Throwing criticism back at the critic is perhaps the most basic counterattack in the book, which is why I was not at all surprised to receive tweets like this one last week when I wrote a story about fake news.
But this isn't merely a cheap joke on Twitter. This is the same strategy some conservative media outlets are using to muddy the water around the very real problem of fake news.
Take the lead sentence from a piece published Friday by the Daily Caller, for example: “Donald Trump has never called for a 'Muslim registry,' and any story claiming otherwise should be relegated to the pile of 'fake news' the media is so concerned about right now.”
In case you have forgotten, Trump said late last year that he would “absolutely” create a database to track Muslims in the United States when asked by an NBC reporter if he would support such an idea.
“How do you actually get them registered into a database?” Vaughn Hillyard followed up.
“It would be just good management,” Trump answered. “What you have to do is good management procedures, and we can do that.”
Is it possible that Trump didn't quite hear or understand the question properly? Sure. He said as much at the time, claiming he meant that he supports a database to track Syrian refugees who come to the United States, not all Muslims.
The Daily Caller gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, writing that “clearly the reporter is talking about a national registry of all Muslims in the country when he approaches Trump and asks the question, but whether Trump is on the same page is less than clear.”
Fine. But the Daily Caller's decision to buy Trump's explanation does not mean other media outlets that took him literally are guilty of publishing fake news. Even if you subscribe to the notion that biased journalists are always looking for a chance to jump on Trump and always assume the worst about him, treating the incoming president unfairly is still not the same thing as making stuff up.
Yet as Facebook and Google pledge to crack down on news that is concocted out of thin air — sometimes by teenagers in Macedonia — some conservative outlets are drawing false equivalencies.
The Washington Free Beacon mocked the New York Times on Sunday for printing “all the news that's fit to fake.” The Free Beacon noted that the Times seemed skeptical of a Trump win in Pennsylvania and also reported in October that “Hispanic America has been mobilized like never before in the 2016 election.”
But Trump did win Pennsylvania! And Hispanic voters did not propel Hillary Clinton to victory! So those pre-election Times reports were basically fake, according to the Free Beacon.
Heat Street on Saturday wrote that “the mainstream media has only itself to blame for the 'fake news' epidemic.” Why? Because the media treats comedian Jon Stewart like an “important voice in journalism” and continues to air reporting and commentary from the likes of Dan Rather and Brian Williams.
These are faulty comparisons. Stewart's satirical brand of fake news was not deceptive in the way that an imaginary endorsement is. Rather's flawed report about George W. Bush's National Guard service and Williams's tall tale about a helicopter landing in Iraq were bad in their own ways, but they belong in different categories from phony vote counts.
The Ron Paul Liberty Report on Saturday published what it called “the real fake news list” with names of prominent journalists such as ABC's Diane Sawyer, CNN's Wolf Blitzer and the New York Times' Maggie Haberman.
“This list contains the culprits who told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and lied us into multiple bogus wars,” Ron Paul's website wrote. “These are the news sources that told us 'if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.' They told us that Hillary Clinton had a 98 percent of winning the election. They tell us in a never-ending loop that 'the economy is in great shape!' "
It is perfectly legitimate to criticize the press for underestimating Trump's candidacy or for failing to demand more evidence before the invasion of Iraq — but it makes no sense to equate these alleged shortcomings with publication of pure fiction.