My family has long been cynical of the news. Our oral history tells of the newspaper reporter who refused to report that a “ghost” was actually a cat because “Everyone wants to read about a ghost. No one wants to read about an old cat.” This has been reinforced by a number of things over the years, from watching television news get the facts wrong of an event were we were present, to deliberate misquotes, to “reports” we knew were hatchet jobs. When I saw an accurate, verbatim, quote in a newspaper of a statement from a company spokesman, it was an astounding event. They told the truth in a newspaper? Who knew?
Yes, it’s cynical. It’s also uncomfortably accurate. Compare Paul Revere’s famed engraving of the Boston Massacre with his court sketch of the incident. Then note that Thomas Jefferson wrote that advertisements contained the only reliable truth in a newspaper. He should know: Jefferson hired James Callendar to conduct a smear campaign against political rival John Adams. He and Callendar had a falling out after Callendar served jail time for slander, and, as editor of the Richmond Recorder, Callendar turned his talents against his former employer. Guess where the Sally Hemings story came from. Yep, from James Callendar. True? Who knows? DNA tests do show a link between Jefferson’s family and Hemings, but that’s as close as it can get.
Even sources you think you are trustworthy can be questionable. Such as wire services, which are only as good as their source. Even then, if you’ve ever read the Associated Press Stylebook, you’re bound to have noticed subtle spin in some words and terms. Then there’s the issue of reporters covering events they know practically nothing about, and apparently not interested enough to learn. There was incredible amount of misinformation reported about Trump’s executive order on a temporary travel ban, which could have been cleared up by actually reading it. Was it a case of a story “too good” to check? That seems to be the case in the Scott Baio pile-on (before any details were released on Erin Moran’s death, in an interview Mr. Baio made a comment if drugs were involved, and when it was learned she likely died of cancer, the word if was conveniently forgotten). It’s easy to wonder just how accurate any news story really is.
All this means I’m even more cynical of charges of “fake news” than of the news itself. Who determines what is “fake?” Was CNN’s refusal to call the 2004 Presidential Election for George W. Bush until John Kerry conceded fake news, even though NBC has shown Bush had won the necessary electoral votes to assure re-election? How about when then CNN contributor Donna Brazile leaked debate questions to Hillary Clinton? How about NBC and ABC’s curiously not asking Susan Rice about her unmasking protected identities of Trump associates when they interviewed her after that information broke? Is Rathergate and the letter that looks like it was whipped up on a modern word processor and not a period typewriter fake news? Or doers fake news depends on who does the labeling? Most likely the latter.
Thus it doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies when Google announces it intends to flag “fake news.” Really? And what, pray tell, will be the standards? Will ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and MSNBC get a pass while it pans Fox News and news aggregators like the Drudge Report? We aren’t just talking about cheesy click bait or James Callendar style smears here; we’re talking about a huge potential for abuse. What’s to keep an accurate story from being labeled “fake news,” or a made-up story being labeled legitimate?
Paranoid? No. Cynical? Yes. I’ve seen too much bias in things, both intentional and unintentional, to think anything else. That includes myself: everybody falls victim to unintentional bias. And everyone can fall victim to “too good to check” if we aren’t careful.
Then what’s the solution? To ignore labels of “fake news” and evaluate all news as potentially fake or, at best, inaccurate. We can’t even be sure we know all that’s happening, and I think that’s a big reason people have turned to news aggregators. Even then, we have to look into news stories ourselves. Maybe something’s there, or maybe there’s not. Remember that when Fredrick Remington complained to William Randolph Hearst that there was nothing happening in Cuba, Hearst replied. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
What I think is going to happen is that most people aren’t going to do that simply because most don’t do that no. Instead, they’ll look at the label “fake news” and go no further. And that’s the risk right there. In Orson Well’s Citizen Kane, in the breakfast sequence Emily tells her husband “Really, Charles, people will think -.” Kane interrupts with “-what I tell them to think.” The fictional Kane would have loved the power to label his competitors as “fake.” So would have James Callendar. I’d be surprised if none coveted that sort of power today.