A love-hate re­la­tion­ship with ‘fake’ news

Clin­ton campers who dis­missed elec­tion mis­chief now say it cheated her of vic­tory

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By David A. Keene

Scur­rilous and “fake” news has been around since the penny tabloids of an ear­lier era when politi­cians ac­tu­ally sub­si­dized news­pa­pers and paid jour­nal­ists to spread lies about their op­po­nents to what they hoped was a cred­u­lous pub­lic. Thomas Jef­fer­son fa­mously em­ployed James Cal­len­dar to spread fake news about John Adams as the two fought for the White House in 1800, de­scrib­ing him as es­sen­tially an agent of the Bri­tish in­tent upon fo­ment­ing war with France. Adams’ forces re­tal­i­ated, claim­ing Jef­fer­son sup­ported the French ter­ror and rou­tinely cheated his cred­i­tors.

This sort of “fake” news, of­ten spread by par­ti­sans, has plagued Amer­i­can pol­i­tics ever since. In 1928, Protes­tant min­is­ters ap­palled at the very idea that Catholic Al Smith might be­come pres­i­dent spread the word that if he was elected, there was a plan afoot to get the pope to move the Holy See to Wash­ing­ton and take over the gov­ern­ment. Sim­i­larly, dur­ing the 1960 Demo­cratic pri­mary in Wis­con­sin pit­ting John F. Kennedy against Min­nesota’s Hu­bert Humphrey, that state’s Catholics re­ceived a sup­pos­edly mis­di­rected let­ter bear­ing a Min­neapo­lis post­mark al­leg­ing that Kennedy was “an agent of the Pope.” Out­raged Catholics pre­dictably ral­lied be­hind Kennedy who, it was later dis­cov­ered, paid for the mail­ing.

Four years later, the me­dia picked up and spread the “fake” news that Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Barry Gold­wa­ter had se­cretly trav­elled to Ger­many to meet with pro­toNazis in that coun­try. The re­ports bol­stered the Demo­cratic charge that Gold­wa­ter was a dan­ger­ous ex­trem­ist, but had no ba­sis in fact.

More re­cently, it is hard to for­get Ne­vada Sen. Harry Reid stand­ing on the Se­nate floor pro­claim­ing that 2012 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney was a tax cheat and challenging him to dis­prove it, or the In­ter­net al­le­ga­tions that Barack Obama was born not in the United States, but in Kenya.

With the In­ter­net, fan­ta­sists, con­spir­acy buffs and dirty trick­sters are hav­ing a field day and per­haps scram­bling the brains of those who don’t bother to dis­tin­guish be­tween the real and the fan­ci­ful. Much of what has been broad­cast over the In­ter­net in the most re­cent pres­i­den­tial cy­cle em­anated from the fever swamps of the left and right, and made no sense what­ever. Some of it was ap­par­ently gen­er­ated by par­ti­sans of the two can­di­dates to sully the other or con­vince the un­sus­pect­ing that the other was the source of lies and should thus be con­demned for his or her ac­tiv­i­ties. The prob­lem, of course, is that the anony­mous poster of fake news is as dif­fi­cult to un­mask as the anony­mous pam­phle­teers of ear­lier cen­turies.

This year was dif­fer­ent in de­gree, how­ever, and per­haps in kind. Both can­di­dates tended to ex­ag­ger­ate. When Mr. Trump’s forces claimed mil­lions of il­le­gal votes may have been cast, his op­po­nents coun­tered by say­ing none had been cast and that il­le­gal vot­ing was not now nor had ever been a prob­lem in this coun­try. When some­body hacked into emails that proved em­bar­rass­ing to Mrs. Clin­ton, her campaign blamed it on the Rus­sians, al­leg­ing that her op­po­nent was ei­ther an agent of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin or, as for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Made­line Al­bright put it, “a use­ful id­iot” serv­ing Mr. Putin’s pur­poses.

The al­le­ga­tions were bizarre in that the press picked them up and re­peated them, for­get­ting the way ru­mors that left-wing Democrats in an ear­lier day were “soft” on Com­mu­nism or ac­tu­ally in league with then-Soviet Rus­sia were dis­missed as a slan­der­ous re­sort to McCarthy­ism. This year sim­i­lar al­le­ga­tions were ac­cepted and pro­moted by much of the me­dia and many in Congress with nary a raised eye­brow. The Wash­ing­ton Post even re­ported and is now be­ing sued for pub­li­ciz­ing as fact an anony­mous “in­ves­tiga­tive” re­port from some­thing called PropOrNot, claim­ing more than 200 In­ter­net sites rang­ing from the Drudge Re­port on the right to Coun­ter­punch and Truthdig on the left serve as pro­pa­ganda con­duits for Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence.

While it is true that some of the “false news” sites of con­cern are based ei­ther in Rus­sia or East­ern Europe, it is un­clear whether any were run or di­rected by the Putin regime; some at the CIA and else­where say they were while oth­ers, in­clud­ing many at the FBI, are far from cer­tain that this is the case.

The up­shot is that even as Mr. Trump pre­pares to move into the White House, many on the left — along with a few Repub­li­cans who be­lieve his likely at­tempt to defuse the cur­rent U.S.-Rus­sian stand­off would be a mis­take — are de­mand­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to see what hap­pened. It is un­likely that such an in­ves­ti­ga­tion will turn up any de­fin­i­tive proof that Moscow at­tempted to in­ter­fere in the elec­tion, even less that what­ever went on had any real im­pact on the out­come. And it will un­cover none at all that Mr. Trump was part of what Clin­ton­ista James Carville dur­ing the campaign de­scribed as a con­spir­a­to­rial part­ner­ship of the KGB, or what­ever it’s called these days, the FBI and House Repub­li­cans to bring down Mrs. Clin­ton.

At the end of the day, we are likely to find that this is but one more at­tempt to un­der­mine the le­git­i­macy of the elec­tion and in­sults the in­tel­li­gence Amer­i­can vot­ers who are far more ca­pa­ble than Mr. Carville of dis­crim­i­nat­ing be­tween real and fake news.

The prob­lem, of course, is that the anony­mous poster of fake news is as dif­fi­cult to un­mask as the anony­mous pam­phle­teers of ear­lier cen­turies.

David A. Keene is Opin­ion edi­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.