Politics & Policy

‘Fake News’ Isn’t Just a Rightwing Problem

Election day in Los Angeles, Calif., November 8, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mario Anzuoni)
The mainstream media is not entirely innocent of the propagation of gossip, rumors, and conspiracy theories.

Following Donald Trump’s upset victory earlier this month, the media has suddenly grown deeply troubled about the proliferation of “fake” news — gossip-mongering and fabrication and “news” reports devoid of a factual basis. Naturally, this brings us to Vox.com.

On Tuesday, the know-it-all whiz-kids that brought readers the Gaza Bridge published, “Democrats Won the Most Votes in the Election. They Should Act Like It.,” a column by whiz-kid-in-chief Ezra Klein. “More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. More Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than for Republican Senate candidates. So why aren’t Democrats acting like it?”

Presumably because those facts don’t mean what Klein thinks they mean.

Start at the top. It’s true that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, making Donald Trump the fifth candidate to lose the popular vote but win the White House (or sixth, depending on how you slice 1960). But her small winning margin does not indicate much more than a close race. Klein well knows that presidential candidates don’t campaign everywhere; they spend their time in swing states, where the margins of victory are likely to be slim. If Trump had spent much more time in Texas or Mississippi, presumably he could have run up his vote totals. There’s certainly a case to be made that Donald Trump should govern with humility, but his popular vote loss is only a small part of that case.

That is about as much as Klein employs in the way of facts. Take, for example, his claim that Democratic Senate candidates outpolled Republican Senate candidates. So what? It’s the Senate. It’s 100 separate races. And, of course, it’s never actually 100 separate races, because the reelection calendar is staggered. This year, it was 34 races with wildly different dynamics in states with very different populations — e.g., neither Texas senator was up for reelection — that’s 3 million GOP votes that don’t factor into Klein’s calculations — and the contest to replace Barbara Boxer in California had no GOP candidate, but two Democratic candidates. Klein’s statistic is convenient, and meaningless.

Finally, it seems Klein also originally rested his thesis on Democrats’ popular-vote victory in House races — which, as he notes in a correction, didn’t actually happen: “Republicans are up by about 3.6 million [in total House votes], and while votes are still being counted, Democrats look unlikely to close that gap.”

Ezra Klein’s misapplied mathematics are hardly surprising, this being the outlet that once suggested that Boulder, Colo., had 102 toilets for every resident. But it’s all a bit rich, given the circumstances.

Millions of rightwing partisans believe dumb things: that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, for example, or that Hillary Clinton has secretly carried on a years-long lesbian romance with her aide-de-camp. Remember Operation Jade Helm? And, indeed, over the last year, InfoWars and the Drudge Report and Jim Hoft’s Gateway Pundit blog have all pulled in record amounts of traffic, despite peddling demonstrably untrue stories as cold, irrefutable fact.

But the Left has its own nonsense. How many liberals still believe that George W. Bush “stole” the 2000 presidential election? Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, hardly a denizen of the fever swamps, was declaring the 2000 recount stolen as recently as last month. And if you want fever swamps, consider a 2006 Scripps Howard poll found that half more than half of registered Democrats believed George W. Bush was complicit in the September 11 terrorist attacks, with respondents split about evenly between calling Bush’s involvement “very likely” and “somewhat likely.”

When Vox writes, ‘The election probably wasn’t hacked. But Clinton should request recounts just in case,’ it’s legitimizing a seed of doubt.

There’s a connection between the two. As “elite” media figures know, stories — true and false — trickle down, implanting themselves in the minds of hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens too busy or too lazy to do their own research. When Vox writes, “The election probably wasn’t hacked. But Clinton should request recounts just in case,” it’s legitimizing a seed of doubt.

It’s no surprise, then, that Paul Krugman — Princeton economist, New York Times columnist, Nobel laureate — spent Tuesday night on Twitter calling for an “independent investigation” of election results, based on a New York Magazine report that a handful of “prominent computer scientists and election lawyers” think results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania “may have been manipulated or hacked.” There’s no meaningful evidence to support that charge, as the Times’ Nate Cohn immediately pointed out, but it’s now an active point of discussion on cable news.

Where are the lines dividing “fake” news from real? Why was voter fraud a rightwing “conspiracy theory” when conservatives push it, but an urgent matter of electoral transparency now that it’s coming from liberals? Why are right-wingers fabulist nuts, but left-wingers devotees of triumphant Reason? And when Ezra Klein neglects the context that effectively invalidates his thesis, is it a mistake or a lie — or “fake” news?

A more responsible media wouldn’t create the confusion in the first place.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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