All about intent
We’re hearing a lot today about “fake news.” Some contend President Trump is largely responsible because he applies the term for much criticism as loosely as many of the left have accused those who disagree with them or policies of the former president of racism.
Some of President Trump’s beliefs are overreaction to valid criticisms (he sets himself up for much of it). Yet our problem with fake news and credibility run much deeper, into intentional gross omissions and “alternative facts.”
Fake news certainly doesn’t have to be an entirely false news story. A relevant fact or two intentionally shaped or omitted changes the integrity of a news story, which makes it wrong, not faked. Ever watch three cable channels cover the same event then choose and use much different information and (alternative) facts? I sure have.
The official definition I read of the term “fake” said, “having a false or misleading appearance, not authentic or genuine.” That being the case, how much misleading or inaccurate information is necessary to be labeled fake? Have we degenerated to where simply disagreeing with a point or story makes it fake in our minds?
I know news can be faked because I experienced its ugliness in 1980 while reporting for the Chicago Sun-Times. After investigating the Illinois Lottery, a fellow reporter and I were surprised to find it was housewives, rather than the poor, who purchased the most tickets.
So we wrote exactly what the documented facts revealed. Later, an irate editor called me at home to say he disagreed with our findings and was arbitrarily changing the top of our story to read the politically correct and predictable line. The lottery “was raping the poor of what little money they had along with their dignity.”
I argued without success that it wasn’t what the facts showed. Then I asked to remove my name from the series, which they obliged. After leaving the paper, I learned the series had received an award for investigative reporting.
An incomplete news story where a conscientious reporter is sharing the truth as he or she discovers it under deadline pressures can’t be honestly called fake. Yet the reporter does have an obligation to follow up as additional facts become apparent and to correct mistakes.
I can’t overstate the hazards to society when we begin to casually label most of what we read see or hear as fake simply because it doesn’t fit our worldview. Like wrongly calling honorable Americans with differing views racists, that’s a sure-fire recipe for shredding the fabric of our national bond.
I’m also not prepared to say such calculated divisiveness isn’t the agenda of politicians who use willing shameless media collaborators to intentionally put their party’s interests ahead of truth and the overall welfare of the American people.
It’s equally clear that properly defining fake news is a subjective matter.
I asked our morning coffee group at the Town House Cafe: “What constitutes fake news?”
One said he considers the media’s intentional innuendos, omissions, story placement, focus, headlines and wording of stories to be eligible for consideration as fake while professing to report truths.
Another cited any intentionally fabricated story, especially those meant to favor a certain political ideology or party and shape public opinion.
“The operative word in this question is intentionally,” added another. “If your intention is anything other than to report the news fairly and objectively, you’re reporting fake news.”
When it comes to shaping how some “news” is being delivered on the national scene, MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski the other day confirmed her intent. Speaking of her concern that President Trump could “undermine the messaging” enough to “control exactly what people think. And that, that is our job,” she concluded. A smidgen of truthful commentary.
There’s obviously no credibility in supposed news that is controlled or faked. Last week I wrote about the statement of core values written by the newspaper’s publisher, Walter Hussman Jr., and published daily on Page 2.
Hussman’s message is introduced by a relevant comment from the late New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, who said: “To give the news impartially, without fear or favor.”
That was a period in American journalism when I believe most bona fide newspaper folk were largely focused on authentic reporting and watchdogging as the First Amendment expects and enables. Until the past 40 years, I’d say most papers were independently owned by those who believed in the sacred responsibility at the heart of Och’s message.
Since then, with lost competitions, mergers and corporate takeovers, those family-owned papers of deeply committed and principled journalists the likes of say, Hodding Carter and William Allen White, have disappeared, along with the admirable and courageous spirits they reflected.
Such publishers and editors for the most part been replaced (this paper thankfully excluded) in recent decades with lawyers and corporate business-manager types at the top who clearly lack sufficient dedication to or understanding of their sacred responsibility to our craft or First Amendment journalism.
Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.