Whose News is “Fake News” Anyway?

As competing “narratives” (the current preferred term for attempts at understanding what is happening in our national affairs) vie for public acceptance, we are forced to wonder whether conventional ways of making sense of political things are no longer adequate. We are in the midst of a serious quarrel about what the “news” is because, as Bill Clinton famously said, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” That is precisely what is at issue between our two major political parties.

To illustrate the problem, the so-called legacy media, meaning mainly the New York-Washington axis, have been reporting for weeks that Russian operatives have had an extraordinary impact on our elections and our governance—all of which is denied vehemently by the Trump Administration. Counterpunching, Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, insists that Obama Administration personnel and supporters, in violation of federal law, improperly surveilled and, worse, leaked the names of Trump folks meeting with Russians. This claim from Spicer elicits a big yawn from most media who, naturally, have strong sympathies with the first view of events.

Not since the openly partisan journalism of the early days of the Republic, have Americans been presented with such widely differing and widely disseminated accounts on a regular basis. For partisans of either side, the choice of whom to believe is easy. But for millions of other Americans, the task is harder.

Because the partisan divide over what is news shows signs of becoming permanent, we are forced to deal with the matter of news judgment, which itself is always subject to partisanship. But it is also an issue for what James Madison called the “candid” citizen, meaning anyone determined to discover the truth.

Whenever this issue presents itself, it is typically discussed in terms of the dreaded “partisan divide” and mistakenly thought to be the unique curse of our time. This is often, not without reason, attributed to the emergence of conservative and populist newspapers and networks that continue to challenge the legacy media’s reporting and commentary. The New York Post, the Washington Times and Examiner and Fox News are the upstart challengers to the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN.

Behind the judgment that insurgency journalism has fueled, if not caused, the divide is the fairy tale about “the good old days” when our nation was blessed with a consensus on what the news is with only three major television networks and homogeneous newspaper reporting. What that mythology obscures, and is meant to obscure, is that lack of real competition enabled the liberal Democrat agenda to move forward more or less unhindered by any “reactionary” opposition.

In order to maintain this fiction, the spinners even have to falsify events as recent as those that occurred during the Reagan Administration, weirdly claiming that the President and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill got along pretty well together. This narrative must be a big howler to those who actually remember the fractious days of the early Reagan years. Democrats then viewed Ronald Reagan hardly less unfavorably than their successors today view Donald Trump.

Walter Lippmann, the most influential journalist of the last century, early in his career noted that most of the work of journalists is done according to routine, meaning “beats” are established at the places where news is most likely to emerge. Sensibly, that means covering the legislative, executive and judicial departments of the federal, state and local governments.

Why is that sensible? Obviously, because what government officials say and do affects the lives, liberties and properties of citizens. That is hardly an arbitrary judgment and, indeed, it is a correct judgment.

We could not respect our media if they actually failed to understand, much less perform, this fundamental duty. But that means that, to the extent our journalists think and act like good citizens, they are doing their work well.

Politicians and other public officials are citizens too. All of us, whatever our station, are obliged to abide by the U.S. Constitution, “the supreme law of the land, and all laws… passed in pursuance thereof.”  Notwithstanding that universal obligation, citizens can and do disagree about not only what policies to establish but about what constitutes a problem worthy of bringing to public attention. That applies to what is news no less than to what we should say or do about the news.

We cannot avoid the hard work of determining whose accounts, the Democrats’ or the Republicans’, should be believed. Lippmann actually hoped that we could transcend our partisan differences with neutral journalism. That hope is daily exposed as something between naiveté and fantasy. Just like conscientious members of a jury, we must consult both the law and the facts, make a decision, and live with the consequences.

And just as juries must weigh opposing accounts and arguments in the courtroom, so must we when confronting controversies in the political arena. Merely knowing the facts won’t do because the facts are invariably filtered through a human prism. Contentiousness in journalism and politics demands that we do the hard work of judgment for ourselves. The only thing that is different today is that we are again having the occasion to remember this.

About Richard Reeb

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy, and journalism at Barstow Community College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). Contact him at rhreeb@verizon.net.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

8 responses to “Whose News is “Fake News” Anyway?

