Culture

Fake News Contagion

I’ve largely tried to avoid most of the controversy about “fake news” because I think there’s too much muchness to the whole thing. But this morning, I heard a story on NPR about the immortal conspiracy theories that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance and did nothing about it. The host referred to it as “fake news 75 years ago” or some such (the piece was fine, though it would’ve been nice to have Charles Beard’s name come up). This is on the heels of the relentless coverage of the “Pizzagate” nuttery being called “fake news.”

My understanding was that fake news was exactly that: Websites — many run from abroad — that deliberately and knowingly make stuff up and exploit social media for clicks and profit. Conspiracy theories aren’t fake news. They’re conspiracy theories. I think a lot of mainstream media outlets are deliberately or inadvertently muddying this distinction — which is kind of ironic given their denunciations of fakery.

But I also think conservatives are muddying some distinctions as well. Yes, there have been times when the MSM has promulgated what could fairly be called fake news. The New York Times won a Pulitzer for fake reporting about the famine in the Ukraine. Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass both fabricated stories (Glass fabricated a lot of them). I would argue – and have argued — that Katie Couric would have a hard time defending herself against the charge of fakery. 

But a lot of the examples of liberal/MSM “fake news” aren’t really comparable to the clickbait operations that knowingly make up news. Few have been harder on Dan Rather than yours truly, but I think his crime was letting ambition, animus, and groupthink drive him to drop due diligence and journalistic skepticism. The guy at Vox who imagined that bridge from Gaza surely didn’t deliberately commit that blunder. 

I agree with pretty much everything Jim Geraghty says here,  but I also think some of the conservatives rushing to push back against the anti-fake news cause are making a mistake. Last night, my friend Tucker Carlson suggested that the fight against fake news is really a fight against opposing views liberals don’t like. If and when that’s the case, I agree it should be fought. But actual fake news sites aren’t pushing different opinions, they’re peddling fabrications as facts. His guest, Bill McMorris of the Washington Free Beacon, said “fake news is whatever people living in the liberal bubble determine to be believed by the right.”

I think this is wrong, or at least not entirely right. Yes, some liberals are trying to lump inconvenient news, facts, and opinions under the rubric of “fake news.” But that doesn’t change the fact that there is, in fact, a cottage industry of actual fake news out there. And I don’t think it’s a good idea for conservative journalists to give the impression that that’s ok.  I’ve opposed anything that smacks of “journalism licensing” for years. And if that’s where Chuck Schumer & Co. want to go, I’ll oppose them. Also, I’m no lawyer, but I would think that the current libel and defamation laws would cover some of this. If you knowingly lie about facts in a story claiming to be news, I don’t think it’s crazy that you might face some legal sanction. If a fake news site ran a story that National Review was a clandestine pedophile ring, I would hope we would sue. 

But even if the law protects organizations that deliberately fabricate slanderous falsehoods, I don’t see anything wrong with companies like Facebook doing what they can to limit the ability of these grifters to deliberately deceive their customers. By all means, conservatives should fight any attempt to exploit the fake news problem to silence opposing points of view. But I don’t see any reason for conservatives to rally to the defense of professional liars-for-profit either. 

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