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Ms. Information

  • September 16, 2018

By Morgan Miransky

For anybody paying attention, the term “fake news” has come up with significant frequency. This is problematic for many reasons. It threatens our democracy, creates an opening for propaganda and state-run media, and makes it more difficult to have an informed electorate.

Media is the fourth pillar of government. Since the creation of our country, sharing accurate news has been vital to holding our representatives accountable to the will of the people, and disseminating the events that are unfolding in other areas of the country. From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to Iran-Contra and Whitewater to current controversies, journalists have reported the truth.

According to Dictionary.com-Journalism is “the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.”

Good journalism requires years of training, college education, use of multiple sources, and adhering to the constraints of law and good practices to disseminate factual information.

For many years, Liberals and Conservatives have complained about not getting fair treatment in the media. Liberals feel that events that are important are not being covered fairly or at all.  Conservatives have claimed a liberal bias to the news media. This comes from reporting critical of many conservative ideas that did not hold up to scrutiny, and thus were hard to defend. Things like tax cuts do not pay for themselves, immigrants do not pose a large criminal threat to America, and increasing the size of the military will not make people safer.

Unable to support claims and positions after the reporting in the media, it became common to attack the media as an establishment. This cast doubt on the truth of journalism and reliability of reporters. This led to attacks on the Fairness Doctrine. Now to be clear, the Fairness Doctrine did have problematic issues, like by needing to provide time for both sides of an issue a view of a small minority might need to be given the same treatment as a position held by a large majority. Or a position had to be presented that had been largely discredited.

With the removal of the Fairness Doctrine by Ronald Reagan, news outlets were now allowed to present only one view. Good journalistic outlets continue to report facts and present them in an impartial manner to allow viewers to make their own decisions.

Presenting one side of an issue has lead to a demonization of all other media. Politicians have fostered an attitude that ANY media that does not conform to their position is therefore wrong regardless of factual evidence. Facts then become irrelevant. If there is only one position being put forward, any media that is reporting something else MUST therefore be wrong. The previous statement means any contradictory information becomes fake news. This leads to division among people who consume partisan-only news versus those who consume impartial news.

So how does this threaten democracy? One hallmark of dictators who take over democracies is controlling the media. It is sending out only the message the government wants the people to hear, and casting doubt on any opposition reporting, true or false. Once people are taught to doubt their own perceptions and the only source of media is the state-sponsored media, people must respond as if that is fact. This makes the populace susceptible to propaganda and misinformation. An example of this is a recent tweet by President Trump, “Just remember: what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Not all state-sponsored media is state-owned media. There are many places around the world where state actors send information and propaganda through a media outlet that plays only the information provided by the state, but is ostensibly independent and owned by non-government actors. Places like Russia and Turkey.  

In current discourse, fake news is a label applied when something appears bad for those in power but there is no factual argument to refute the original criticism.  Whenever something makes this President look bad, all he has to say is “fake news,” and it gives his followers an out to maintain their loyalty without ever defending himself against the truth.

How does one combat this idea to preserve truth-based decision-making? Anytime someone says “Fake News” take it as an admission they are wrong, but are unwilling to concede. They lack a reasoned or factual response.  Protect impartial and reputable news source. Facts are facts and truths are truths. If there is a room full of people screaming fake news, then we as Americans, need to get someone in front of them that will de-program the distortions they have been led to believe.

“Fake news” seeks to change the paradigm of news. The old paradigm where news is reported objectively with evidence to back up assertions as fact does not work for those who want to manipulate people and cannot argue based on the fact. News is not longer a public service broadcast networks must run for the benefit of the people, even if it is at a loss. Since this phrase seeks to benefit one group politically over another without complying with the Fairness Doctrine or persuading by principles, it is: biased.

By itself, “fake news” is not specifically hostile to Jews. By scapegoating the media, it creates an atmosphere where other minorities, including Jews, could be blamed for problems they are not responsible for. However, by itself “fake news” is: not anti-Semitic.

Uttering the phrase “fake news” at a rally now causes an enthusiastic roar and a strong negative emotional response aimed at journalists and news reporters. While reporters and journalists specifically or any profession generally are not “protected categories” of those identified as vulnerable, this kind of  speech clearly directs unjustified hatred at them. It may not be long before they do become persecuted under the current political climate. Since a frenzied crowd could be incited to violence against news personnel based on the “fake news” claim, even though it expands the recognized definition, it is: hate speech.

To call the entire news organization that has been a bedrock of this nation since its very founding “fake news” is misrepresenting the truth. To say “fake news” disparages the honest and hard work of people trying to hold government accountable. The standards and practices of reputable news organizations protects the product expressed. To call that fake because you do not agree is a gross: oversimplification.

Morgan Miransky is Co-Chair of ADL’s 2018-19 Glass Leadership Institute.