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Opinion Sacha Baron Cohen teaches the right what fake news really is

Former vice president Dick Cheney was featured in an alleged teaser trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen's new show. Cohen tweeted the trailer July 8. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

To hear Sarah Palin tell it, Sacha Baron Cohen didn’t play it straight in securing an interview with her. “It was proposed to me as a legitimate interview to speak about veterans’ issues in our military and current events to a new audience,” Palin said on “Good Morning America.” “It was supposed to be this big time Showtime documentary and it was passed on to me by a speakers’ bureau, which, you know, I would assume had done some vetting.”

Not much vetting occurred. Palin sat down with Cohen for a session that got progressively absurd. There was an out-there claim about Chelsea Clinton plus other nonsense, enough cues for Palin to undo her mic and take off. “Since then, nobody returns my calls. They had given us fake names [of] producers and anybody involved in the show,” complained Palin, who has accused Cohen of posing as a disabled U.S. veteran. “Mocking vets, belittling the disabled, stereotyping sufferers of mental illness, spewing disdain for America’s heartland and our collective work ethic and patriotism,” ripped Palin in a Facebook post.

Insufficient skepticism turned Palin into fodder for Cohen’s Showtime series “Who is America?,” which is getting quite a bit of press these days. Though perhaps the most vocal dupee from Cohen’s stunt tour, Palin has plenty of company — from Republicans whom Cohen tricked into endorsing the arming of toddlers to (reportedly) former vice president Dick Cheney to famous journalist Ted Koppel.

Failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore has threatened legal action over his own participation in the filming.

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All of this hilarity accomplishes more than one public service. One of them is this: Perhaps in the future, Palin — and others as well — will be a bit more hesitant in parroting the “fake news” attack that Trump has turned into a mantra. Some examples:

Now Palin knows what “fake news” really is. It’s someone seeking an interview under false pretenses — something that the people she has labeled “fake news” don’t do. It’s someone concocting storylines — something that the people she has labeled “fake news” don’t do. It’s someone seeking to embarrass you — something that the people she has labeled “fake news” don’t do.

Sure — the people Trump, Palin and others label as “fake news” do from time to time make mistakes, crank out false reports and otherwise reach hasty conclusions. Such moments are as inevitable in journalism as malpractice is in medicine and a blown interview is in politics. The simple reality that humans sometimes err factored into the definition of “fake news” as it roared into familiarity toward the end of 2016. Back then, it designated intentionally false reports designed to accomplish a political end and to enable clickbaity profit.

Yet Trump and his flunkies debased it. “Fake news” became a handy term to classify media gaffes and, eventually, stories that the White House just didn’t like. According to one study, 4 in 10 Republicans “consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news.’ ”

Thank you, Sacha Baron Cohen, for clarifying just what “fake” means, and for profiling the advocates of “Kinderguardians” here in Washington. That, too, is a public service.