The arrest in Washington of the “Pizzagate” shooter — the North Carolina man who stormed the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in the District in hopes of exposing a child-abuse cabal that fortunately didn’t exist — has put “fake news” near the top of things to panic about in the strange new age of Donald Trump. “Fake news” is the name many journalists now use for fabricated Internet-based news stories, many of them generated from sites in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the pizzeria scare has encouraged many of them to conclude that Web-based rumor-peddling is a threat to the republic.
First (the thinking seems to be) this new and creative form of disinformation gave us Trump: All those Facebook stories about Hillary Clinton having Parkinson’s disease and Barack Obama’s closet Islamism poisoned enough minds to turn a presidential election. Now, as if that weren’t bad enough, it’s sending armed lunatics into kid-friendly pizzerias. Worries about lies in our political life aren’t baseless, to be sure. The Internet teems with these idiotic inventions, especially during election years — boxes of fraudulent Clinton votes found in an Ohio warehouse! White House tells Pearl Harbor vets to “get over it”! — and they introduce mental havoc into the lives of well-meaning people.
Fake news is real, yes, but the anxiety it has occasioned in the news media often seems motivated by something other than mere concern for the truth. By agonizing over “fake” news, journalists often appear to blame nameless others for the failings of the widely distrusted news industry. It’s not our fault, some in the media seem to be saying, it’s the fault of some teenage hoaxers in Romania. That modifier “fake,” to put the point slightly differently, suggests that non-“fake” news must be conversely genuine, truthful, factual.
But of course it isn’t. All of us, whatever our political attitude, have read what we regard as essentially false or inaccurate or wrongheaded stories in mainstream news sources. Does that make the reporters of these stories perpetrators of fake news? Surely not, as they were trying, however imperfectly, to report the truth. That’s not much comfort to the people and institutions these false or inaccurate stories damaged, however, and indeed they are entitled to regard this new term “fake news” with a degree of derision.
Let’s get at the problem by asking this question: Which is more dangerous — the entirely fabricated story your ornery uncle links to on Facebook, or the story we read in a respectable news source containing an important and substantially false claim? The fabricated story that exercises your uncle is dangerous in its way, but it’s unlikely to sway anyone’s opinion about the subject. The only people inclined to believe the hoax headline “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” are those who already loathe Clinton. The story may intensify hatred, but it doesn’t alter opinion or allegiance.
The false or inaccurate story published in a mainstream venue, by contrast, does the opposite. Maybe the story consists of mostly true statements, but it’s built on an egregiously false premise. Or maybe it includes a key line that infers far more than the facts allow. Or it presents a tendentious interpretation of the facts. Take this sentence, published last week in the New York Times about House Republicans breaking with Trump over the latter’s trade policies: “He [Trump] repeatedly insisted that trade deals had displaced American workers and harmed the economy, upending two centuries of American economic policies that held trade up as a good thing, a position that Republicans have pushed in recent decades.” The latter half of the sentence (a) implies that Trump opposes not just disadvantageous trade deals but trade itself; and (b) suggests that American policy has unswervingly favored free trade for 200 years. Both are false, but the uncareful reader may easily imbibe one or both without realizing it, so subtle is the misinformation and so authoritative the source.
I don’t know the reporter’s views, but the article’s tone leads me to suspect that a dislike of Trump gave her license to interpret his pronouncements in the worst possible light, even at the cost of sense and factual truth. And that — the ever-present danger of allowing our likes and dislikes to dictate our interpretations of facts — may be what mainstream journalists preoccupied with “fake news” haven’t yet appreciated. The facile and stark distinction between real and fake, fact and invention, truth and lie suggests a failure on the part of mainstream American journalists to grasp the importance of interpretation. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact, and journalists are just as much interpreters as reporters of facts. Indeed I suspect one of the chief reasons so many Americans prefer harrowing Internet rumors to mainstream news is that they’ve grown impatient with journalists’ pretense that their assertions involve only truth, only facts unmediated by opinion or partiality. These Americans may have their gullible moments, but they know better than that.
The rise of fake news, if it’s anything, is an indictment of America’s newsrooms. Yet somehow I doubt the newsrooms will interpret it that way.