The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

People Believe ‘Fake News’ Because They Want it to Be True

A news stand outfitted with “Fake News” headlines in a stunt by the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, N.Y., October 30, 2018. (Carlo Allegri/REUTERS)

There was a time that this was the second busiest shopping day of the year, as everyone went back to the stores to return the gifts that they didn’t like or that didn’t fit. This year, it’s projected to be the eighth busiest shopping day of the year.

No, Really, We’re Talking about Literal ‘Fake News’

One more major journalistic scandal before the year closes out:

Der Spiegel has announced that it will press charges against a former star reporter accused of systemically faking interviews and articles, in what might be the biggest journalism scandal in Germany since another newsmagazine published fake Hitler diaries 35 years ago…

On Saturday night, the magazine announced in one of the many articles documenting Mr. [Claas] Relotius’s misdeeds that the editors would be filing a criminal complaint against him after it emerged that he had set up a private donation drive ostensibly to help two Syrian orphans that he had profiled.

According to Der Spiegel, only one of the two orphans exists, and the aid money went to the reporter’s private bank account.

Quite a few noticed Relotius’s “Gorillas in the Mist”-style reporting among conservatives in the American heartland, and Richard Grenell, the pugnacious U.S. Ambassador to Germany, contends that this is a systemic problem at the publication: “Spiegel hasn’t answered as to how this fraud happened. One reporter was able to publish anti-American propaganda for years without an editor or fact-checker?! It’s absurd for them to pretend this is only about one reporter.”

In the Washington Post, Charles Lane points out the hard truth that a lot of mainstream journalists prefer not to think about too much:

Reporters and editors are as susceptible to motivated reasoning and confirmation bias as readers are, though we say, and believe, that professional norms and training equip us to resist distorting influences.

Yet the power of stereotype remains… While many German journalists report honestly from this country, going to great lengths to travel and meet ordinary people, the gun-toting, death-penalty-seeking, racist American nonetheless remains a stock character of much superficial coverage, particularly in left-leaning outlets such as Hamburg-based Der Spiegel.

But notice that this section at the end of the magazine’s apology letter:

As an editor and section head, your first reaction when receiving stories like this is to be pleased, not suspicious. You are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it’s actually true. And Relotius always delivered excellent stories that required little editing and were very rewarding.

That sentence in bold should be a giant, flashing, red and neon danger sign. Spiegel is offering a good description of the job of a fiction editor.

Why do people believe stories that aren’t true? Because they either find it plausible enough that they don’t feel any need for wariness or further investigation, or because they want it to be true.

You may recall viral tweets and stories about the tax cut claiming that “school teachers can no longer deduct the cost of their classroom supplies on their taxes” or that  “a letter from Medicaid and Social Security” told a man his “severely disabled autistic 7 year old son just lost his healthcare and benefits” because of the tax bill. These were spread virally because a lot of people think backwards from the conclusion towards the evidence — that is, they think the tax bill is bad, and sick kids and overburdened teachers are bad, ergo, the tax bill must be making these bad things happen.

Sure, Claas Relotius is primarily responsible for the appalling scandal, and his editors are the next most responsible. But part of this is on the German high-end, left-of-center, vaguely or sometimes not-so-vaguely anti-American Der Spiegel audience that ate up his stories with a spoon. They believed his stories because they wanted to believe his stories. Because if he painted a different portrait — of a United States with a thriving economy, very low unemployment, declining crime, an all-time low abortion rate, record-low teen pregnancy, record-high high school graduation rates, and a significant drop in teen drug use — then the readership wouldn’t feel quite as superior about all of those toothless, hapless, ignorant Americans.

This comes as Germany’s got its own problems — its own long-term economic anxieties, a government held together by complicated alliances among political parties, social tensions exacerbated by taking in about a million refugees, serious doubts around the continent about the future of the European Union . . . no wonder the readership preferred to read about how bad things were in America.

Beto-Mania Lives and Thrives

CNN asked its contributors, “Which Democrat running for president will lead the polls of Democratic voters at the end of 2019?” (Notice this asks not who do you like or prefer, but who is the one who you think will be leading the polls.) Beto O’Rourke was the most frequent answer, named by S.E. Cupp, James Gagliano, Joey Jackson, Scott Jennings, Peniel Joseph, Jen Psaki, Alice Stewart, and Jeff Yang. The next-closest was Joe Biden, named by three contributors.

If nothing else, this tells us that Beto O’Rourke’s name is still in the forefront of the minds of folks in the news business, and these folks think he has a shot. It’s easier to be a winner if you’re perceived as a potential winner.

Unmentioned by any of the 14 contributors who participated: Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Eric Holder, Michael Bloomberg, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Steyer, or Elizabeth Warren.

The Coming Year of Confirmations

The U.S. Senate will have a busy 2019. Many conservatives had hoped it would be busy with confirmation hearings for more federal judges, but it will have to spend at least some portion of the early year on confirmation hearings for the Trump cabinet replacements. The country is operating with an acting attorney general, an acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and starting in a few days, an acting Secretary of Defense. A new Secretary of the Interior and ambassador to the United Nations will need to be confirmed. Oh, and the White House has an acting chief of staff, which does not require Senate approval.

While we should always take claims that “Trump is about to fire X” with a grain of salt, there are reports that Trump is frustrated with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Trump has repeatedly complained about the slow pace of confirmations in the Senate. One wonders whether at some point, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will grow irritated that so much of the Senate calendar is getting eaten up by the need to confirm replacement-cabinet secretaries.

ADDENDUM: From now until New Year’s, the end-of-the-year awards of the Three Martini Lunch continue.

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