Truth and Politics

The concept of "fake news" has always been vacuous. But on Wednesday, Donald Trump showed how it can be dangerous.

CNN world headquarters, Atlanta, GA. Karen / Flickr

At a press conference dominated by speculation over an alleged leaked memo detailing links between the president-elect and Russia, Donald Trump lambasted CNN as a “fake news” organization. The outburst, directed at CNN’s Jim Acosta, was met with a mixture of laughs, gasps, and applause from those in the room. This week Trump has similarly attacked BuzzFeed for publishing the document, which the outlet conceded was “unverified and potentially unverifiable.”

While some mainstream journalists turned to CNN’s defense, few extended the same solidarity to BuzzFeed. Certainly there are ethical questions pertaining to the release of unverified documents in any case, but for many critics it’s enough that BuzzFeed supposedly epitomizes the “clickbait” and “infotainment”-heavy character of new online media — regardless of inconvenient facts regarding BuzzFeed’s resources, the size of its readership, or the credentials of its top journalists. While a president-elect shouting down CNN is sinister, BuzzFeed is fair game — after all, we’ve all dissed it at some point or other, right?

It wasn’t so long ago the cry of “fake news” was heard most strongly among sore Clinton supporters, attributing Trump’s apparently inconceivable victory to the phenomenon — many going as far as to demand Facebook take action. Likewise in the United Kingdom, many “Remain” voters complained of fighting an uphill battle against misinformation during the EU referendum, and on both sides of the Atlantic we’ve been subjected to hot-take theories on the rise of the so-called “post-truth era.”

To the liberal mindset, “fake news” is so offensive because it inhibits the public’s ability to be well-informed enough to participate in democratic society in good faith. At first glance the sentiment may be agreeable enough, but scratch the surface and its implications begin to look more elitist. If people do not have access to a well-rounded set of views mediated by “objective” journalists, so the thinking goes, how are they supposed to arrive at considered conclusions?

Here we see the implicit assertion of the need for “real” news — imbued with all the favored buzzwords of the media world: impartial, neutral, balanced — cast as a hero that will deliver us from the evils of the “fake news” corroding our democracies.

Brought back to reality, this idealized vision of the fourth estate serves to uphold the interests of those who would rather the media remain a fiefdom of the elite: people can’t be trusted to make their own discernments between right-on and wrong as they mindlessly scroll through never-ending social media feeds, so the business of the news is better left to the professionals (as long as they’re employed by “traditional” outlets, that is).

This is not an argument against the need for media ethics or for writers and broadcasters to take responsibility for their actions. But as Trump showed yesterday, it is becoming all too easy to identify an objectionable newspaper or website and join in with throwing “fake news” accusations. Rather, we should see the temptation to start weeding out the “fake” news from the “real” for what it is: an anti-political dead end at best, and at worst a free pass for zealous political leaders to bully those who seek to scrutinize them, whatever their standing in the media hierarchy.

The impulse to legislate away supposed “fake news” outlets on liberal democratic grounds — as in the case of those who turned their frustrations to Facebook’s algorithm — shies away from the very thing that makes democracy dynamic: politics.

By drawing a red line between traditional media (which is sacrosanct) and new media (which is one big grey area), establishment media outlets are able to reassert the “Overton window,” the spectrum of politically acceptable positions at a given time, and with that their own power to set agendas. When leftists start buying into this distinction on the basis of their contempt for more poisonous elements of the media landscape, they are seeking a technical solution to a political problem.

Rather than seeking to build a counter-media which can both threaten the mainstream and undermine the edicts of the right-wing gutter press (both online and off) within a free media ecology, adopting the vernacular of “fake news” manages to simultaneously mystify and avoid confronting how those outlets operate politically and what they mean to the people who read them — all the while allowing mainstream platforms to entrench their authority.

It’s no coincidence that until now the accusation of “fake news” has most commonly been reserved for badmouthing the insurgent media outlets — including leftist ones — that are so irritating to establishment commentators. Such a tactic reeks of elitist snobbery, both towards smaller independent media projects and their presumably obtuse readers.

As it happens, the tactic is not a new one. In the early part of the twentieth century, the writer Walter Lippmann proselytized about the need for a disinterested media comprised of a professionalized stratum of journalists employed to manage the ignorance of public opinion through the top-down mediation of government policies. Lippmann’s proposals, still influential today, sought to deal with two key problems: first, a damaging critique of the (uncritical, arguably “fake”) way US newspapers had reported the Russian Revolution; second, a growing anxiety of the potential for the new technologies of mass media to rouse public opinion beyond manageable limits. Sound familiar?

While journalistic concerns about maintaining integrity (if that’s what we want to call it) amid an evolving technological landscape today seem as strong as ever, what’s less stable is who gets to define the parameters of the legitimate, authoritative, “real” news. Since the “fake news” label caught on, many establishment outlets have been unable to resist defining themselves against the term.

But Trump’s latest remarks demonstrate the malleable boundaries of the charge, leading even establishment outlets to take umbrage now they’ve been forced to defend themselves — not against other journalists, but the president-elect of the United States.

Consider the simultaneous revival of the Nazi-era slur “die Lügenpresse” (“lying press”) — peddled by the contemporary racist group Pegida and defended two years ago in Steve Bannon’s Breitbart — and it should be clear the language of “fake news” stands to do more harm than good.