The Trump administration has made it clear on several occasions that the United States has a “fake news” problem.
I’d like to ask the president to define what exactly he means by fake news. While the New York Times and CNN have a plethora of their own structural problems, it is very hard to argue that the news in which they report -- the same news that goes through a daunting bureaucratic editorial process -- is in fact untrue. Sure, they have gotten stories wrong in the past (see entire lead-up to the Iraq invasion), but it was less of an intentional editorial decision, and more of an idle following of the corporate mandate.
So even though those mainstream outlets can be crappy news, I’d hardly describe them as fake. But there is some reporting on the Internet that I would describe as fake.
Like this video of former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, who served under the Obama administration, and was forced to resign after she allegedly made racially charged comments at a banquet.
And then there’s this video chain of ACORN employees appearing to assist what looks like a pimp and a prostitute illegally traffic women into the country.
Both of these videos turned out to be complete hoaxes. One was caused by a trick of editing, while the other was straight up staged. However, these weren’t the only news hoaxes we’ve seen…
We’ve also had a right-wing news initiative try to convince us that Cornell University was accepting members of ISIS, and other pro-life groups show us that abortion clinics sell parts of fetuses. For the record, neither of these things were true.
Yet, people believed them, and worse -- formed arguments that used these reports as evidence. And where did most of these video hoaxes come from?
Breitbart News, and individuals affiliated with it. So it’s kind of funny that the president is calling out CNN and The New York Times for being fake, when his own Chief Strategist was the executive chair of the very news organization that delivered what some might call the ultimate “alternative facts.”
It’s also interesting to note that the sites providing these hoaxes are often independent by definition -- yet a visible political slant pushes them to report on phenomena in a certain way. That’s not to say this doesn’t happen with left-wing outlets as well. News media on both sides are guilty of fueling a machine that supports their own points-of-view.
What independent journalism needs is a firm commitment to ethics. Larger outlets are somewhat forced to follow codes like the SPJ Code of Ethics, since they must appear to be responsible in that way. Indy outlets do not have that same corporate pressure, which in a way intensifies the need for a strong ethical responsibility in reporting.
And if that commitment cannot be obtained due to political ideology, then it is essential for the media consumer to engage with multiple different sources, and check the things that seem a little too shocking to be true.
Of course, at the end of the day, people will believe what they want to believe. Can we really get around it?