The Upside of Fake News (2017 Jan)

by Barry A. Liebling

Everybody is familiar with fake news. From early childhood you have many experiences where you hear or read something about an important event and later learn that the “news” was not true. As you develop wisdom you learn to discern the truth of a news story more competently. You consider the source of the news, what the evidence is for its veracity, how well it fits in (or is inconsistent) with what you know about how the world works.

With the development of the internet the abundance of available news (a mixture of reliable and accurate reports, partial truths, unsubstantiated nonsense, and outright lies) has exploded exponentially. Nobody can evaluate all the news that is disseminated, and nobody (not even Google) can account for all of it.

After the 2016 presidential election mainstream leftist pundits became obsessed with the topic of fake news. They had yearned for and expected Hillary Clinton to beat Donald Trump, and when Trump won they were shocked and devastated. How could a Republican victory – that was deemed nearly impossible by expert pollsters – be explained? How can they interpret the disappointing turn of events in a way that deflects any blame from themselves? There must have been foul play at work – fake news. Facebook, the largest social media company routinely points to a myriad of stories every day in its news feeds. The pundits argued that many of these items were fake news and that the false reports were a significant factor in tilting the election against the “deserving candidate.” If not for the malicious power of fake news, gullible people would not have been “nudged to vote incorrectly,” and the election would have concluded “properly.”

According to elite members of the “progressive left,” policies should be put into place that eliminate – or at least reduce the harm – that results from fake news. The management of Facebook has already agreed to have several third-party institutions (experts that all have a left-leaning bias) check its news feeds and identify stories that are likely to be “fake.” Facebook members will be given a warning about sites and articles that the third-party fact checkers view unsympathetically.

And high-ranking commentators of the mainstream media have published articles that outline steps that should be taken to preserve the “integrity” of the news.

Jeffrey Herbst, the president and CEO of the Newseum in Washington, DC, has argued that the problem is that ordinary people are consuming news that may be entertaining but is coming from unreliable (that is, different from mainstream, big media) sources. The solution to the problem of fake news is to encourage citizens to get their news from genuine, established, expensive news organizations. Of course this refers to the big media companies that have been eclipsed with the rise of the internet. The author likens getting news from firms that charge their readers money to buying organic food – worth the extra cost to some (but he does not mention that organic food is not regarded as valuable by others).

Interestingly, Mr Herbst writes that “secondary schools and colleges should be adapted to improve media literacy and help students become responsible citizens in the digital age.” It is not clear whether he acknowledges that the education system has for a long time been dominated by his ideological allies who have been training students for decades to internalize the leftist narrative.

At Time magazine, a bastion of Democratic Party correct thinking, Jeff Nesbit laments the recent rise of fake news and argues that there is only one “antidote to its poison.” He asserts that “Every experienced journalist who has developed an expertise in a given subject can spot fake news in a nanosecond.” This is significant because he knows that “experienced journalists” are generally homogeneous and enthusiastic in their political commitments and can quickly recognize when “genuine news” is put out by fellow accomplices and when “fake items” are being pushed by adversaries.

And the solution to the problem of fake news, according to Mr Nestbit, is to have the large online sites (including and especially Facebook) “partner with legacy media to curate real news and reward them for it.” In essence he is saying that the internet news world should be supervised by legacy media cronies (think Time, New York Times, Washington Post, and the rest of the gang), and the coterie should be paid handsomely for its service. With such august guardians of the truth in charge there is nothing to worry about.

It is noteworthy that in both the Herbst and Nesbit essays several examples are given to illustrate fake news, and each cites stories that were disadvantageous to the Democratic party. Neither author bothered to mention some of the most famous fake news scandals. Here are three familiar cases that did not make the authors’ list.

In 2004 Dan Rather of establishment media CBS touted a document that purported to show that President George W Bush was remiss in his duties when he was a member of the Texas National Guard. The intention of the news release was to thwart President Bush from being re-elected. The document was exposed as a fraud, and Dan Rather was relieved of his position in disgrace. Does this count as fake news?

In 2009 before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed (commonly called ObamaCare) President Obama repeatedly promised “if you like your plan you can keep it, period.” The mainstream media (legacy media) had all the information they needed to detect the statement was false, but these “genuine” news organizations declined to expose the fraud. It was more important to support the President’s plan to change the healthcare system.

In 2011 the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi was attacked, resulting in multiple American fatalities. Both the US State Department and legacy media ran the false story that the attack was a spontaneous event caused by a Youtube video. The truth that the attack was organized and planned was deliberately suppressed by government officials and their attempted deception was supported by mainstream media accomplices. The video story was considered to be more advantageous to the success of the Democratic party than telling the truth.

It is possible to accuse Democratic critics of “fake news” of hypocrisy, but that does not capture the essence of their actions. The naive definition of “fake news” is reporting something that is not true, possibly a deliberate lie or possibly an innocent mistake. Leftist commentators use a more nuanced definition. To them fake news is reporting something that has the potential of frustrating the goals of the leftist elite. Therefore, errors made in the service of “correct” political objectives do not qualify.

It is significant that the call to have the news inspected and certified by legacy media outlets is likely to have a positive effect. Alert citizens will be reminded that news should be carefully scrutinized and that no outlet should get a free pass. People will be encouraged to check the veracity of all stories – even those blessed by mainstream institutions. And that is a good outcome.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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