Watching the New York Times report on fake news is like getting a lecture about promiscuity from a syphilitic nun.
On Christmas Day, Jeremy W. Peters penned an article for the Times that ran under the headline “Wielding Claims of ‘Fake News,’ Conservatives Take Aim at Mainstream Media.” Its upshot is that a term once reserved for confabulated clickbait has been “appropriated” by conservatives for the sake of discrediting legitimate news that threatens their interests.
“In defining ‘fake news’ so broadly and seeking to dilute its meaning, they are capitalizing on the declining credibility of all purveyors of information, one product of the country’s increasing political polarization,” Peters writes. “And conservatives, seeing an opening to undermine the mainstream media, a longtime foe, are more than happy to dig the hole deeper.”
Was it on purpose that Peters identified the mainstream media—namely, himself—as a longtime foe of conservatives? Are conservatives incorrect about that assumption? It goes unchallenged, and is thus conceded, or perhaps Peters doesn’t wish to argue the point. My question is whether the Times, in the act of reporting on the Times, realizes that the partisanship eroding the media’s credibility is nowhere more regularly practiced than at the paper itself.
Let’s recall that prior to the election, the Times set Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory at 91 percent. It had to revise its subsequent apology for its biased election coverage because its claim, now redacted, that it had “reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign” was so false as to be laughable.
On December 9, the Times ran two contrasting stories back to back. One was on Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in 2015. It concentrated wholly on his motives, his choices, and his actions. The other was a think piece about Labor Day weekend violence in Chicago. It concentrated entirely on the environment—the prevalence of firearms, drugs, and poverty. Sixty-four people were shot in three days and it never occurred to the Times to go ask a perp why he gunned down a victim. “In Chicago, Bodies Pile Up at Intersection of ‘Depression and Rage’” ran the headline, as if the tides of psychology had passively laid them there. The different framings were designed to encourage Progressive conclusions about the connections, or lack thereof, between race and violence.
As if anticipating such examples, the Times asks: “[W]as it ‘fake news’ to report on data models that showed Hillary Clinton with overwhelming odds of winning the presidency? Are opinion articles fake if they cherry-pick facts to draw disputable conclusions?” Enter David Mikkelson, founder of Snopes, bearing absolution. “Fake news was a term specifically about people who purposely fabricated stories for clicks and revenue. Now it includes bad reporting, slanted journalism and outright propaganda. And I think we’re doing a disservice to lump all those things together.”
Remember the attempted retroactive definition of satire as “punching up” after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, relegating other kinds of erstwhile satire to the disreputable category of “punching down”? The term “fake news” has no better of a provenance and might have had no currency in Mikkelson’s sense outside of his now-broken household. “Fake” never implied a particular kind of fakeness. It has included comedy. A Newsweek headline from 2006 about “The Daily Show” read, “Turning Fake News Into Real Careers.” Nevertheless The Times calls it “the right’s labeling” and compares it to Fox News’s self-branding as “fair and balanced.”
Good try, Gray Lady. In the effort to blame Hillary Clinton’s defeat on anything or anyone but Hillary Clinton’s campaign, “fake news” has turned into a prominent scapegoat. The transformation of the “fake news” narrative into a piece of fake news to justify Clinton’s loss is a monumental irony.
But Peters can’t even describe slant without slant. In the article, he characterizes Media Matters as “a liberal group that polices the news media for bias” while calling Michelle Malkin and Sean Hannity “highly partisan conservatives [who] claim that their fact-checking efforts are the same as those of independent outlets.” If Hannity’s or Malkin’s projects have produced bogus results, Peters doesn’t say so. One might therefore conclude that they have not.
Myriad pathways lead to fakeness. There is the suppression of inconvenient evidence, such as in the Times’s expose from last year about New York City nail salons. “Not only did [reporter Sarah Maslin] Nir’s coverage broadly mischaracterize the nail salon industry, several of the men and women she spoke with say she misquoted or misrepresented them,” wrote Jim Epstein. “In some cases, she interviewed sources without translators despite their poor English skills. When her sources’ testimonies ran counter to her narrative, she omitted them altogether.”
There is the presentation of visceral blathering as the informed opinion of experts, such as when Paul Krugman predicted, shortly after midnight following the election results, that the hours-old slide in the global exchanges indicated that world markets would “never recover.” Never! A Nobel-winning economist with a sinecure at a major research university actually said this. He was proven wrong by dinnertime, yet still had a job the next morning.
There is the lying about rhetorical opponents, as appeared last week in “The Stone,” the Times’s philosophy blog, when Omri Boehm described Alan Dershowitz’s stance on Steven Bannon as the opposite of what it actually is.
Then there is the imposition of tendentious narrative upon the news. Veteran critic Michael Cieply has worked in papers all over the country, and reported for Deadline:
Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.
Reality usually had a way of intervening.
Reality usually does. And if you’re perpetrating as much fakery as the Times, you end up paying the price when your longtime foes pick up your weapons and beat you with them.