstream media are indeed often guilty of bias.

Take recent headlines announcing that the incoming Trump administration is planning to establish a “Muslim registry” or a “registry for Muslims,” wording which seems to imply that all Muslims in America, even citizens, would be required to register.

That impression was reinforced by a comment from Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, quoted in The Washington Post: “The day they create a Muslim registry is the day I register as a Muslim.”

Such a registry would certainly be shockingly un-American — not to mention unconstitutional. Yet a closer look at the articles under these headlines shows that this is not what’s being proposed.

Trump may revive a program that was in place from 2001 to 2011; according to The Washington Post, that system “required people from countries deemed ‘higher risk’ to undergo interrogations and fingerprinting upon arrival” and, in some cases, “to follow a parole-like system by periodically checking in with local authorities.”

Most of the countries identified as high-risk were majority-Muslim, and civil rights groups charged that the program targeted Muslims. But to call such a program a “Muslim registry” creates an essentially false impression — which is what many people were undoubtedly left with if they did not read the story carefully, or only saw the buzz about it in the social media. 

Beyond this election and the controversial figure of Trump, the media have a very real tendency to fall for narratives that are seen as advancing a “good cause.”

The Rolling Stone article about the fictitious fraternity gang rape, treated as gospel by the rest of the media for ten days until a lone blogger and then a columnist for the libertarian magazine Reason finally pointed out some of its major and obvious problems (such as the fact that the alleged victim claimed to have been raped for hours while lying amidst shattered glass from a tabletop, yet was able to run out of the fraternity house afterward and did not require medical attention).

Indeed, the first New York Times report on the Rolling Stone story being questioned largely defended it

And this is not the only example. While the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. was certainly not “fake news,” a Justice Department investigation showed that the initial media narrative of that tragedy — one in which Brown was stopped for walking while black and shot dead while surrendering with his hands up — was completely false.

(Wilson realized that Brown could be a suspect in a strong-arm robbery at a store, and the shooting occurred when Brown put up a violent resistance and tried to grab the officer’s gun.) 

Such “narrative journalism” has happened far too often. In the days before the Internet could pose a real challenge to the mainstream media’s dominance, it led to the uncritical acceptance of highly dubious claims and statistics, such as three million homeless Americans during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. 

Are people more likely to believe “fake news” and conspiracies today than they were in past generations?

It’s hard to tell; one possibility is that, because of the social media, journalists are simply more likely than before to come into contact with people who hold such beliefs.

But it certainly seems to be true that trust in the media has been dropping noticeably — according to Gallup, from a high of 72 percent in 1976 to 40 percent last year and 32 percent today. While the drop has been especially sharp among Republicans, the same trend is observed among Democrats and independents. 

Comparing the mainstream media in the United States to the state-controlled Russian media that routinely traffic in outright hoaxes and blatant propaganda is factually wrong and unfair. But the media must do a better job and invite a greater diversity of viewpoints. Otherwise, its ability to counter fake news will continue to erode, with dangerous consequences for us all.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor for Reason magazine and a columnist for Newsday. Follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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