I used to be a newspaper editor, a cog in the wheel of the dreaded “mainstream media.” I’ve written for the New York and Washington newspapers, and even — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — Politico. And the checks go both ways: I am a paid-up subscriber to the New York Times. Call me an enemy of the people.
Here’s a little secret for you: The news ain’t fake.
For conservatives, hating the media is a reflex, and sometimes a funny one: Speaking on his “Morning Minute,” Sean Hannity once read breathlessly from an Associated Press report on a federal surveillance program, ending with the instinctual harrumph: “The mainstream media won’t tell you about that!” There is no media more mainstream than the Associated Press, which is a nonprofit cooperative owned by its member newspapers, television networks, and radio stations. Its reports appear in practically every daily newspaper in the United States, and big scoops like the one that caught Hannity’s eye routinely lead front pages from sea to shining sea. The Associated Press has bias problems and some notable competency problems, and, like any organization that does any substantive reporting, it makes errors. But it does not, for the most part, traffic in fiction.
Neither does the New York Times. Neither does the Washington Post. Neither does the Wall Street Journal. All of those institutions have problems; even the best newspapers and magazines are snookered from time to time. We all remember the case of Stephen Glass, and more studious scholars of media fraud will remember the cases of Jayson Blair, Chris Newton, Janet Cooke, and others. The original New York Sun (not the much-missed and all-too-short-lived modern newspaper of that name) published a series of hoax articles in 1835 about life on the moon.
Television has a somewhat worse record. Dan Rather infamously attempted to derail the presidential campaign of George W. Bush by publishing a report, derived from fake documents, that Bush had been deficient in his military service, and that his superior officers had been pressured to cover up his shortcomings. This was the event that really launched modern blogging as we know it, as dozens of critics ranging from politicos to typography experts showed that Rather’s reporting was based on a fabrication, despite CBS News’s strident defense of his work. But it was not the first episode of its kind: Dateline NBC had previously used incendiary devices to rig a Chevrolet truck to explode in a story purporting to demonstrate its unsafe gas-tank design. There have been others.
It is cheap, it is cowardly, and it is bad citizenship to simply shriek ‘fake news!’ every time reality forces a hard choice upon us.
Which is to say, a critical eye is warranted. Newspapers, like all the works of men, are imperfect things, and the nation’s newspaper editors and television-news producers are very much at fault for the low general level of trust in the media. But they do not traffic wholesale in fiction. All of the cries of “fake news!” in the world are not going to change that.
What is happening right now is not salubrious skepticism but a kind of mass hysteria, millions of heads plunging with struthioniform insistence into the same sand, as though insisting that reality is something other than what it is, or merely averting our gaze, would somehow alter the truth. Something has changed radically with remarkable speed. Not long ago, when I would inform someone that they had passed along an Internet hoax or erroneous claim (writers on public affairs spend a fair amount of their correspondence thus engaged) the response would be a sheepish “oops.” About once a week, someone will inform me that Hillary Rodham Clinton was disbarred for misconduct (she wasn’t) or that Barack Obama’s mother-in-law is receiving a six-figure federal pension for having babysat his children (she isn’t) or some other such nonsense, and then cry “fake news!” when corrected. The irony is that they have fallen for fake news, and retreat into “fake news!” when their gullibility is shown.
We all get took from time to time, of course: Not long ago, I responded to a Twitter parody of Sally Kohn, one of the saddest and most completely self-abasing of the Democratic pundits, without realizing that it was a parody. I find it difficult to tell the difference with Kohn and a few others. The easiest and most responsible thing to do is to acknowledge the error, but we live in juvenile times. If the New York Times publishes a report that displeases you, then the fact that it was in the New York Times is, for some people, enough to discredit it. If Fox News reported that dog-catchers catch dogs, nine-tenths of American college professors would sign a petition denouncing this as a lie spread by the Koch brothers, who have a nefarious plan either to catch dogs or not catch them, depending on what the day calls for.
Senator Ben Sasse, the best thing to come out of Nebraska since vise-grip locking pliers (apologies, senator: best I could do for a state whose other key contributions to human flourishing are Spam and Kool-Aid) has made something of a public campaign out of calling for a general reform of our political culture that would allow the emergence of “shared facts,” i.e. the acknowledgement of reality, which is necessary to addressing reality’s problems. But we cannot do that when we simply retreat into tribalism every time we read something in the newspaper that displeases us.
We owe it to ourselves to take account of reality. And we owe it to the country, too. It is cheap, it is cowardly, and it is bad citizenship to simply shriek “fake news!” every time reality forces a hard choice upon us. Living in a free, self-governing society means making a great many hard choices, and there is no one to make them but us.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.