  • ‘[C]itizens can and do disagree about not only what policies to establish but about what constitutes a problem worthy of bringing to public attention. That applies to what is news no less than to what we should say or do about the news.’ Indeed.

  • the so-called legacy media, meaning mainly the New York-Washington axis, have been reporting for weeks that Russian operatives have had an extraordinary impact on our elections and our governance

    They have certainly been insinuating that. It takes a discriminating viewer to notice that, underneath all the smoke being generated, there is no flame whatsoever. There remains exactly zero evidence that “the Russians” had any impact, even a minor one, on the 2016 election.

    • You don’t have to do a lot of discriminating to figure them out. Their headlines are usually enough to tell that a story is fake news.

  • A major part of the problem is that journalists have no actual pipeline to government, nor do they have special insight. The result is articles that are largely made up, often referring to dubious anonymous “sources”. Of course, the media didn’t mention it, but one of the things that stood out in FBI Director Comey’s comments to the House Intelligence Committee is that media is not to be believed because they don’t have the information. He gave them perhaps a 10% rate of accuracy. This seems to be particularly true of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Of course, media has always been partisan; that’s how they came about in the first place.

  • Partisanship is a feature and not a bug of a free press. As you point out, we have returned to an earlier time of a blatantly partisan media. I may be about to expose a bit of my own partisanship, but there is a huge difference today.

    The contemporary Left had a monopoly on information from the age of radio until about a decade ago. When radio and later television came into vogue, those media were heavily regulated and the advantage accrued to the left-wing. Similar attempts were made to regulate the Internet, most to no avail. Efforts are still made. So there is the difference: the Left seeks to impose an authoritarian regimen on media outlets while the Right tends to support free speech.

  • Even though the Mainstream Media (the ‘big three’ broadcast TV networks and the ‘big two’ daily newspapers) no longer have a monopoly on ‘the narrative’, they still constitute the ‘major media’ for most of the American public, and their thumbs are heavily on the scale. We have to add the Associated Press, which has a fist on the left side of the scale, as practically every local paper in the country simply reprints AP national news.

    The best counterweight, since the late ’80s, has been Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated radio program (“America’s Anchorman,” he styles himself) and the rise of conservative AM talk radio that it spawned. Adding to Rush on the right side of the scale is the Fox News Channel, a plethora of conservative blogs and websites, and a few smaller urban papers, like the NY Post and the Washington Times. But the scale is still woefully unbalanced when it comes to ‘the narrative’ dominating the air/cable-waves.

    So how did Donald Trump overcome the partisan imbalance, which manifestly favored his opponent? The same way Ronald Reagan did, by going over, or rather under, the heads of the Mainstream Media, trading on a combination of his own celebrity and an entertaining, common-sense appeal to ordinary Americans, which the MSM could not find a sufficiently large barrel to hide. It is arguable, in hindsight, that only the startling Mr Trump could have defeated Mrs Clinton, whom the MSM had already anointed the inevitable successor to President Obama.

    The problem now for the conservative side of the divide is to capitalize on the Trump victory and challenge the dominance of the left-wing MSM. Despite the rise of cable TV (and now of ‘cord-cutting’), the broadcast networks and their local outlets still dominate in the majority of homes, repeating endlessly the stories fabricated by the NY Times and the Washington Post. We who frequent sites like American Greatness know full well that “The Russians stole the election” is a theme invented by high-level Democrats and spoon-fed to lapdog ‘journalists’ in the MSM, without an ounce of truth in it. But what is the average TV-watcher, trained to think the worst of ‘Republicans’, going make of it?

    It is time for some wealthy conservatives to make some plays to balance the scales. Jeff Bezos, a liberal, has snapped up the Washington Post. The NY Times is on shaky financial footing. How about a Koch brother to the rescue?

    /L. E. Joiner

  • The only thing different today…? seriously? There is one thing that gigantically different today that you didn’t even mention, the advent and ongoing influence of the alternate media. So what makes today very different is that there is no longer a big brother type monopoly on the news, but thousands of little brothers out there – – with keyboards. While you are correct that our own personal discernment is still essential, it is also a lot more of a challenge because there is so much more muck to rake.

Comments are closed.