‘Fake news’ charge a convenient cover


Donald Trump’s latest salvo against the media and the U.S. intelligence community is to accuse both of planting “fake news” to delegitimize his presidency. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton supporters are blaming fake news (along with Russian hacking, the email imbroglio and FBI Director James Comey) for their candidate’s loss.

Hearing politicians and their minions bemoaning fake news might be mildly amusing. They are, after all, world-class fibbers and spin-masters. Planting fake information against the opponent has a long and lowly history; remember Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks team forging the “Canuck” letter to discredit Sen. Edmund Muskie? Or the pamphlet in the 2000 presidential primary picturing John McCain with his adopted daughter, an effort to fan racism by implying he had an illegitimate black daughter?

In 1802, a tabloid-like news story accused Thomas Jefferson of fathering children with slave Sally Hemmings. In more recent decades, tabloid stories of infidelity swirled around presidential front-runners Gary Hart and John Edwards. Oh, wait, all of these turned out to be true.

So fake news isn’t new. Likewise, it isn’t always fake. While people are buying into malicious, false reports – likely because it comports with their existing views or prejudices – politicians have turned the tables: They’re using the label to discredit legitimate reporting.

The current abuse of truth, gussied up to look credible and spread on the wings of social media, is being seized upon as shade.

Trump might have a point that Buzzfeed’s publication of a scurrilous intelligence memo about him was fake news; the memo was anonymously sourced, unverifiable and contained sloppy errors. But when the president and president-elect were briefed on this matter, the existence of the memo became legitimate news.

This report’s existence wasn’t fake, nor was the fact that the nation’s top leaders had been warned of a potential threat to the presidency. Crying “fake news” ignores the ethical and professional treatment afforded this story by nearly every major news outlet, most of which reported the existence of the memo, but refused to publish its unsubstantiated allegations.

It sounds, admittedly, self-serving for a newspaper in a struggling industry to say that Americans must seek out credible news reporting. But it is painfully true. People with dishonest motives can post anything online. It’s free, easy and anonymous. They don’t need to check with sources, fight for public records, worry about getting the other side of the story, or persuade a skeptical editor.

A good example is a fake news story from last year’s presidential campaign, headlined, “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.” The author, who’d bought the abandoned ChristianTimesNewspaper.com website for $5 and made up his story from his kitchen table in Maryland, admitted he was playing upon Trump’s prediction at a Columbus rally that the election would be rigged.

In a world where it is this easy to produce and disseminate explosive falsehoods, people need a source of news that is committed to relying on verifiable facts, to talking to all sides of any issue, to supplying context, and committed to digging deep for truth. This is the standard that most American newspapers, including The Dispatch, set for themselves. Like any human institution, they sometimes fall short in one area or another, but they act to correct missteps. They do this because they are committed to those standards.

— The Columbus Dispatch